How to Unlock a Phone on Every Major U.S. Carrier

Learn unlocking guidelines for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile

If you've purchased a smartphone from a wireless carrier, such as AT&T or Verizon, the phone is probably "locked," which means it's restricted to the wireless carrier's network. This is often done to allow carriers to subsidize their phones and charge you less.

If you decide to move to another carrier, it may be possible to "unlock" the device, which frees the smartphone from its original network so you can use it with different carriers.

Here's a look at the unlocking policies and processes for the most popular U.S. wireless carriers, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

If you purchased your smartphone from a retail outlet, such as an electronics store, and paid full price, it probably isn't locked. If you purchased your smartphone through a carrier plan or within a carrier store, it's likely locked to that carrier's network.

A woman holding a phone displaying an image of a lock.
Linus Strandholm / EyeEm / Getty Images

What to Think About Before Unlocking Your Phone

Use an unlocked phone on any compatible network, without any carrier-imposed limitations. It's possible to buy an unlocked phone, but carriers often will allow phones to be unlocked once specific criteria are met.

Is Your Phone Locked?

Before unlocking your phone, make sure that it is, in fact, locked. Determine your smartphone's locked status by contacting your current carrier, or consult a service like IMEO.info to figure out whether or not your phone is locked to a carrier.

Know Your Carrier Technology

To use your phone with another carrier, make sure it's compatible with that carrier's technology. GSM is widely used in both the United States and globally. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM for their networks. CDMA is another type of technology that's used by Verizon, Sprint, and other carriers.

Check with your device's manufacturer to find out what technology it's compatible with. For example, if a device is designed for Verizon and Sprint with CDMA technology, despite being unlocked, it still wouldn't be able to work with AT&T or T-Mobile networks.

These days, manufacturers are trending toward equipping their smartphones with both CDMA and GSM technologies, making unlocking and switching between carriers a smoother process.

Major Wireless Carriers' Unlocking Policies

Every carrier has its own policies and processes for unlocking phones, and this information is continually updated. Wireless carriers have become much less strict with their unlocking policies and procedures.

Verizon

Verizon's unlocking policy states that newly purchased devices are locked to the Verizon network for a time. If you purchase your device directly from Verizon, it's locked for 60 days. If you buy your smartphone from a Verizon retail partner, it's locked for 60 days after the time of activation.

After the 60-day period, Verizon automatically unlocks your phone, and it won't be locked again. Military personnel can request unlocking any time before the 60-day period expires.

These policies apply both to Verizon's prepay and postpay phones.

Verizon cautions that due to technology differences, an unlocked Verizon Wireless device might not work, or may not function properly, on another carrier's network.

AT&T

At&T's unlocking policy is similarly liberal. Request to unlock your device if it's been active for at least 60 days (if you bought it on an installment plan or term agreement), and there's no past-due balance on your account. Your device can't be lost, stolen, or involved with fraud.

If you meet all the eligibility requirements, submit a request to have your phone unlocked and check the status of your request at any time. When your request is approved, AT&T will send you detailed unlocking instructions and an unlock code.

Only AT&T-branded devices can be unlocked with this method. If you have an iPhone, you still have to submit an unlock request, but you won't need an unlock code.

Be extremely careful to follow AT&T's unlocking instructions exactly. If you enter an unlock code incorrectly too many times during the life of the device, the unlock ability will be permanently disabled.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile's unlocking procedures are simple. The device being unlocked must be a T-Mobile device, your account must be in good standing, and your smartphone must not have been reported lost or stolen.

For a postpaid account, the device must have been active for at least 40 days. For prepaid phones, the device must have been active for at least a year. (There are exceptions for military personnel.)

If you meet the eligibility requirements, log in to your T-Mobile account to request an unlock.

Android device owners can check their Device How-Tos under Security to see if they have the Mobile Device Unlock App. With this app, unlock your mobile device directly from the device.

Sprint

Sprint's unlocking policy says that the company will unlock a SIM-unlock-capable device if it's been active on the network for at least 50 days, all service agreements and contracts have been fulfilled, your account is in good standing, and the device hasn't been reported as lost or stolen.

Sprint will automatically unlock postpaid devices when they become eligible, but the company can't guarantee the device will work or function correctly on another network.

For older devices that may not be SIM-unlock capable, contact Sprint to see if an unlock code is available.

What About Unlocking Services?

Contacting your carrier offers the safest and most reliable method for unlocking your mobile device. Since unlocking policies have become generous and straightforward, there should be no reason to go to a third-party unlocking service.

If you do use an online unlocking service, make sure that it's trustworthy. Read reviews and check its standing with the Better Business Bureau. Understand that using such a service may void any manufacturer or carrier warranties, and proceed at your own risk.