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Here’s how to unlock your phone under the new rules

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New rules governing U.S. wireless carriers went into full effect on Wednesday, although many carriers had been following the guidelines for nearly a year. These new rules are part of a voluntary “consumer code for wireless service” administered by CTIA, the main wireless trade association. All four big carriers — including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — have agreed to them, along with several smaller pre-paid carriers.

There’s a lot of consumer-friendly policies included in the consumer code, including new ground rules for unlocking your smartphone or tablet. Carriers in the United States lock the SIM slots on the devices they sell so you can’t take them over to a competing carrier for a better deal for service. But the new consumer code requires them to unlock devices on request and sets out clear rules for when the carriers have to comply.

How do I unlock my phone if I have AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint?

Users often want to unlock their phone when they want to bring their device to another wireless service provider. The process is fairly straightforward, although sometimes it can be frustrating to deal with a bureaucratic system when you simply want a setting changed on a device you own.

The unlocking process varies between carriers. Generally, if you have an eligible phone or tablet, you need to get in touch with the carrier that’s locked the device, and request an unlock.

For locked AT&T phones you’ll want to visit this web form. Full documentation is available here.

For Verizon devices you’ll want to call 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock. Full documentation is available here.

Sprint phones can be unlocked by calling 1-888-211-4727. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation is available here.

T-Mobile customers can unlock their devices by calling 1-877-746-0909. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation here.

Here’s more information on how to unlock your phone on the big four U.S. carriers, including how to verify that your device is eligible, caveats in the fine print, and alternative carriers you can bring your device to. The FCC also has useful information about the process.

When can I unlock my phone if I purchased it with a contract?

As soon as you complete your service contract.

Your device is most likely considered a “postpaid” device if you paid around $200 for it as part of a two-year contract or used an upgrade payment plan like AT&T Next. According to the new policy, carriers are required to unlock devices after the customer finishes his or her contract or completes a device payment plan. So the day after you finish your 24-month agreement, or you fully pay off your phone, you can unlock your device and take it to another carrier.

When can I unlock my pre-paid phone?

One year after purchasing your device.

Although prepaid devices aren’t subsidized by a carrier, wireless companies still often provide deals on low-cost handsets which you buy up front, assuming that you will be buying prepaid minutes and data. Under the new agreement, the carrier you purchased your handset from has to unlock the device one year after you first activate it.

Should I expect to pay for unlocking services?


According to the FCC, “service providers may not charge customers and former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked.” While unofficial — and legally protected — unlocking kiosks in malls and shopping centers might charge a fee to unlock a phone, your carrier should not if you are or were a customer.

What if I have a locked device, but I’m not a customer with the carrier the phone is locked to?

Then you might be charged a fee. The agreement says that carriers can charge a “reasonable” fee to unlock devices for consumers who were never their customers, but should ultimately unlock the device if it’s eligible. I’ve asked the carriers what they are charging, and will update this post as I get answers.

How long does it take to unlock a device?

Unfortunately, if you’re not on Sprint, you’ll need to personally request an unlock for your phone to get the process started. But the good news is that carriers are required to inform you that your device is eligible for unlocking, most likely on your bill. (Newer phones from Sprint will see their SIM slots automatically unlock when they are eligible.) Carriers have two days after receiving an unlock request to get back to the customer.

And tablets are included too, right?

Yes. Tablets are included in these new policies. If you buy an LTE iPad from the Apple Store, it will be unlocked, but tablets purchased from your carrier store — like the nearly-free Alcatel tablet T-Mobile sells — will be locked, and tablets can be treated as a postpaid device, depending on the specific terms and agreements you agreed to when you purchased your tablet.

20 Responses to “Here’s how to unlock your phone under the new rules”

  1. Question: If I have a friend, who is an AT&T customer, and he shuts down the phone number, and gives me the phone, how do I go about getting it unlocked?

  2. Wayne Pusey

    I have an E71 Nokia Tracfone, from Straight Talk Wireless. I called them and asked to have my phone unlocked. They said it could not be unlocked and then hung up. Is this correct?

  3. Janet Leventhal

    Do I need to change my sim card to unlock the phone? The T-mobile store guy said I should buy a new card when I get to Germany, put it in, and then do the unlocking procedure. I’d like to do it now so I can trouble shoot before out of the country!

  4. I bought a phone on eBay from a company that recycles and sells mobile devices. I bought a tmobile phine I want to use with Cricket, the phone is locked and tmobile won’t unlock the code. The customer service rep said I have to be the original owner to unlock the phone. Is this their policy only. Because AT&T unlocked a phone that I bought on eBay. They ask for meid so they can see that it’s not under contract. What can I do about this?



  6. a few months ago a relative gave me an IPhone 4s that is locked. Can I take it to any carrier and have it unlocked and get service without signing a contract?

  7. I travel and work outside of the US. I purchased an UNLOCKED GSM phone in the US that I use with an AT&T Prepaid Plan for my personal phone. While out of the country, I was hoping to use another SIM card from the country where I work so that the phone will also function there. I’ve put the SIM card in the phone but it will neither make nor receive calls – Service Unavailable. Help please!

  8. Patricia Hudson

    I have a tablet,, to lock I use 4 dots! I even wrote down the 4 dots that I created to unlock tablet! Well its locked, and will not even prompt me or offer the choice ofr pop up to change password! Please can anyone HELP? I cannot get into tablet to call company! The tablet was givin to me w/o any paperwork.

  9. You should always try to unlock your phone for free from your original carrier (provided you have finished your contract and are in good standing)

    However, many will not want to fill out long forms, wait 2 days, get no technical support nor guarantees.

    If you want a fast reputable service, there are alternatives out there. Just make sure they:

    – Don’t force you to download unnecessary SOFTWARE! These are usually a scam.
    – Have a clearly stated privacy policy and terms of use
    – Don’t hide behind internet anonymity! i.e. Look for a physical address and ABOUT US page with names!
    – Will provide you with an invoice if requested.
    – Have REAL and VERIFIED customer testimonials.
    – Use SSL and secure checkout at payment.
    – Work with carriers and established partners.
    – Will issue full refund policy. No questions asked!

    Whatever you do, just be careful out there!

  10. What I can’t seem to find an answer to anywhere on the Internet is *when* I should unlock my phone.

    Assume for a moment that I am very happy with my carrier and have no intention of switching to another carrier–can/should I contact my current provider now to unlock my phone to leave my options open for the future? Or is unlocking something that has to be done only once you decide you’re looking for another carrier?

    I guess what it comes down to is–if I unlock it now, am I locked into finding a new carrier within a certain amount of time before I would need to unlock again?