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What are Unlocked Smartphones?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Unlocked smartphones are smartphones that have the potential capability to be used on any wireless network, rather than being tied to a specific carrier. The advantage of purchasing a phone that is unlocked is that the consumer can exercise more choice about the type of plan used, and it is also very easy to switch between carriers if different services are needed or if the user wants to travel. The disadvantage is that the consumer usually needs to pay full retail price for the phone, in contrast with getting a steeply discounted phone in combination with a service contract from a specific network.

The practice of locking phones is designed to enforce customer loyalty by making it hard to leave a particular network. Consumers started rebelling against the practice in the early 2000s, often specifically because of the desire to change networks with a smartphone.

Locked phones are phones that have been programmed so that they can only be used with a particular provider. In some cases, the programming may be easy to reverse, with the user simply reformatting the phone or removing the phone's memory card. In other instances, the phone may be designed in such a way that it is impossible to use it with another network, with some companies manufacturing specific phones for particular networks. In contrast, an unlocked phone can be used on any carrier that permits customers to use unlocked phones.

The definition of a “smartphone” is, unfortunately, a bit more complicated than the definition of an unlocked phone. Smartphones are cell phones that offer additional features that differentiate them from conventional cell phones. A regular cell phone usually offers voice and basic data services, such as text and picture messaging. A smartphone, by contrast, may have a full keyboard, an independent operating system, and functionality that approaches that of a small computer. Smartphones are very popular with travelers and businesspeople, since they are portable and often very easy to use.

With a smartphone, carriers usually recommend a robust data plan that allows the consumer to transfer large amounts of data. Text and picture messages are comparatively quite small, while browsing the Internet, sending email, and exchanging files can eat up data allowances quickly. As a result, phone plans tend to be more expensive, and some consumers grow frustrated with particular providers, but want to keep their device. This is where unlocked smartphones come in handy, since the consumer can drop one service plan and start another.

There are a number of sources for unlocked phones. Some people go directly to the manufacturer, but it is also possible to purchase them through third party retailers. Some cellular providers may also offer an unlocked option to their customers, offering people the choice of getting a locked phone at reduced price with a service contract, or buying a more expensive unlocked smart phone that is accompanied with more flexibility.

It is also possible for people to unlock certain smartphones on their own, if they have computer programming skills, but this can also result in “bricking” a device, rendering it useless. Networks will usually not replace phones that have been bricked as a result of attempts to unlock, so unlocking one without experience is a risky endeavor.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By joejas — On Jun 21, 2014

An unlocked smartphone means you can use any network in your mobile. Normally all mobiles have built in some restrictions. If you want to remove the restrictions, an unlock code is needed.

By anon293636 — On Sep 26, 2012

Can a galaxy s2 that is unlocked be used in a gophone plan?

By anon288985 — On Sep 01, 2012

What's the difference between an unlocked mobile and an unlocked smartphone?

By casie — On Jun 22, 2010

Can I use my Samsung SGH-i607 Black Jack smartphone, with the boost unlimited plan? Cingular gave me an unlock code for my phone but I'm not sure how to unlock the phone.

By anon81244 — On Apr 30, 2010

So does purchasing an unlocked smart-phone allow you to avoid having to pay for the full data plan? with AT&T they charge $30 for you to get unlimited data on a smart phone and only $10 on a normal phone - can this be avoided through unlocking?

By lestan — On Feb 22, 2009

It's kind of like sticking it to the man. I know I don't like the idea of being tied into a contract, and the truth is that most people don't know that unlocked smartphones are available!

They are pretty expensive though. :(

By anon24587 — On Jan 14, 2009

Does alltel allow us to do this? and if so can i use the samsung omnia?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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