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What is an Unlocked Phone?

By Katharine Swan
Updated May 16, 2024
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An unlocked phone can be used with a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card from any network or region. Most mobile phone companies install special “locking” software on their phones that prevents them from being used with any other network’s SIM card. However, customers can contact their providers or use third-party services to unlock certain types of phones, allowing their use with other networks. While this is not typically illegal, it can violate the contract or Terms of Service (ToS) between a customer and service provider.

Phones That Can Be Unlocked

Many modern mobile phones include a tiny card in them called a SIM card. This card identifies a mobile phone as a certain phone number, holds contact data, and stores other data. A mobile phone user can move their SIM card from one phone to another and still keep the same number and other information. These SIM cards are used in phones on a network that utilizes Global System for Mobile communication (GSM), which is used by many European providers and some in the US.

Locked Phones

A locked phone essentially has software on it that prevents it from working with a SIM card that has any other carrier’s information coded into it. For example, a mobile phone locked by AT&T® can only function with a SIM card that is affiliated with that network. With an unlocked phone, however, a person can use any provider that uses the GSM standard, including whichever company offers the best rate or the highest quality services.

Unlocking a Phone

There are a few different ways to turn a locked device into an unlocked phone. Some mobile providers unlock phones for their customers, as long as there is no longer a contract tying that user to the provider. There are also third-party companies that can be contacted and provide codes or software used to unlock one. Either method is usually quite inexpensive, though prices can vary depending on the type of unlocked phone and the service used.

Benefits And Drawbacks

An unlocked phone gives a user more options, allowing him or her to choose a GSM service provider and swap out SIM cards more easily, even when traveling in a foreign country. Another advantage is that an unlocked phone is worth more for resale, since someone can use it with more providers. Unlocking a phone is typically legal, though local laws should be consulted by anyone considering unlocking one. The ToS provided by most companies usually forbids unlocking while under contract, and doing so can result in fines by the provider.

Why Phones Are Locked

One of the ways that cell phone companies attract new customers is to offer free or inexpensive phones when the customer signs a contract. In addition to charging a high termination fee if customers cancel their service before the contract is up, cell phone companies protect themselves by locking the phones they sell to their network. This keeps them from losing money on customers who want to buy a phone at a low price and then activate it with another network for a better rate.

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Discussion Comments

By becky1234 — On Dec 19, 2013

Unlocked cell phone means You can use with different network. Normally some mobiles are locked by particular provider. So you cannot switch over from another network. In this situation you must unlock your cell phone.You can easily unlock your cell phone by using unlock code. If you need unlock code you can visit this site Simpleunlocking.com here you can get the unlock code and unlock your mobile easily.

By anon195440 — On Jul 11, 2011

I have an unlocked (AT&T) LG Neon. How can I make it work in place of my damaged LG620G on StraighTalk?

By anon155585 — On Feb 23, 2011

I have an old att phone and would like to use it with straight talk. how do I get a straight talk sim card?

By anon143096 — On Jan 15, 2011

Having an unlocked phone will just simply allow you to have more freedom to select the carrier that is most beneficial to you at that time and location.

By anon130865 — On Nov 30, 2010

wendorfjohn: 1. Buy an unlocked phone 2. Go into the back of your cricket phone and remove the battery 3. Remove the SIM card 4. Put that in the unlocked phone 5. Get used to your new phone on cricket!

By watson42 — On Jul 19, 2010

@stolaf23, it is true that the internet usually has better deals for unlocked phones than traditional phone suppliers. However, it’s also important to make sure the product being purchased does specify itself as an unlocked phone that will work with either any carrier or your own carrier, because some service providers offer plans through websites like amazon.com and ebay.com in addition to their own stores. Similarly, there are third-party sellers across the United States which affiliate themselves with one or more carriers, but are not actually branches of that store; buying from these stores has different services and prices than buying directly from a cell phone provider.

By stolaf23 — On Jul 19, 2010

Unless a cell phone user has extra insurance, finding an unlocked cell phone is usually necessary if their current phone is lost, stolen, or broken. If this happens, it is usually easier to check an online auction site for an unlocked phone than to purchase another through your cell phone provider or an electronics store; if your expectations and needs for your phone are not very specific, you can easily find a phone of some kind to replace the one you had.

By wendorfjohn — On Mar 04, 2009

how do I add my sim info from my cricket phone to an unlocked phone?

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