Kathy writes:

“Hi, I’m not familiar with unlocking a phone so that it can be used ex-US. Do you have articles you can point to that discuss locked phones, etc?”

Why, yes I do, Kathy.  As a matter of fact, here’s one now!

I spent about 2 1/2 years working for a “major cell provider”, so I am kind of in a unique position to answer this question for you.  This was probably one of the most frequent questions that I was asked. 

What does it mean that a phone is “locked”?

There are several situations that will cause a person to say that their phone is locked.  One is a “screen lock”, which you just have to enter a passcode or a swipe to unlock.  The second is a “SIM lock”, which means that you’ve entered incorrect passcodes too many times and this requires a PUK code to unlock, which you can get from your provider.  The kind of lock that we’re addressing here means that your device is “locked” to a single provider, and can only be used on that provider’s network.

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Why would I want to unlock my phone?

There are two primary reasons for someone to want to unlock a phone.  One is to move the phone to another provider, and the other is to use the phone internationally without paying for international service.  One caution… if you get a call from your provider saying that someone has tried to unlock a phone on your account, don’t panic.  Simply add a passcode to your account so that no one but you can access it.  This happens because people will steal phones in America and sell them wholesale to overseas outfits which will hack user’s accounts in the US and try to unlock the phones wholesale so that they can sell them there.  The phone companies are figuring out ways to stop this, but crooks are always ready to come up with a new scam.

How do I unlock my phone?

That depends on a couple of factors.  The first is your provider.  Many Sprint phones, for example, have a solid-state SIM card (which can’t be removed), so they can’t be unlocked.  Your provider will probably also require any contract that you have with them to be completed before they will unlock the device.  And don’t let these “no-contract” plans, such as T-Mobiles “jump” or A T & T’s “next” fool you.  Although you don’t have a contract, you are buying the phone on installments and will probably be required to finish paying off the retail cost of the phone before they will unlock it.   A contract by any other name stinks just as badly.

The good news is that once you have met the requirements of your provider, it’s pretty easy to unlock a phone.  The first step is to all your provider.  They  will ask for some information such as the IMEI number of the device (the unique phone identifier), your name, the phone number that was/is attached to the phone and some personally identifying information such as your social security number.  If your device is an Iphone, the unlock has to be processed through Apple and typically takes anywhere from two days to two weeks.  Once you receive a confirmation, hook your phone up to Itunes, do a backup and restore and you’re done.  For any other type of phone, you will be given an unlock code and instructions for unlocking the device.  Typically this involves putting a SIM card from another provider in your phone and entering the unlock code when prompted. 

One final note… if you are buying a second hand phone, verify that the phone is unlocked or that it is locked to the provider that you want to use it on.  Since you won’t have information such as the phone number that the phone was used on, you won’t be able to unlock it.

I hope that this helps!

~ Randal Schaffer