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

Get the freedom to more on from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile

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If you're looking to move to another carrier with your current device, you may find yourself restricted if the device is locked. Unlocking a device allows you to use it between a number of different carriers, as long as it has the proper technology to work with the network. Here's how the unlocking process is carried out via the most popular U.S. services — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

What Is a Locked Phone vs. Unlocked Phone?

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When you purchased a phone from a carrier, they reserve the right to lock it to their network for a limited time. A locked phone must be used on the network from which it originated such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. Typically, this process is followed in order to allow carriers to subsidize their phones at a lower cost. Or, a cellular carrier may lock a device if you are currently paying it off through a payment plan.

An unlocked phone, on the other hand, can be used on any compatible network and does not carry any limitations imposed by the cellular carrier. Phones can typically be purchased outright as unlocked, or carriers will allow phones to be unlocked once specific criteria are met. It can be surprisingly easy to unlock a mobile phone by following this guide.

Is My Phone Compatible with Another Carrier?

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You might have noticed that we said an unlocked phone will work on any carrier as long as it is compatible. T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, don't currently all utilize the same technology within their networks. Generally, there are two types of networks that are popular within the United States — GSM and CDMA. Verizon and Sprint devices are compatible as they are both CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile devices are compatible as they are both GSM.

You will need to check with your device's specific manufacturer to see which radio technology is within your phone. For example, if a device is designed for Verizon and Sprint with CDMA technology, despite being unlocked, it would still be unable to work with AT&T or T-Mobile networks. Some manufacturers have begun putting both radio technologies within their smartphones, which is why it is always the best bet to check.

What's Needed to Unlock a Phone

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The method to unlocking your phone will vary depending upon your originating carrier; however, it is always a good idea to have the following on hand to be prepared: the device itself, your IMEI number, and any account information pertaining to your wireless carrier.

How to Unlock Your Phone with a U.S. Carrier

If you're looking to unlock your phone, be sure to follow the guide below based on your current U.S.-based carrier. Most carriers' process will involve calling them with the phone you wish to unlock in your possession.

Unlocking Your Phone with Verizon

If you have Verizon as your current carrier, there is a good chance that your device is already unlocked. Verizon does not lock any of their current 4G LTE devices that they sell. The same policy applies with 3G devices, except for non-iPhone 3G World Devices. If your device is indeed still locked, or you would like to learn of its current status, contact Verizon support for help.

Verizon's prepaid phones can also be unlocked, but they must first be in use with the network for a minimum of 12 months.

Unlocking Your Phone with AT&T

AT&T does indeed lock cell phones, so you will need to contact them to have your device unlocked. Devices that you wish to unlock must have been active for at least 60 days with no unpaid balance, have a completed contract or paid-off installment agreement, and isn't reported as lost or stolen. You can complete this process by contacting AT&T support for help or by using their Device Unlock Portal.

AT&T prepaid phones can be unlocked after six months of service.

Unlocking Your Phone with Sprint

Sprint is one of the only carriers in this list to take a proactive approach to automatically unlocking your phone. Once the payment plan on your device has concluded, the device will automatically be unlocked. If you have an older phone issued from Sprint before 2015, you will need to contact their support team to have your device unlocked.

Sprint does require that your device is active with their network for a least 50 days before unlocking, even if the device has been completely paid off.

Unlocking Your Phone with T-Mobile

Similar to Sprint, you are able to unlock your T-Mobile device after it has been fully paid off, but you will need to go about the process manually. Additionally, T-Mobile limits you to unlocking two devices per service link within a 12-month period. To have your T-Mobile device unlocked, be sure to contact their support line. Alternatively, if you have an Android device, you can opt to use their Device Unlock app — sorry, iPhone users, there is no equivalent.

T-Mobile will unlock prepaid devices after 12 months of service or if you have had more than $25 in refills for basic phones, or $100 in refills for smartphones.

What About Unlocking Services and Unlock Code?

Typically, when unlocking your device, the carrier will provide you with what is known as an unlock code — a series of numbers that, once entered into your phone, will unlock it for use on other carrier networks. A number of businesses have risen that offer to provide you with that code for a small fee.

It is important to understand that not all of the said services are legitimate, and some may go against your current service agreement with your carrier. Additionally, some services may be in violated of U.S. law. To unlock a device, it is best to follow our advice and unlock them using the information provided above.