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Sometimes cell phone carriers can be just plain stubborn when it comes to carrying the kind of phone you want or giving other providers access to the same technology. After all the effort you put into picking a carrier and a plan you like and building your mobile life on their data plan, why shouldn't you be able to get your dream phone?
Unlock It Yourself: At the moment, unlocking a cell phone without permission is illegal in the USA, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Update: cell phone unlocking is now legal in the US. However, if you live in another country or are willing to be a rebel and flout a law everyone agrees should be changed, you can often unlock phones on your own without anyone’s permission. The exact process will vary from phone to phone, so you’ll have to perform a web search and find instructions for your specific mobile phone.
What is a phone lock?
The lock is really a software code that's put on the phone by the manufacturer as per the requirement of the carrier that sells the device. And the lock is meant to ensure that the phone can't be used on any other operator's network until a different software code is entered to unlock the device.
This is an issue that's most important for devices that operate on GSM networks. This is a wireless standard that used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. and by most operators around the world, especially in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Africa, as well as parts of Latin America. The 3G technologies HSPA and HSPA+ are based on GSM, which means carriers offering HSPA or HSPA+ also operate via GSM.
Make the right call with a new cell phoneIf you're ready to pick up a new model of cell phone, Kmart has plenty of options to meet your needs. Carrying a full range of cell phones and accessories with features like GPS and voice navigation, you can select from contract and prepaid cell phones, or opt for unlocked phones to get the exact phone you want with your carrier. Kmart has everything from popular smartphones that run the Android operating system and to traditional flip phones with keyboards and camera features.Shopping for a new cell phone is fun and exciting, but the amount of choices on the market can sometimes be overwhelming. Fortunately, Kmart has a great selection of phones so you can find the perfect fit for your lifestyle. With the addition of desirable accessories like screen covers, cell phone headsets, phone cases and mounts available, you can be sure your phone has all the features you'll be using every day.If you have a smartphone, the phone contains a small SIM cards that store all of your information such as contacts and text messages. In many cases, you can activate your new cell phone and keep all of your information from your old phone just by inserting the SIM card into the new phone. Because most carriers have their own SIM cards for use with their phones, you may want an unlocked cell phone if you plan to use a phone that your carrier doesn't support.Shop Kmart when you want an affordable and extensive collection of cell phones. With our wide range of brands, carriers, colors, features and package options available, you won't have any trouble selecting a cell phone that fit your life and your budget.
Call and Ask Nicely: Your carrier may unlock your phone for you. Call your carrier and ask nicely — if your contract has expired, they’ll hopefully unlock your phone for you. If you tell your carrier you’ll be travelling and wish to use a SIM card from another country to save on roaming fees, they may also unlock your phone for you. They may charge a fee for this, but it’s worth a shot. Update: most carriers in the US will unlock your phone as long as you’ve paid off anything you owe on the phone.
All GSM devices are designed so that service is provisioned using a SIM card. With an unlocked device, a GSM smartphone can be reprovisioned and used on another network simply by popping out the old SIM card and putting in a new one from the new carrier. The carrier doesn't necessarily need to be notified, and you don't need anyone in the store to reprovision your phone.
When cell phone users change between compatible wireless service providers, they have the option of “unlocking” their phones to use on their new service provider’s network. CTIA-The Wireless Association adopted standards on unlocking as part of its Consumer Code for Wireless Service (www.ctia.org/policy-initiatives/voluntary-guidelines/consumer-code-for-wireless-service) in 2014, giving consumers greater freedom and flexibility while increasing incentives for service providers to innovate.
Here are several FAQs to help you better understand cell phone unlocking and how it relates to you:
What is mobile phone and device locking?
Mobile phones and device locks are meant to ensure that devices can only be used on the networks of specific service providers.
Unlocking Your Phone
So you want to unlock your phone. Maybe your contract has expired and you want to switch to another carrier, maybe you’re visiting another country, or maybe you just want to pay an early termination fee and get out of your contract early.
Which service providers implemented the standards on unlocking mobile devices?
The website of CTIA-The Wireless Association, www.ctia.org, has a current list of signatories to the Consumer Code for Wireless Service, which includes standards on cell phone unlocking. If your wireless carrier is not one of the participating service providers, please contact them directly regarding their device unlocking policy
Why do providers lock mobile wireless devices?
Locking software is meant to ensure devices will be active for a certain period of time or amount of usage on the network of the provider that sold that device (perhaps with a subsidy or discount) or with a device installment plan.
There are several ways to unlock a phone:
Is my cell phone currently locked?
Unless you purchased a phone or device specifically sold as “unlocked” at the point of purchase, you should assume that it is locked to a specific service provider’s network. This is true whether you purchase the device from a service provider, a retail outlet or through a third-party.
How can I unlock my mobile phone?
Contact your mobile wireless service provider. Devices can be unlocked with unlock codes or other software updates offered to you by your provider. Some providers will complete the unlocking process in-store, others will unlock your device remotely.
Unlocked phones can be paired up with a new or existing plan and don't come with contract requirements right out of the box. You don't even have to change your phone number with unlocked phones - just carry over all your data on a new SIM card and you'll have access to contacts, photos and messages without struggling to back up and then transfer information from one phone to another. Best of all, if you're using no contract phones already you know it couldn't be simpler to update your existing model when cool new technology rolls out. It's as simple as buying an unlocked version of the new model and changing out your card, and you're ready to go.
Using interchangeable SIM cards also allows you to take an exclusive product and turn it into a universal phone that's compatible with virtually every carrier. If you plan to travel outside the U.S. any time soon, getting your hands on no contract phones means you don't have to ditch your technology when you go overseas. Just swap the SIM for a global carrier's card or change it out for an international version of your current model and you'll be set to sail. Even if you aren't going to need your passport when you travel, coverage can be spotty in areas for some carriers, but when using no contract phones you don't have to worry about that issue, thanks to exchangeable SIM cards.
Why Are Phones Locked?
Cellular carriers argue that phone locking is a necessary part of their business. By locking phones they sell on contract, they’re able to keep customers on their network so they’ll continue paying their monthly bills. Remember, phones aren’t actually worth their on contract prices — they’re subsidized. No phone is actually “free” and the latest iPhone actually costs more than $199 — so the carrier needs to recover the cost of the on-contract phone over the lifetime of the contract. If consumers were able to take their phones to other networks, carriers argue that they would have difficulty recovering the price of the phone and their business model would take a hit.
What are the benefits of buying unlocked cell phones?
Are mobile devices besides phones locked, too?
Yes, tablets and other mobile devices can be locked to networks. The CTIA unlocking standards cover mobile wireless devices, including tablets. You should check with your service provider to see if your mobile device is locked and what terms and conditions you have agreed to.
Will my provider unlock my phone?
All service providers who signed onto the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service have fully implemented the standards on unlocking. Participants include all nationwide service providers, as well as a number of regional providers. Each participating provider has posted its unlocking policy on its company website and will respond to unlock requests.
This is not the case with phones developed for CDMA networks. This is the technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.S. It's also used by some carriers in Latin America, Asia, and Canada. The standard is not as widely used as GSM. CDMA devices do not have SIM cards. So if you wanted to take your CDMA device to another CDMA carrier, because a CDMA-only device can't be used on a GSM network and vice versa, you'd have to get the carrier to provision the device for that other network. EV-DO is the 3G technology used on CDMA networks.
In summary, phone locks are not really relevant when you're talking about 2G and 3G devices that operate on CDMA or EV-DO networks. But phone locks are very important for devices that operate on a GSM or HSPA/HSPA+ network. Almost every GSM device comes "prelocked" to a particular carrier. Certain phones are sold unlocked. And if you have a device that is locked, you can get it unlocked from your wireless carrier if you meet certain criteria, which includes paying the full price of your device or ending your contract and being in good standing with your service provider.
Will my postpaid phone be unlocked on request?
Yes, participating providers will unlock your postpaid phone provided the terms and conditions of your service contract are met and you are in good standing. You should speak with your service provider to understand the terms and conditions of your agreement and the provider’s policies on unlocking mobile devices.
When is my device eligible for unlocking?
Your postpaid device is eligible to be unlocked by a participating provider after you have fulfilled the applicable service contract, completed the device installment plan or paid an early termination fee.
For example, let’s say you walk into AT&T and pick up any smartphone on contract. That phone will then function on AT&T’s network, but if you try to place a T-Mobile SIM card into the phone and switch to T-Mobile’s network, the phone will reject the T-Mobile SIM card. There’s no legitimate technical reason for this — it’s compatible — but the AT&T phone is “locked” to AT&T’s network and will only accept AT&T SIM cards.
This would also get in your way if you were travelling and wished to use a local carrier in the country you were visiting rather than paying expensive roaming fees — your locked phone would reject anything but an AT&T SIM card.
Will my prepaid phone be unlocked on request?
Yes, participating providers have agreed to unlock prepaid devices within one year of initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.
Will my phone automatically be unlocked when my service contract has been fulfilled?
It depends on your service provider. Participating providers will notify you at the time your postpaid device is eligible for unlocking if the device is not automatically unlocked. For prepaid devices, participating providers will notify you when your device is eligible for unlocking at the point of sale, at the time of eligibility or through a clear and concise statement of the provider’s policy on its website. When your device is eligible, some providers may automatically unlock it remotely. In this case, providers of postpaid devices are not required under the adopted standards to notify you at the time when the device is eligible for unlocking. Other providers may require you to formally request to have your phone unlocked. Under the adopted standards, participating providers have agreed to unlock eligible devices, provide you with unlocking instructions, or initiate an unlocking request to the device manufacturer – or provide an easily understood explanation of denial – within two business days of receiving an unlock request.
With an unlocked cell phone, you purchase whichever phone you want, and then take it to a carrier to set up a service contract.
Can I use an unlocked cell phone with any carrier?
So that's the basic gist of how software locks for smartphones work. But things are getting a bit more complicated because now there's a new network technology that's currently used only for data services but will eventually be used for voice too. That technology is called LTE. And like GSM, LTE uses a SIM card.
Phone Locking Explained
Will I be charged fees to unlock my device?
Participating providers may not charge existing or former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked. Providers may charge a fee to unlock eligible devices for non-customers and former customers.
Are there military exceptions to allow devices to be unlocked early for deployments?
Yes. If you are deployed internationally or receive orders for international deployment, providers must unlock your device upon verification of deployment under the adopted standards. Contact your mobile service provider, provide verification of your deployment, and request that your device(s) be unlocked.
What’s the Difference Between Jailbreaking, Rooting, and Unlocking?
The CDMA/GSM difference is a legitimate technical barrier to moving phones between carriers. However, there are also artificial barriers. Carriers “lock” phones to make them only function on that carrier’s network.
Be careful when purchasing an unlocked cell phone, because different carriers use different technology. Verizon and T-Mobile use CDMA phones, while AT&T and Sprint use GSM phones.
Can I use an unlocked cell phone with a prepaid plan?
Can my mobile service provider refuse to unlock my phone because I owe them money or am currently under contract?
Yes. Providers do not have to unlock devices for existing or former customers that are not in good standing. You should contact your mobile service provider to understand the terms and conditions of your agreement and your provider’s unlocking policies.
Will my unlocked mobile device work on all networks?
No. Network technology (GSM, LTE, CDMA, etc.) varies between different regions globally and across the United States. Device technology varies to ensure it works with compatible networks. Your device technology must be compatible with network technology to enable access and functionality. Technologies differ, so your device will not work across all networks.
Also devices are optimized to work with service providers’ networks for which they’re sold. Although your mobile device may work on a compatible network, certain features on your unlocked phone may not work optimally, and some features may not work at all.
This issue will soon change as chip manufacturers start including multiple radios on their semiconductors. What's more, wireless operators will also soon be incorporating other slivers of spectrum into their LTE networks, which will overlap with their competitors. When these things all start to converge, we'll likely see more interoperability among devices that include support for the faster-speed LTE services.
Most prepaid plans have their own cell phones for you to choose from that function with the specific prepaid plan.
Unlocking Won’t Make Phones Completely Portable
Will unlocking my device enable it to work on international networks?
Whether your device is locked or unlocked, you should check with your mobile service provider before you travel internationally to find out if your mobile device will work abroad. Mobile networks differ from country to country, and your device may be incompatible with the networks where you are traveling. Also, if your phone works for voice calls, some other functions – such as sending and receiving mobile data or text messaging – might not work.
First, it’s important to bear in mind that phones won’t always be capable of working on another carrier even after they’re unlocked. For example, in the USA, AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM wireless standard, while Verizon and Sprint use the CDMA wireless standard. These are incompatible with each other, which means that you can’t unlock a CDMA phone purchased on Verizon and take it to AT&T’s GSM network, or vice versa.
CDMA is also a more restrictive type of network — while you can unlock an AT&T phone and take it to T-Mobile, you can’t unlock a Verizon phone and take it to Sprint, as Sprint’s CDMA network will reject the phone.
Luckily, most of the world has chosen the less-restrictive GSM standard. Before you consider unlocking a phone and taking it to another carrier, ensure that your phone will actually be capable of functioning on that carrier’s network.
Shop our impressive selection of unlocked cell phones that will work with any GSM carrier (carrier that uses sim cards). Unlocked phones will accept a sim card from any major GSM carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile), and they're great go-to phones for travel abroad. Unlocked cell phones can also use international sim cards, which means you can buy inexpensive sim cards while on your trip abroad instead of using your domestic sim and racking up expensive international charges.
The Benefits and Drawbacks
Unlock Your Phone the Easy Way
Want to unlock your phone? The easiest way to do it is using DoctorSIM — just give them the necessary information about the phone and they will send you the unlock code. Couldn’t be simpler.
It doesn’t require factory resetting, modifying, or jailbreaking. It’s permanent and you can use the phone while you are waiting for it to be unlocked. They support almost every type of cell phone and almost every network provider.
Remember that in the U.S., Verizon and Sprint customers use either a Verizon or Sprint CDMA network. The GSM radio is included in these phones so that subscribers can roam onto networks in Europe and other parts of the world. Verizon and Sprint subscribers can choose either to sign up for international roaming plans with their U.S. carrier when they travel, or, if they can get their devices unlocked, they can swap out the SIM, put in a SIM card from a local provider, and get new service that way.
Tired of your handset, or want to own a few and switch between them? With an unlocked device, you can trade up or sell your phone whenever you want, without waiting for the end of a leasing or equipment installment plan—because you're not in one. You can own multiple handsets and swap your SIM card between them. You can also take advantage of super-cheap prepaid plans from virtual operators piggybacking on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
How do you unlock a SIM-locked cell phone?
To get your phone unlocked, you'll need to contact the cell phone company where your phone was purchased and ask for the SIM unlock code. Each cell phone carrier has its own guidelines for unlocking phones.
Could you please explain the concept of carrier locks on cell phones? It is a tremendously confusing topic. I think I know the basics, but there are always strange technicalities that I keep seeing that just throw me off and make me question whether I really know how the system works.
For context, I'm a Verizon customer with an iPhone 4S. Each summer my family visits Crane Lake, Minn., where Verizon has zero coverage but AT&T has very broad coverage. We've resorted to using crappy basic phones with prepaid AT&T calling plans for simple communication (we have no Wi-Fi/Ethernet networking for our iPhones/computers). It would be great if AT&T would let us use a prepaid plan for one of our iPhones to use for the two weeks we visit each summer, but for some reason they won't.
One thing to note here in terms of software phone locks is that all Verizon 4G LTE smartphones come unlocked out of the box. The reason why is that the spectrum Verizon is using to build its 4G LTE network had restrictions put on it by the Federal Communications Commission, which required the company to allow "open access" to the network. So as part of this provision, Verizon has decided not to lock those devices. That said, its 3G devices are locked.
How can you tell if your phone is unlocked?
Unless you know you purchased an unlocked cell phone or you went through the process of getting it unlocked, there is a good chance it is locked. One way you can test this is to borrow a SIM card from someone who has a different cell phone carrier than the one you bought your phone from. So, if you purchased your phone from T-Mobile, try inserting an AT&T SIM card in the phone. If you are able to make and receive calls, your phone is probably unlocked.
OK, so a lot of that info was irrelevant, but I've been scouring the Web sites of Verizon and AT&T and trying to learn more about all of this.
What is an unlocked cell phone, and do you need one?
An unlocked cell phone is a phone that is not bound to a particular cell phone carrier. If you have an unlocked phone, you can typically use it with other cell phone providers that use similar networks by purchasing a wireless service plan and a SIM card from the other carrier.
By contrast, a SIM-locked phone is a phone or smartphone that has been programmed for use only with a SIM from a specific cell phone carrier. If you have a locked phone, you will need to get it unlocked if you want to use it with another cell phone company's service. Most cell phone carriers will provide an unlock code if you meet their unlocking requirements. Requirements vary by carrier.
At the same time, there are a few downsides to going the unlocked route. If you change SIM cards overseas, you won't have your US phone number while you're there. And unlocked handsets generally work only on GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile), although there are some exceptions. The Apple iPhone 6s/SE/7 (factory unlocked and Verizon Wireless models), the Google Nexus and Pixel phones, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge work on all four major carriers.
Where and What to Buy
So what does this mean for the average consumer? Let's take the iPhone 5 as an example. It's a 4G LTE device. A Verizon version of this phone comes unlocked out of the box. There aren't special codes that need to be entered in order to use it on another carrier's network. But because of the spectrum differences I mentioned above, a Verizon iPhone 5 won't operate on AT&T's LTE network. It will operate on AT&T's 3G network, which is based on GSM. So this means you can use the Verizon iPhone on AT&T, but you won't get the fastest Internet speeds on it.
Exceptional Battery Life
Modern cell phone batteries provide users with up to 18 hours of talk time and 16 days of standby time, depending on the device. Some models come with smart chargers that can provide hours of talk time in just a few minutes; others include wireless charging options that eliminate power cords completely.
Unlocked phones offer the same features as plan phones from major carriers without the burden of a long-term contract. Users can move these phones between compatible carriers both in the United States and overseas, making them an ideal choice for international travelers. Explore the many phones available at Staples and find a device to handle any user's needs
Shopping for an unlocked handset can be a bit tricky, since AT&T and T-Mobile stores don't stock them. If you're looking for one, the Apple Store, Amazon, Best Buy Mobile, and manufacturers' online stores are good bets. In some cases, you can even unlock the phone you already own, although the particulars depend on the handset and carrier.
Many people have been looking for ways to unlock their devices. The U.K. Web site Mobile Unlocked, which sells unlock codes to consumers, says sales of unlock codes are up 71 percent. But others are still trying to figure out what the heck device-locking is all about and how and if their own smartphones can be unlocked. There's no question millions of consumers are still confused about cell phone unlocking. Aside from the legal issues, there are technical issues that may even make cell phone unlocking impossible for some consumers.
Advanced Camera Options
Today, even simple phones include a camera, but some modern smartphones can match the image quality of digital SLRs, with resolutions as high as 23 megapixels available. Some phones have front cameras optimized for video chat or selfie photography and rear cameras for high-resolution video or image capture. Some rear cameras offer advanced motion-tracking auto-focus and digital zoom features plus built-in flash to enhance the photography experience. Many phones offer storage space for captured images in the form of microSD card slots that can store up to 200GB of personal data, photos and music.
In this edition of Ask Maggie, I re-examine this issue and offer some basic information about what a cell phone lock is. I explain on which wireless networks cell phones can be unlocked. And I caution consumers to investigate before they buy a device they think is unlocked.
I also explain to another reader why he can't bring just any phone to his prepaid Virgin Mobile service.
Related Story See How We Test Cell Phones
These phones come in many different configurations. Simple keypad phones offer basic texting and calling options, making them ideal for users who need a phone for occasional use or emergencies. More advanced models add touchscreens, support for apps and multimedia functions, and powerful unlocked smartphones running Windows or Android can duplicate most of the functionality of a personal tablet or lightweight laptop. These devices have brilliant color displays in resolutions up to 2560 x 1440 and can play movies in full HD, show off high-resolution images or support complex apps or web pages. Most also support audio playback from music files stored locally or from streaming sources. Many unlocked smartphones have built-in GPS that can provide driving directions, gyroscopes and accelerometers that offer unique gaming options and light sensors that automatically adjust the display to match ambient light conditions.
What are the explicit differences between a locked and unlocked phone?
The difference between a locked and an unlocked phone is that a locked device has a software code on it that prevents you from taking a GSM-based device and using it on another GSM carrier's network. An unlocked phone either doesn't have the lock software on it or someone was able to get a code that unlocks the software. Once a device is unlocked, you can pop out the SIM card and put in a different SIM from another GSM operator and get service. Remember that this issue of locked and unlocked phones today is really only relevant when you're talking about devices made for GSM networks. It doesn't really apply to CDMA-only devices or for swapping out SIM cards for LTE networks. As I explained above, most carriers use different frequencies and band plans for their LTE networks, so even without a software lock on the device, it still won't operate on these networks. That will soon change, but for now don't expect unlocked LTE devices to perform at top speeds on any other carrier's LTE network.
Our most recent Editors' Choice picks for unlocked devices include the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, the Google Pixel XL, the ZTE Axon 7, and the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. The iPhone 7 Plus has a blazingly fast processor and dual rear cameras that may become more powerful with software updates as time goes on. The Pixel also has an excellent camera, and it'll be the first phone to get new Google software innovations. The ZTE Axon 7 has flagship performance and an all-metal body for only $399. And the Galaxy S7 Edge's screen stands out for its brilliant color and sharpness.
Unlocked Cell Phone Connectivity
All of these phones offer access to GSM carrier networks and the voice and text communications they provide, but some have additional connectivity features. Many models include Wi-Fi adapters that reduce in-plan data usage by switching to wireless mode when a local network is available. Some have built-in FM radio receivers that offer access to local news, weather and music, and almost every unlocked phone supports Bluetooth, so they're compatible with hands-free systems or wireless headsets.
Why is the iPhone treated differently by carriers relative to other phones?
In the past, the iPhone was treated differently than other devices when it came to lock codes. For instance, AT&T was happy to unlock any other phone you owned, but according to its policy, the iPhone could never be unlocked. The reason for this was because AT&T didn't want people buying the popular phone and going to another carrier, whether that was T-Mobile or an overseas operator. So to control how and where the device was used, it refused to unlock it.
That's changed. Now AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint let people unlock any smartphone so long as they've met the carrier's unlocking criteria. Usually, this means the phone is fully paid for and the customers are no longer on a contract. And they have to be customers in "good standing" for a certain period of time.
Unlocked Cell Phones
Unlocked cell phones offer users the ability to own their device and use it with multiple service providers without a long-term contract. These products feature GSM communication technology that's compatible with U.S. carriers such as T-Mobile and AT&T, as well as many international cell phone systems. Major manufacturers such as Samsung and Sony offer many phone options, including basic devices and full-featured smartphones, so there are products available to meet almost any user's needs.
Ready to break free? Pick up one of these handsets and don't feel tied to your carrier any longer.
How do Verizon's and AT&T's lock policies relate to each other?
Is a Verizon unlock the same as an AT&T unlock? As I explained above, Verizon has a slightly different unlock policy for its newer 4G LTE phones, which was born out of an FCC requirement. The spectrum AT&T uses for its 4G LTE network and for its 3G HSPA and HSPA+ network don't have the same requirements, so every device sold by AT&T or for use on AT&T's network has a software lock on it.