Now that it’s legal, here’s how to unlock your phone on all four U.S. carriers

62 Comments

Credit: Sashkin/Shutterstock

After you’ve finished up with a two-year smartphone contract, one of the easiest ways to save money is to keep your old device and bring it to a compatible carrier with a lower monthly cost. But if your device is carrier locked — and if you bought it on contract from one of the big four carriers, it probably is — you’ll need to unlock it first.

Last week Congress passed a bill that requires carriers to unlock eligible devices, although the carriers were already doing that voluntarily in some situations. On Friday, August 1, Barack Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law.

So now that’s it’s officially legal, how do you go about unlocking your smartphone?

Read next: In February 2015, additional rules went into effect that protect consumers looking to unlock their phones. More information here

First things first…

Unlocking a phone from a wireless carrier isn’t an instantaneous process. Sometimes unlocking a device can take several phone calls and hours (up to two days, according to CTIA guidelines.) If you’re taking your device overseas, I recommend you start the process at least a week in advance.

I would also recommend unlocking your phone before you leave your current carrier. After all, once you’re no longer a customer, there isn’t the same customer service incentive to help you through the process, as my colleague Jeff Roberts found out last year when he brought his AT&T iPhone to T-Mobile.

Before you make the call to your carrier, gather some information:

  • The account holder’s name and account number
  • The account holder’s social security number (they’ll ask you for the last four digits) or password
  • The IMEI of your device — often found underneath the battery cover, it can also be accessed through software on either an iPhone(s appl) or Android(s goog) handset.
  • The phone number of your device
  • Your overseas deployment papers if you’re requesting an unlock before your contract is up and you’re in the military
  • Most importantly: Make sure your contract is finished. Carriers aren’t required to unlock your device if you’ve still got months on your plan.

Here’s how you should approach the unlocking process depending on which carrier you currently use.

AT&T(s t)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? It needs to be a device from a current AT&T customer or a former customer, and you’ll need to verify that with either a phone number or account number. The device will need to have been paid for in full and not reported lost or stolen. AT&T customers can unlock up to five devices per account per year.

Caveats: Your unlock code comes in through your email, and can take a few days to arrive. Check your spam folder. Officially, AT&T doesn’t do SIM unlocks over the phone; instead, it funnels all requests to an online form, which is a good system until it isn’t.

Can I unlock it online? Yup, just plug in your IMEI number right here.

What’s the best phone number? Customer support can be reached at 1-800-331-0500 but the web form is your best bet.

Where’s the official documentation? Here.

Alternate carriers or prepaid MVNOs: Straight Talk, AT&T’s GoPhone, and T-Mobile are the biggest names offering plans for GSM devices. Other options include H20 Wireless, Ultra Mobile, Net10, LycaMobile, Spot Mobile, Telcel America, GIV Mobile, Simple Mobile, Red Pocket, and Pure Talk.

Verizon(s v)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible?  Here’s a list of Verizon devices sold with an unlocked SIM slot. Verizon uses the CDMA network in the United States, but many of its devices also include an unlocked SIM slot. This means most Verizon phones — including all LTE devices — aren’t locked. Unlike Sprint, the SIM slot on Verizon iPhones comes unlocked.

Caveats: While you can use SIM-equipped Verizon phones on AT&T, T-Mobile and other GSM carriers, unless the device has roaming GSM radios it won’t be able to make phone calls or send texts in the United States. Most recent Verizon phones will work on American GSM bands, but LTE support can be a mixed bag depending on your device.

In the past, Verizon has sold a small number of phones described as “Global Ready 3G.” Often older phones — think Blackberrys — with a SIM slot come locked.

Can I unlock it online? Verizon currently doesn’t have an online unlock request form.

What’s the best phone number? Call 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock.

Where’s the official documentation? Here.

Alternate carriers or prepaid MVNOs: PagePlus operates a prepaid plan on Verizon’s network, and you can use most modern (LTE) SIM-equipped Verizon phones on AT&T, T-Mobile, and other GSM carriers, although LTE support will depend on your specific device. Verizon also offers a prepaid plan, which recently got LTE support.

Sprint(s s)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? You’ll need to have an account with Sprint, verified either through an account number or a phone number. The account needs to be in good standing, and the phone can’t be reported or lost and stolen. Sprint does unlock devices for short overseas trips. If you’re an active member of the U.S. Military deployed overseas, you can request an unlock from Sprint, although the same caveats (good standing, account with Sprint) still apply.

Caveats: If you’ve got a Sprint iPhone, you’re probably out of luck. From Sprint’s legal unlocking policy:

Sprint-branded iPhones have been manufactured in a way that prevents them from being unlocked to allow the device to activate on a different carrier’s network in the United States.

While Sprint uses radios that make it difficult to use its devices on other CDMA and LTE networks, almost all Sprint spectrum resellers are free to activate unlocked Sprint phones.

If you’re using a Sprint prepaid affiliate, like Virgin or Boost, Sprint currently cannot unlock those devices. Supposedly help is on its way — as these policies are in violation of the CITA’s unlocking agreement, new, more consumer-friendly policies should be in place by February 11, 2015.

Can I unlock it online? Yes, through an online chat with a customer service representative.

What’s the best phone number? Call 1-888-211-4727, or *2 from a Sprint device.

Where’s the official documentation? Here.

Alternative prepaid carriers: Ting, iWirelessVoyagerFreedomPop, ROK Mobile, Sprint Prepaid

T-Mobile(s tmus)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? Your device needs to meet four conditions: it must be a T-Mobile device, not reported as lost or stolen, associated with an account in good standing, and users can’t request more than two mobile device unlocks in the span of a year. If the device is paid for through an installment plan, it must be paid in full.

Caveats: If you have a smartphone on a T-Mobile prepaid plan, you need to have made at least $100 in refills.

Can I unlock it online? Yes, you can engage in a live chat that can unlock your device.

What’s the best phone number? 1-877-746-0909 or 611 from a T-Mobile device.

Where’s the official documentation? Here.

Alternative prepaid MVNOs: AT&T GoPhone and Straight Talk. Other options include H20 Wireless, Ultra Mobile, Net10, LycaMobile, Spot Mobile, Telcel America, GIV Mobile, Simple Mobile, Red Pocket, and Pure Talk.

This post has been updated to include the fact that President Barack Obama signed the cell phone unlocking bill on August 1. 

 

62 Comments

BOORACK Obamee

So SPRINT is in CLEAR violation of the the LAW (CITA) and they are allowed to tell people to stick it until the year 2015? And they wonder why they are number FOUR in the list. I feel sorry for the people on Sprint / Boost / Virgin. CDMA Verizon hands down. GSM it is CRICKET hands down- (Cricket is now owned by AT&T and at $45.00 a month with REAL CUSTOMER SERVICE (Unlike Strait talk) AT&T / Cricket will be the clear winners in prepaid.

arland

ok after reading this ok I have a Verizon droid m was on a contract plan and is clear it has the sim slot card ok, so I can have this phone set up to run on the prepaid plan then is this what this whole thing means I can switch it over to a prepaid with a new sim card any one know

ap

if you bought the device .you should be able to do what you want with it .In texas they have shops where any phone can get unlocked for 25$ . at&t and tmobile are the easiest ones .you can actually do it yourself .The phone carriers want to make all the money they can. the companies have no problem cheating the consumers with unwarranted fees and outrages pricing .

frank

I purchased an unlocked Samsung Galaxy Duos Android in France ( August 2014) and I have AT&T as my provider in the USA. I am having HUGE phone reception and texting issues in the USA but not in Euorpe, Asia or South America. I do NOT have a data plan ( as AT&T requires for smart phones) and I am wondering if this is causing all my issues. AT&T tech support will NOT fix my problems. Their only solution is to purchase an AT&T supplied phone which they will unlock for me. Any thoughts to solve my USA phone and texting issues?

Debbie

I just called Verizon with the number mentioned in this article and got nowhere.I have a out of contract IPhone 4S ,I still have an acct and service with Verizon.I wanted to switch to Tmobile so I called to ask to have my phone unlocked,the service rep had no idea what I was talking about.She said I could only unlock for international use,I tried to explaine I needed the IMEi unlocked,so I could use the phone in the US.She didn’t know what A IMEi was and said I can take my phone anywhere I wanted and just put in a new SIM card.Explained that she needed to unlock the phone first and we kept going In circles.She said her managers didn’t know how to unlock either.I am now waiting for the Top manager to call back.I’m guessing that person won’t know what I’m talking about either…..very frustrating that I can’t use my already paid for phone with another carrier.

charles

Does the same apply to Blackberry phones tied to their enterprise server? I was given a BB Bold but it’s locked so even though I have paid for BB service via 3 I can’t register my email addresses. I can use it for phone and text, just not emails.

no one

Just go buy the unlocked phone. don’t get the phone from wireless carriers. is that simple?

joe

What about bringing a phone from China on the China Mobile network and using it in the US?
I have a new Samsung S3 and want to use it with an American carrier or as a burner phone. Will it work?

Sean Reena

What about prepaid carriers like Cricket, Boost Mobile, etc?

DM

This article is BS. I have an iPhone 4S and was told by Verizon it can’t be unlocked for use with another carrier. I have filed a complaint with FCC since I think Verizon is full of S(h)it.

Shawna

I’ve worked for cellular carriers for many years. It’s a waste of time to use an unlocked phone. The majority of the time you are going to run into software conflicts that prevent your unlocked device from working with a carrier other than where the device came from. Even if the phone does work for a while, if issue arise, the carrier has no responsibility to troubleshoot the problem.

Craig Michelson

Had no trouble having my AT&T iPhone 4S unlocked around August 2013. First, the 2 year contract was finished, then contacted AT&T. I was on the phone with them for less than 5 minutes and was directed to sync the phone to my iTunes account the next day. When I synced with iTunes the next day, the phone was unlocked. No charge.

If you plan to switch to another U.S. Carrier (T-Mobile in my case) and want to port your existing number, I suggest you touch base with the new carrier before you actually cancel your current service.

ASound Decision

Save money on your cell phone plan. Unlimited talk and text for 29 dollars a month no contract! Data plans available too! No need to unlock a T-Mobile device for Solavei. http://www.solavei.com/jtoday

donjuan

if you have verizon with a 4g device it comes unlocked. the best ones are iPhones they are ready to use anywhere.

Bacani Clemen

Why do the US need to have a law to unlock a phone is just dump stupid. I am a T-mobile customer for more than 10 years now and every time I upgrade my phone, I can easily have my phone unlock by informing T-mobile that i am traveling overseas and I need unlock my phone so I can use a sim card overseas. Instantly, they send me the code to unlock my phone. No questions asked. It is not true that your phone need to have been paid off or you are about to off the contract. The same with AT&T. All you need is to asked customer service that your phone be unlocked and that you are using it on your travel overseas.

Sean Reena

Yeah but does that mean your phone will only be unlocked for international use, not domestic.

Paul

Locked phones in USA is a joke, in Europe they are unlocked already long long long time. It is just dirty carriers games in USA and it is finally over!!!!

Peeta Mellark

I hope the carriers see that yes, you can unlock your phone now but, there is no law that says another carrier has to accept your unlocked phone.

Bren

According to this article, nothing has changed with the new law. Better just to start out with an unlocked phone and save the hassle.

xavier

This sounds so middle age… Here carriers are required to unlock phones after 3 months upon simple request by phone or online. All it takes is the imei and 10 seconds.

Joshua

With so many manufactured unlocked phones on the market, like the Maxwest Gravity 5.5 that has a US Broadcom quad-core cpu (we have 2 of these in our family), buying a contract phone and then having to unlock it, or finding out it’s blacklisted is insane. There are great, large screen powerful phones available with specs as good or better than the big brand names (why pay for another Samsung CEO’s plane) without dealing with the unlocking nonsense.

nfinlarg

Before you do this, check on network compatibility between carriers; just because both carriers are GSM, doesn’t mean they’re 100% compatible. In my case I was with ATT, with an iPhone 4S, and wanted to unlock it and move to T-Mobile. But ATTs network operates somewhere around 680 to 800 MHz in the US spectrum and T-Mobile operates somewhere around 1100 MHz (I don’t recall the exact figures). That meant that my unlocked ATT phone would only get EDGE data speeds on T-Mobile, and I couldn’t even get 3G on it, let alone take advantage of their blazing LTE service. It all worked out well though, I went to T-Mob anyway, got a new device, sold the 4S on eBay which covered about 70% of the cost of the new device, and now pay less than half each month of what I was paying ATT. And with 4 times more data, that is much faster.

Gus

In Brazil, this same bill passed about 7-10 years ago. Here, no carrier can sell you a locked phone which is great specially when another carrier is offering you better rates/coverage!

brian

I had 3 months to go on my contract with Verizon when I lost my job, they cut me off and the phones are locked, can I get these unlocked????

Amsterdamned

Brian you can try to get Verizon to unlock them for you or if you don’t want to deal with the hassle just looks up cellphone shops in your area that preform unlocking for a fee. Many of those type of shops have listings on Craigslist as well

Jason

I’ll assume they cut you off for non-payment. In that case Verizon will not unlock your phones until you pay what is owed on your account.

However, if these are LTE phones they are unlocked already. Try a friends AT&T or T-Mobile sim card and see if it works. I have purchased several Verizon LTE phones used on Ebay and used them on GSM networks in the USA.

JL Long

I have 2 iPhones that I got through ATT. I am now eligible to update my phone. I have moved to Belize and really need an unlocked phone. I explained all this to ATT but they are taking a hard line regarding unlocking the phone. I did pay a fortune to get 2 4S unlocked. My husband lost his iPhone a week or two later. I am going to the states in October and plan to buy a 5S. Will need to unlock it for use in Belize. Is there a place stateside where I can get help unlocking the phone? I have kept my cell phone number to use when I am in the states so technically I am still an ATT customer.

jeffdc

Just go to ebay, tons of cheap unlocking service. I unlock several of my iphones using their service.

nfinlarg

Your best bet is to go straight to the Apple store and buy the unlocked device directly from them. You’ll pay full price, but you’ll never have to worry about unlocking it.

guest

You may have simply “ported” your number to another provider. If so, you are no longer an ATT customer unless you still have an open and active account with ATT with your number. Having a phone number originally assigned by ATT does not “technically” make you an ATT customer. You can keep your number from carrier to carrier to carrier. This does not mean you are “technically” still a customer of all three. Your MSISDN (phone number) can only be registered with one service provider otherwise you would receive a bill from each provider

Katia Lyrik

you get a $600 or $700 phone for $200 with ATT by signing for a 2 year contract. If you don’t want to live up to the agreement, buy the phone outright at full cost.

MedicusQui

XDA Developers. It’s a forum that will help you with everything you need to know about almost any phone.

Fabito

Here in Japan if you call 08067856565 they will unlock your phone while you wait & in a matter of minutes

losscause

That is total horsecrap about Sprint’s iPhones using different hardware. The baseband is locked so that it cannot use US carriers; they 100% could unlock them for GSM use (AT&T, T-Mobile), but they choose not to because it impacts their churn rate. The internal hardware is identical across all models.

Your statement about international unlocks on Sprint is correct.

– Former Sprint Employee.

DocNN

Since it is the law, why is Sprint not allowing their out-of-contract I-phones from being used on AT&T or T-Mobile? This is illegal and someone needs to force Sprint to do it. I am writing to my congressman tomorrow.

@Dhacked

Because IPhones from Sprint are running on CDMA Technology. Meaning they don’t have the usual SIM Card like AT&T and T-Mobile. While AT&T and T-Mobile uses GSM Technology. Unfortunately, you cannot cross these technologies together. You, however can use a Sprint phone with Verizon or US Cellular.

Katia Lyrik

no they will just go away from contracts and make you pay full price for the phone. Cheating them won’t benefit anyone.

ap

so what are you suggesting that we continue to let the carriers cheat the consumers. Because that is exactly what they are doing on a daily basis. Just because it is not flat out in the open for you to see ,does not mean that they do not strategically try to find ways to gain on consumers. they are inflating the cost of communication and we continue to pay for it and it will just continue to rise .

Bob

Did anyone twist your arm to make you get that cell phone? Or was it a choice you made all on your own?

Dave Ingram

Here in Australia there are shops in most cities (and in the larger malls) that will unlock your phone for you at any time. $20 is usually all it costs & the unlocking is immediate. I’m surprised that these shops haven’t set up in the US.

Badrinath Jayakumar

there some shops in the USA but we dont like to cheat the carrier.

Hamada Bebo

look at yr phone bell the carrier cheat coustomer all the time, phone bill sky hight all the time .when you call customer care to go over the bell with you they confuse you more.what you call that now

Justin Eubank

They are you can also buy unlock codes off of eBay for about $5

Dee

There are a lot of shops here in the US especially in NJ and all we have to do is pay a fee and they will unlock the device. No one really cares about cheating the carrier lol

Dan N

” I’m surprised that these shops haven’t set up in the US”…….lol… are you back in stone age

Jonny

Yeah, dave, for example i have allways used the service from servidorimeiunlock.com for me and my friends. Its cheap and faster than talking with the network operator, or chating with customer support, usually with no result into unlocking your device.

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