Before You Buy Unlocked Cell Phones or Smartphones

Is purchasing an unlocked phone really your best bet?

Pile of mobile phones with an open lock
Unlocked phones are appealing to many people. MIkkelwilliam/Getty Images
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You may have heard people talk about "unlocked" cell phones or smartphones. But maybe you're not sure exactly what that means, or why you might want an unlocked cell phone. Here's what you need to know about buying an unlocked cell phone.

What Is an Unlocked Cell Phone or Smartphone?

An unlocked cell phone is one that is not tied into a certain carrier’s network: It will work with more than one service provider.

When you refer to the concept for an iPhone, it's called jailbreaking

Most phones are tied – or locked – to a certain cellular carrier, such as Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, AT&T, or Sprint. Even if you don't actually buy the phone from the carrier, the phone is still tied to a carrier. For example, you could purchase an iPhone from Best Buy, but it still requires you to sign up for service from AT&T.

Where Can I Purchase an Unlocked Cell Phone or Smartphone?

Purchasing an unlocked cell phone smartphone can be a much easier – and more reliable – option than attempting to unlock a previously locked phone. You'll typically pay more for the phone, sometimes several hundred dollars more, but you're not relying on anyone to unlock the phone for you.

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.

Can I Unlock My Own Cell Phone or Smartphone?

Maybe.

Some smartphones and cell phones can be unlocked, but it typically requires help. Once you've purchased a locked phone, it's in the carrier's best interest to keep that phone tied to their network.

You can ask your carrier about unlocking your phone but they may not do it, especially if you're still under contract.

Alternatively, you can pay a third party to unlock your phone, but doing so probably voids any warranty you may have.

I Bought an Unlocked Smartphone. Now What?

If you've bought an unlocked smartphone, you'll need a SIM (subscriber identity module) to get service. A SIM, sometimes called a SIM card, is a small card you slide into the phone (usually near the battery), that provides the phone with its phone number, as well as its voice and data service.

Purchasing and using unlocked phones is becoming more popular and for good reason. It can give you more freedom to use your phone as you like, and it can save you money. But finding the right phone and the right SIM to use with it can be confusing. Take your time and do your research before making a purchase. Good luck!