Typically when you purchase a smartphone or tablet from a specific carrier, it is locked to that network for the lifetime of your contract, or possibly for the life of the device. Certain carriers had policies, but there was no one standard. Last year Congress and the President made it illegal for carriers to lock devices to their network. In the wake of that decision, the CTIA (the interest group for the carriers) called for a meeting of the carriers to discuss unlocking and starting February 11th, unlocking will be far easier. The FCC has outlined every single change in their own document, but this is a condensed version of that document to make it easier to understand.
What does this version of “unlocked” truly mean.
- The CTIA is implying that the type of unlock is a true SIM card unlocking, so you will be able to take your unlocked device and stick any SIM card into it and it should work on the other networks. While Verizon sold devices unlocked and AT&T and T-Mobile let you unlock your device and the end of your 2-year contract or payment plan, Sprint only was able to unlock devices for overseas use. Now they are required to also fully unlock devices domestically, albeit with one catch. If a phone was launched on Sprint before February 11th, it will still only be able to be unlocked for international use. No domestic lock will be available for phones from before February 11th onto any carrier.
Where are the individual carriers’ unlocking policies?
Will I be able to unlock my phone immediately on February 11th?
- In a short answer, no. For a long answer, your contract term will have to be completed or your installment plan (this includes AT&T Next, Verizon Edge, T-Mobile JUMP, Sprint Easy Pay) will have to be paid off. If the phone was bought for a subsidized price, your 2-year agreement will either have to be completed or you terminate the contract and pay an early termination fee (ETF). If you are eligible, you will have to wait 48 hours for the carriers to complete your request.
When will I know when I can unlock my phone?
- The new policy states that carriers will have to provide notice to consumer when a phone is eligible to be unlocked in a “clear” way. The language is unclear and some carriers dislike having to provide notice to their customers that they do not have to be with them anymore, but once this policy is in effect we should start seeing what that means from customers either emerging from their contract or paying it off. If you are a prepaid subscriber, a carrier only is required to tell you when the phone can be unlocked when you purchase it, with no further notices required. So if you are a prepaid customer, maybe mark it in your calendar with a reminder at the time of sale.
Can I unlock my phone before the required commitment without paying an ETF?
- It depends on the situation, but a carrier might unlock your device if you are in good standing, are a business customer, or any other reason, such as being a veteran. But if the carrier will not unlock your device, there are numerous services online that will do that for you, for GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) carrier-branded phones. Costs can range anywhere from $10 to north of $100 per the device and carrier. Sprint and Verizon services are available, but they are much harder to find. And before you purchase an unlock from one of these vendors, make sure they are reliable first.
If I do nothing until my phone is eligible, will it unlock automatically?
- So far, only Sprint has said that they will automatically unlock phones once the contract or installment plan has been fulfilled (if the phone was sold after February 2015). All other major carriers require customers to request their device being unlocked. Some Verizon devices are SIM unlocked when purchased, but those that aren’t will need to be unlocked by the carrier. All AT&T, T-Mobile, and US Cellular devices require a request from the carrier to be unlocked, but T-Mobile ships an app on their newer phones to request an unlock. This is by far the easiest method, as it requires just the push of a button, instead of AT&T, who requires a form to be submitted.
If I unlock my phone, will I be charged?
- If you are not a customer of the carrier that the phone is unlocked to, then yes. A carrier may charge a “reasonable” fee to unlock the device. The carriers haven’t revealed prices for that yet, nor have they confirmed that they will charge at all, so we’ll have to wait and see. But no matter if you are charged or not charged, all eligible devices are required to be unlocked. So if you purchased an AT&T phone for use on T-Mobile, as long as the payments were fulfilled and the device has a good IMEI, it will be unlocked.
What is the policy for prepaid customers?
- All of the major prepaid carriers are part of this policy as well. This includes AT&T GoPhone, T-Mobile Prepaid, MetroPCS, Verizon Prepaid, Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Sprint Prepaid. The requirements are different however. Phones bought on prepaid must be unlockable after 1 year from purchase date, but carriers can add requirements that the phone was used with a paid account during the duration. The requirements must be “reasonable,” but that’s as detailed as they get.
What carrier should I go with if I want the best unlocking policy?
- Verizon, actually. Almost all of the modern smartphones are unlocked out of the box and work with various GSM carriers around the world, even with AT&T and T-Mobile (though due to any band differences, the phone might not work as well on other networks).
What carrier has the worst unlocking policy?
- The offender here is AT&T. You must submit an online request to unlock your device with a phone number, IMEI number, the account holder’s first and last name, the last 4 digits of your social security number, your AT&T account password, your email, home address, and fill out a captcha.
Can I use [A phone] on [B network]?
- For 3G and possibly HSPA+, yes. With LTE it gets trickier. With 3G, almost every phone sold on the carriers is interoperable with each other, even with Sprint. If you are taking an off-network phone from one carrier to another, the highest likely answer is “no”, except for the recent iPhones and the Nexus 6. Though those still won’t work on Sprint however. For LTE, very little of the carriers share the same LTE bands, so cross-compatibility might not be possible. All four of the big carriers share 1900MHz PCS (Band 2), but this all depends on your geographic area. T-Mobile and Verizon share the 1700f Band 4 network, so that should work too, if it’s in your area. Another issue is that AT&T and T-Mobile phones don’t generally work on Verizon or Sprint (aside from the Nexus 6 and recent iPhones) because those carriers still require CDMA support on their devices.
What is the best phone for switching between carriers domestically or internationally?
- If you are switching domestically, the Nexus 6 is by far the best device. It will work on all of the carriers’ different networks out of the box, which the iPhone 6 still can’t do. For international travelers, there isn’t a great selection if you’re using a domestic device internationally. There are almost no LTE roaming agreements on any carriers except AT&T. However, most Android smartphones have the capability of using the most popular frequencies around the world. But if you want the best LTE, you’re going to have to use AT&T. So once again, the Nexus 6 is still your best bet.
That is the majority of the changes that are coming with this new unlocking policy. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and ask. Again, the new rules for unlocking go into effect starting February 11th.