How to Unlock Your Phone to Bring It With You to a New Carrier

Understand what unlocked phones are and how they work

Illustration of a hand unlocking a phone with a key.

 erhui1979 / Getty Images

Unlocked phones are not restricted to a certain carrier. For example, if you have an unlocked Virgin Mobile phone, you can use it on Verizon's service without having to buy a phone made specifically for Verizon. You can buy phones that are unlocked, but it may also be possible to unlock a phone you already have.

Information in this article applies to smartphones made by all manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, Google, Huawei, Xiaomi, etc.).

What Does Unlocking a Phone Mean?

Illustration of a hand unlocking a phone with a key.
erhui1979 / Getty Images

Mobile carriers often lock their phones for use only on their network to discourage consumers from switching services. Unlocking a smartphone allows it to accept a SIM card from a different carrier so that the user can make phone calls, send text messages, and use the new carrier's mobile network.

Unlocking a phone before you've completed the agreed upon service contract may result in early termination fees.

How to Unlock a Mobile Phone

To unlock a phone, you probably need to contact the current carrier (or the last carrier the phone was used with). You must provide the account holder’s information as well as the phone's IMEI number. Each carrier has their own process and policies for unlocking phones. For example:

  • AT&T: The device must be designed for use on, and locked to, the AT&T network. It cannot be reported lost or stolen, and all service commitments, installment plans, and early termination fees must be paid in full. Also, the phone cannot currently be active on a different AT&T customer's account.
  • T-Mobile: The device must have been active on the T-Mobile network for at least 40 days, and the associated account must be paid in full.
  • Sprint: The device must be or have been active on the Sprint network for a minimum of 50 days, and the account must be in good standing.
  • Verizon: Does not lock their 4G LTE devices, and no code is needed to program them for use with any other carrier. They also do not lock their 3G devices, other than their non-iPhone 3G World Devices.
  • Virgin Mobile: Only activates devices certified to work with Virgin Mobile services, and cannot unlock phones from other carriers.

If the carrier won't unlock your device, you may be able to find unlocking software made specifically for your device. For example, there's plenty of free software for unlocking Samsung phones. Most of these programs work by generating a code you can use to free the device from carrier restrictions.

Finding Sim Cards for Unlocked Phones

If you purchase a SIM card directly from a carrier, they might make you commit to their service plan, which would defeat the purpose of having an unlocked phone. Fortunately, you can also buy prepaid SIM cards from third-party sellers, which especially comes in handy if you travel internationally. That way, you can buy a SIM card with a phone number local to the country you'll be visiting so that you can make calls without paying international rates.