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What is an Unlocked Phone?

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When you’re searching for a phone deal, you may have seen phones described as “locked” and “unlocked” but not really understood what they mean – or even been worried that an unlocked phone was illegal or that a locked phone wouldn’t work. 

These terms can be confusing, so we break it all down right here. The most important thing to note is that neither unlocked nor locked phones are inherently bad. In short, a locked phone can only work with one carrier, while an unlocked phone can work with any carrier.  

What It Means to Have an Unlocked Phone

As we mentioned, an unlocked phone is a phone that is not tied to a specific phone carrier. If you have an unlocked phone, you can use it with any cell phone carrier. For example, you can buy an unlocked phone from Best Buy and use it with AT&T, Spectrum Mobile, or any other carrier you like.

Buying an unlocked phone allows you to switch between different networks anytime without taking extra steps to get it unlocked. 

What’s the Difference Between a Locked and Unlocked Phone?

When you buy a phone from a carrier, it’s normally locked to that carrier, at least to start with. This means you can only use your cell phone with that provider. This is because it has embedded software that purposely limits its functionality. 

It is possible to unlock a locked phone — you’ll just have to go to your network and request that they unlock it. While this process can be time-consuming, it is free. 

Why Unlock Your Phone? 

There are many benefits of having an unlocked phone instead of a locked one. The main one is that it gives you increased flexibility to use your phone with any carrier and does not subject you to contracts or commitments. You can opt for a prepaid plan or month-to-month plan instead of signing up for a long-term commitment with a service provider.

Unlocking your phone may be particularly useful if traveling in another country and moving between regions. Having an unlocked phone means you’ll be able to easily switch your SIM card out and temporarily replace it with a SIM card with better coverage for your area.

For example, if you’re traveling overseas but don’t have great travel perks with your carrier, you can buy a local prepaid SIM card to use with your phone until you return home. Some unlocked phones will also allow you to use dual SIM cards on your phone. This means you’ll be able to access networks abroad while still keeping your existing SIM card, so you wouldn’t even have to switch SIM cards out – just add the new one in.

If you’re considering selling your phone, an unlocked phone will also have a higher resale value. This is because it will appeal to a broader range of buyers than a locked phone that can only be used with a specific provider. 

Cons of Buying an Unlocked Phone 

While there are several benefits to buying an unlocked phone, there are also some downsides. When you get a locked phone with a carrier, the carrier will sometimes subsidize the cost of the phone to some degree, or offer financing options. If you buy an unlocked phone, you’ll typically face a higher upfront cost as you’ll have to pay full price for the phone. 

There’s also more danger of fraud, especially if you’re buying from a third-party retailer like Amazon or eBay where phone purchases are less regulated. Where possible, you should request a warranty to reduce the risk of potential issues.

How to Tell if Your Phone is Unlocked

You may wonder, “How do I know if my phone is unlocked?” Fortunately, it’s easy to determine this quickly. While it differs based on the phone model and manufacturer, the one surefire way to figure it out is by calling your current carrier and asking. 

You can also check the settings on your phone. Let's break it down by manufacturer.

How to Check If Your iPhone Is Unlocked

If you have an iPhone, you can go to Settings > General > About. Your phone is unlocked if “No SIM restrictions” is next to your Network Provider Lock. 

How to Check If Your Android Phone Is Unlocked

On an Android device, go to Settings > Connections/Network > Internet > Mobile Network > Choose Network. You can assume it is unlocked if you can choose from several available networks. If only one network is available, it is locked. 

If all else fails and you're still confused about whether your phone is locked or not, remember you can simply contact your carrier. They can let you know the status of your phone.

Followed those steps and found that your phone is not unlocked? Here’s how you can unlock your phone.

How to Unlock a Phone: General Considerations

In all cases, if you’ve finished your contract and your account is in good standing, providers will do this for free and automatically. If you're not there yet, then the easiest way to unlock your phone is to contact your phone provider and request a Network Unlock Code (NUC). Even if you’re still in your contract, major networks will still unlock your phone for free.

Depending on your phone carrier, you may have to wait for a specified period before you can do this. For instance, AT&T specifies on its website that you must wait 60 days from your phone purchase date to submit an unlock request. However, Verizon automatically unlocks phones sixty days after purchase without you needing to do anything.

How to Unlock an Android Phone

Unlocking an Android phone is a relatively simple, straightforward process. All you have to do is contact your carrier once you’ve met the requirements. Each carrier will have a specific process that it will use to unlock your phone, which often depends on which Android device you use.

Here’s a general breakdown of the steps involved, although remember these may vary based on your phone model and provider:

  1. Contact your carrier: Contact your current network provider and request that they unlock your phone. This may take a few days to complete.
  2. Swap your SIM card: If you don’t have an extra active SIM card, you can borrow a SIM card from a friend or family member on a different network. Turn off your phone and replace your previous SIM card with a new SIM card from a different provider. Then turn your phone back on.
  3. Test to see if it works: Test to see if you can send an SMS message, make a phone call, or access the internet using your new SIM card. If it works, your phone is officially unlocked. If not, contact your carrier for more assistance. 
  4. No SIM card: If you don’t have a SIM card to swap, you can just follow the steps in our earlier section covering how to check if your Android phone is unlocked.

After you follow this process, your Android phone is now unlocked.

How to Unlock an iPhone 

It’s a common misconception that Apple can unlock your iPhone. But this is not the case. Only your current network provider can unlock your iPhone. 

If you want to unlock your iPhone, here’s a simple step-by-step process: 

  1. Contact your carrier: Get in touch with your provider and request that they unlock your phone.
  2. Swap SIM cards: If you have an active SIM card from a carrier other than your current carrier, simply swap them out and your device will complete the unlock process to activate on the new network.
  3. Test to see if it works: Send a test text or try to access the internet on your swapped SIM card. Does it work? Then your iPhone is unlocked. 
  4. No SIM card: If you don’t have another SIM card to use, back up your iPhone, erase your iPhone, and then restore your iPhone from the backup you just made. This will complete the unlock process.

What if your iPhone still isn’t unlocked after following these steps? If you get a message telling you that the SIM card is not supported and you’re using a device running iOS 14 or later, go to Settings > General > About. You should be able to see a message that says, “No SIM restrictions.” If you can’t see this, you should contact your network provider.

Note that if you’re using iOS 13 or earlier, you will need to contact your network provider to check whether the unlock is in progress. 

Can You Put Any SIM Card Into an Unlocked Phone?

Yes, you can put any SIM card into an unlocked phone to connect to any network. This is different from locked phones, which only accept the SIM card provided by the network carrier. 

Unlocking Versus Rooting (or Jailbreaking)

Unlocking a phone shouldn’t be confused with rooting (or jailbreaking) a phone. While unlocking a phone allows users to use any SIM card, rooting accesses and rewrites the files in the phone’s operating system. This gives you more administrative control and flexibility to customize your device. Jailbreaking voids your device's warranty, so consider carefully if you want to do this.

The Bottom Line 

In short, opting for an unlocked phone allows you to use any phone carrier’s network and does not tie you into a contract. Once you've run out your contract with a provider, you can always choose to unlock your phone to be able to use it with any carrier in the future.

In the market for a new phone? Whether you're looking for the best offers, which typically come with locked phones, or prefer the flexibility of unlocked phones, we've got you covered. Navi's free, unbiased Phone Deal Finder can find the best cell phone deals for both locked and unlocked phones. We look at all the major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, as well as popular retailers like Best Buy and Apple to make sure we find you the best deals possible, no matter what you're looking for.

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