Before You Buy Unlocked Smartphones

Is it really your best bet?

Pile of mobile phones with an open lock

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You may have heard people talk about unlocked smartphones. But what exactly does that mean, and why might you want an unlocked phone? Here's what you need to know about buying an unlocked cell phone.

What Is an Unlocked Smartphone?

An unlocked cell phone is one that will work on more than one service provider. With iPhones, it's often called jailbreaking a phone. 

Smartphones that are locked to a certain cellular carrier, such as Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, AT&T, or Sprint. Even if you don't actually buy one of these locked phones from the carrier, such as buying a used iPhone, it is still tied to a carrier.

Purchasing Unlocked Smartphones

Some phones you purchase are unlocked when you purchase them. For example, if you buy an iPhone from Apple directly, you can get one that is not locked to a specific carrier.

If you purchase your phone from a carrier, in some cases you can request that they unlock your phone; however, there are limitations depending on the carrier, including requiring that your phone be paid off before it is unlocked, and only after a waiting period. Check with your carrier to find out specific details on unlocking.

Verizon Wireless announced early 2018 they would be changing their policy and temporarily locking their phones without much detail beyond that. Since then, their communications on this have been an uncertain muddle. However, they have not changed their policy, and their phones are still sold unlocked (except for 4G Phone-in-the-Box Prepaid phones).

Purchasing an unlocked smartphone can be a much easier, and more reliable, option than attempting to unlock a previously locked phone. You won't find the price of the new smartphone discounted like you may if you buy directly from a carrier and sign up for a plan as you do in some cases.

You can buy unlocked smartphones from Amazon.com. And if Amazon.com doesn't have the phone you're looking for, you can try visiting eBay.

Unlocking a Smartphone Yourself

Some smartphones can be unlocked, but it typically requires help. As mentioned, you can ask your carrier about unlocking your phone, but there are likely requirements to be met before they will do so, such as first paying off your phone.

Alternatively, you can pay a third party to unlock your phone, but doing so probably voids any warranty you may have and present problems when you want to update the smartphone's software.

eSIM Cards

Some smartphones, such as the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, do not use SIM cards. Instead, they have what is called an eSIM that eliminates the need for a separate SIM card. With an eSIM, there's no need to swap physical SIM cards when switching between carriers, such as when traveling internationally. Your carrier must support eSIM for it to be used, and most major carriers do support it.

Using Unlocked Smartphones

If you've bought an unlocked smartphone, you'll need a SIM (subscriber identity module) to get service unless your smartphone or device is equipped with an eSIM.

A SIM, also called a SIM card, is a small chip card you slide into a cellular device such as a smartphone that provides the device with its phone number, as well as its voice and data service by identifying it to the cellular network of the company that the SIM is linked to.

There's little difference in using an unlocked smartphone from a locked one—providing the smartphone was unlocked by a carrier or was purchased unlocked (also not one that was unlocked by a third party). Unlocked phones make it much easier to change your cellular service carrier while keeping your same phone, and can be as simple as changing the SIM to one from the new carrier and signing up for one of their plans.

Unlocked smartphones can be a little more tricky to use if they are ones that have been unlocked by third parties or "jailbroken." These smartphone's warranties are likely void because of this. Also, updates to your smartphone's software can undo the unlocked state of it, requiring you to unlock it again—an option that may not be available immediately after a software update is released.

Buying and using unlocked phones gives you more freedom to use your phone as you like, and it can save you money. Before making your purchase, take time to do your research before making a purchase.