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Unlocked Phones: How and Why to Do It

An unlocked phone is one not tied down to a specific carrier network. If you want to use an unlocked phone, what are the practical implications? Who sells unlocked phones? What carriers let you unlock theirs and activate others? BYTE explores these issues and tells you why you might want an unlocked phone and how you'd go about buying one and getting service for it.

Consumers can Purchase an Unlocked Phone

In many cases, consumers can purchase unlocked phones outright. You can purchase them from a number of different sources, including importers. And many do. This opens up a LOT of options related to carriers and pay-as-you-go-plans. For example, you can get on a plan without purchasing a phone, but carriers don't always make it easy, nor do they like to do this.

iPhone in the USA: Unlocked and costs an arm and a leg

The one thing you have to remember when working with a new unlocked phone — i.e. one you're purchasing for use right now — is you're not (necessarily) going to pay for the device over the life of your contract but your up front costs will be higher. However, you will likely save money over the usable life of the device.

How to Activate Your Unlocked Phone

There's a big problem with moving a phone between networks, especially in the U.S.: Different carriers use different network technologies and frequencies. You can't move a CDMA phone (from Verizon, for instance) to a GSM network (like T-Mobile's). Even LTE networks aren't directly interchangeable. As a general matter, unlocked phones work best with GSM phones on GSM networks. In such cases it's a fairly simple matter of swapping SIM cards. LTE networks also use SIM cards, but the networks use different bands and frequency ranges.

Apple unlocked iPhone won't work on CDMA, so don't think you'll take it to Verizon. Apple's site is somewhat cryptic about LTE support; on the one hand, it says it "only works on supported GSM networks," on the other hand it points you to a list of carriers that support iPhones on LTE. The intimation is that it can be programmed to work on different LTE networks, but we haven't tried this and don't know if it can be done.

The unlocked iPhone only works on supported GSM networks, such as AT&T in the U.S. When you travel internationally, you can also use a nano-SIM card for iPhone 5 from a local GSM carrier. The unlocked iPhone 5 is model A1428. For details on LTE support see www.apple.com/iphone/LTE. The unlocked iPhone will not work with CDMA carriers such as Verizon Wireless or Sprint. Learn more about the unlocked iPhone

Be that as it may, all four major carriers have slightly different, and in some cases complex policies regarding unlocked phones. Overall GSM networks tended to be more willing to work with customers with unlocked phones — probably because SIM cards make changing carriers relatively straightforward. Because CDMA technology makes phones less reliable when brought to another carrier, CDMA network providers are willing to work with unlocked phones, but cautioned us that there may be problems. We talked with the four big carriers in the U.S. about their specific policies.

A spokesperson at GSM-based AT&T said in an email to BYTE that the carrier allows unlocking a smartphone under the following circumstances: "...if a customer's account is in good standing, and that the device can't be associated with a "current and active term commitment." The spokesperson went on to clarify, "[the customer] needs to have fulfilled their contract term, upgraded under one of our upgrade policies or paid an early termination fee. The statement also said AT&T is "happy" to sell a SIM card to a customer with an unlocked GSM phone.

BYTE's Steve Brier unlocked his AT&T iPhone. Click here to read about this adventure.

An email sent from AT&T as part of the official unlocking process.

Interestingly enough, CDMA-based Verizon doesn't lock its phones in the U.S., a spokesperson told BYTE in an email. Internationally, it's another story. Verizon has "specific polices for international unlocking," the spokesperson said, and "is prohibited from locking phones in the 700Mhz spectrum." The issue, according to the company, stems from copyright law and "...isn't something that will change our policies or practices at all — we don't lock our phones domestically..." the spokesperson wrote.

A spokesperson at GSM-based T-Mobile told BYTE in an email that customers should thoroughly understand the company's policy. Although different policies and specific details apply for each type of plan, generally customers who wish to unlock their phones must be in good standing, have paid for their device and have fulfilled any contractual obligations to the company.

T-Mobile has a wide variety of calling plans for unlocked GSM phones. (Click image for a larger version)

With regards to bringing unlocked phones to the T-Mobile network, the company said it welcomes the practice but recommends customers contact their phone's manufacturer to request the unlock code for their device, according to the spokesperson.

Sprint, a CDMA network, locks phones it sells, claiming that the company does so to "... protect many of a device's features and functions against tampering and unauthorized re-programming," a spokesperson said in an email to BYTE. Sprint will provide customers with the device's "Master Subsidy Lock Code," a string of numbers required to unlock a device, once a contract term is complete and so long as the customer is in good standing.

Sprint is reluctantly willing to activate devices that are unlocked and from another network, the company spokesperson said, adding the caveat that while voice may function, other features and services may not.

Next: So what's best for you, locked or unlocked

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/1/2013 | 8:19:24 AM
re: Unlocked Phones: How and Why to Do It
Unlocked phones became very popular in Europe years before the US but I'm glad they are becoming more popular, services are getting cheaper and contracts are soon going to be a thing of the past. Unlocked Phones Depot carries a large selection of Unlocked Phones I've found: www.unlockedphonesdepot.com
User Rank: Apprentice
12/1/2013 | 10:02:24 AM
unlocked phones
I've travel to the USA and UK a lot, and used to use a Blackberry 8310 iwith T-Mobile and a pre-paid plan when in the USA. However, in 2012 I couldn't get emails and was told my phone was too old. I was given a Verizen Blackberry Bold 9650 by a friend. I asked Verizen to unlock it: they wouldn't. So I purchased a key online to unlock it. Next time in the US I had again a T-Mobile prepaid SIM, and put it in the new phone.

Calls OK (once the settings were switched to GSM and 2G/3G by the third T-Mobile shop I visited!), texts OK: no data services (none of my email accounts were recognised). No T-Mobile shop should fix it Is there a way to receive emails?

Secondly, my phone, especially when in the South, would give me a dialogue box reading 'Congestion.' Never in my life have I seen this before. Do you know what it means?

Thanks for any and all help.

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