Things to Consider Before You Buy an Unlocked Smartphone

Is an unlocked device really your best bet?

Illustration of a person unlocking their smartphone with a literal key

Lifewire / Derek Abella

You may have heard people talk about unlocked smartphones. An unlocked smartphone is one that will work on more than one service provider (such as Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint). There are some advantages and some disadvantages to an unlocked phone. Here's what you need to know before you buy one.

With iPhones, unlocking is often called jailbreaking

Pros and Cons of an Unlocked Phone

Each carrier offers a limited number of (locked) phone models to use with its services. Purchasing an unlocked phone elsewhere (such as from a retailer or the phone manufacturer) expands the number of models you have access to for use with your provider. However, if you use a phone not provided by the carrier, you may not get all the services that are available from that carrier.

Your Carrier May Unlock Your Phone for You

Some carriers will unlock your phone, but usually only after certain conditions have been met, such as your phone is completely paid for. You might want to have this done if you want to sell your phone or switch carriers without having to buy a new one. Unlocked phones make it much easier to change your cellular service carrier while keeping the same phone.

If you're thinking of having your phone unlocked by your carrier, keep in mind that purchasing an unlocked smartphone can be a much easier, and more reliable, option than attempting to unlock a previously locked phone.

Unlocking a Smartphone Yourself

You can unlock a smartphone on your own, but you may need help. You can pay a third party to unlock your phone, but doing so may void any warranty you may have, or cause problems when you want to update the phone's software. Therefore, research these issues thoroughly before moving forward.

SIM Cards and eSIMs

A subscriber identity module (SIM) card is a tiny card in your phone that contains information tied to a specific mobile network. The SIM provides the device with its phone number, as well as its voice and data services. When you unlock your phone and switch carriers, you may need to get a new SIM from that carrier.

Some smartphones, such as the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, don't use SIM cards. Instead, they have an embedded SIM (eSIM) that eliminates the need for a separate card. To use this type of phone with a specific carrier, that carrier must support eSIM operation, and most major carriers do support it. With an eSIM, there's no need to swap physical SIM cards when switching between carriers.

With some unlocked phones, you may have two SIMs, one for domestic use, and one for international use; or one for a personal line and one for a business line.

Using Unlocked Smartphones

As noted above, if you buy an unlocked smartphone, you'll need a SIM to get service unless your device is equipped with an eSIM. Otherwise, there's little difference between using an unlocked smartphone and a locked one, assuming the phone was unlocked by a carrier or was purchased unlocked.

Smartphones unlocked by a third party can be trickier to use because their warranties are likely void as a result of this action. Also, updates to your smartphone's software can relock the phone, requiring you to unlock it again, an option that may not be available immediately after an update.

Bottom line, buying and using an unlocked phone gives you more freedom to use your phone as you like, and it can save you money. But, before making your purchase, take time to do your research.