What Is an Unlocked Phone?

Everyone talks about unlocked phones but what are they?

When dealing with an unlocked or locked phone, the question is whether or not the device can work on a specific wireless network that's different than the network the phone was designed to work on.

What is an Unlocked Phone?

An unlocked smartphone is a phone that can work with any cell phone carrier. Some phones are not unlocked and so they can only be used on one provider like Verizon, or with just AT&T, or T-Mobile, etc. An unlocked phone doesn't have that limitation.

However, a phone's compatibility with a network is only relevant for cell phone carriers, not wireless networks like Wi-Fi; any phone, as long as Wi-Fi is working, can connect to a Wi-Fi network regardless of whether or not the phone is unlocked or locked.

Phone on a wood block.

What It Means to Have an Unlocked Phone

Most cell phones and smartphones are tied, or locked, to a certain cellular carrier, such as Verizon, 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 might require that you sign up for service from AT&T or your respective carrier.

For many people, purchasing a locked phone makes sense: The carrier offers a discount on the handset in exchange for you signing a service contract with them. In addition to the discount, you also get the voice and data service that you need to use the phone.

However, not everyone wants to be tied to a certain carrier’s network, for a variety of reasons. For example, if you frequently travel overseas, it may not make sense to be tied to a phone that won't work internationally (or one that will cost you an arm and a leg to use in foreign countries).

Other people are unwilling to sign the lengthy service contracts (two years, typically) that many carriers require. That's why purchasing an unlocked phone can be a desirable alternative; they can purchase the phone unlocked and then activate it with any company.

Or, maybe you don't get very good service where you live and you want to switch to a network that has better coverage, but you don't want to leave your phone behind. Unlocking the phone, in this case, would let you keep your device but get the better coverage you desire.

Moreover, nowadays, companies like OnePlus tend to sell only SIM-free unlocked devices. This way, they have control over software upgrades; they don't need to get the update tested from a network provider every time they want to roll out an update.

Why Phones Are Locked

Phones do not inherently need to be locked to any carrier. All phones could, in theory, be released as unlocked so that you could activate them with any mobile carrier. However, for a carrier to maintain business, they might lock their phone to their network so that if you want the phone, you have to pay for a plan with them.

For example, if the iPhone were locked to the Verizon Wireless network and only worked with Verizon service, then you'd have to switch over to Verizon in order to use the iPhone. However, if you were to unlock the iPhone so that it could work with other carriers, you could unsubscribe to Verizon's service and use your iPhone with AT&T, Sprint, etc.

How to Unlock Your Phone

There are often very specific rules that you have to follow before you can unlock a phone. For example, the phone can't be reported stolen or missing, needs to have been paid for in full, and might need to have been active on the carrier's network for so-many days.

Not every phone needs to be unlocked in order to take it with you to another carrier. However, if you do need to unlock your phone, you have to contact the carrier that the phone was last used with.

For instance, to unlock an AT&T phone, you need to fill out AT&T's device unlock procedure so that they can remove the lock and let you use it with another carrier. However, Verizon is a company that doesn't lock most of their phones, so no special code is needed in order to use a Verizon phone with another carrier.

T-Mobile has its own set of eligibility requirements and rules, too. Your carrier will be able to tell you exactly what to do if your phone is eligible for unlocking.

How to Find an Unlocked Phone

If you're ready to buy a new phone and want one that's already unlocked for use on the mobile carrier you already use, you can usually find one online.

For example, Amazon has an entire section for unlocked cell phones where you can filter the results by brand like Apple or Huawei, by operating system like iOS and Windows, and by other criteria like storage, screen size, features, price, color, etc.

You can also buy unlocked phones virtually anywhere you can buy locked smartphones, like Best Buy, Walmart, Gazelle, etc.

More Information on Unlocked Phones

A locked phone is locked even if you pay full price for the phone. It might make sense that a phone is carrier-locked only if and when you're making payments, and then it will be unlocked when it's fully yours (when you make the last payment), but that's not the case.

While an unlocked cell phone can work on any mobile carrier's network, unlocking a phone does not switch it between radio communication technologies like GSM or CDMA. For example, you can't unlock a GSM phone and expect it to be CDMA compatible.

The term "locked phone" also refers to the simple act of password protecting your phone or putting it into lockscreen mode where you can no longer see the homescreen icons. In this case, to "unlock the phone" just means to enter the password or to reach the homescreen where you can launch apps.

  • How can you tell if your cell phone is unlocked?

    If you have a SIM card from another carrier lying around, try putting it in the phone and see if it works. If you see a message asking for a SIM unlock code, your phone is locked. You can also try contacting your carrier and asking them whether or not your particular phone model is unlocked.

  • Will any SIM card work in an unlocked phone?

    Yes, any SIM card should work in an unlocked phone, provided the phone's wireless technology (usually GSM) is compatible with the network. If the SIM you're trying to use is the wrong size, you can get an adapter or request a new SIM from the carrier.

  • How do you activate an unlocked phone?

    Activating an unlocked phone should work the same way as activating a locked one. First, make sure the phone is powered off, then insert the SIM card. Next, turn the phone back on and follow the on-screen directions to activate it and set it up.

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