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