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US wireless carriers now *have* to unlock our phones
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US wireless carriers now legally have to unlock our phones

Are you a US mobile phone owner? Good news: you just regained your freedom to unlock your device and take it to another network.

Image of locked phone courtesy of ShutterstockAfter two years behind bars and a whole lot of petition-signing, US mobile phone owners have regained their gadgets’ freedom: we now have the ability to legally unlock our phones and take them to whatever network carrier has compatible cell towers.

The major US wireless carriers promised to unlock customers’ phones or tablets – as long as we’re done paying for them, that is – beginning on 11 February.

Unlocking new cell phones first became illegal in January 2012.

On 21 February 2013, two days before the deadline to get enough petition signers to trigger the administration into re-examining the issue, 100,000 annoyed people demanded that the right to unlock their phones be restored.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was passed and signed by the President 18 months later, but by that time the telcos had already privately agreed to unlocking.

Not that they had much choice, mind you: Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler told the carriers they could either comply with his terms or face regulation.

Here’s part of the wireless industry’s new rules on mobile phone unlocking:

Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee.

How to react? Let the bells of freedom ring, or muster a slow clap?

Quartz’s Dan Frommer characterizes the new rules as something of a qualified hooray.

But between carrier subsidies and payment plans, most Americans won’t be able to unlock their phones and move to a new carrier until the contract’s up – at which time, we’re most likely ready to upgrade our phones, making it a moot point. If you’ve prepaid your phone, carriers have to unlock it.

Sooner or later, that is (emphasis added):

Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.

The new rules dictate that the telcos have to notify phone owners when their handsets are eligible for unlocking and respond to requests for how to do it within two working days, so owners of even prepaid phones shouldn’t have to spend the entire year guessing at when they’ll be able to move to a new carrier.

But then too, there’s cell tower compatibility to think about.

Verizon and Sprint are CDMA only, so you’ll need a CDMA-friendly device to use them.

T-Mobile US and AT&T are GSM.

But if you’ve got an iPhone that supports GSM and CDMA, you’re golden: go whither thou wanteth.

Some are, understandably, a bit confused by the news, thinking that it was already legal to unlock once the contract was over. But for a while, it was, at least technically, illegal.

Now, even a carrier like Sprint, which used to refuse unlocks, has to let you go.

Will things change much?

Well, it could be handy to have an unlocked phone for overseas travel or to hand to kids or visitors to use with a prepaid SIM card, for example.

It will also mean that we may see more handsets available when we go shopping at resellers, given that they can unlock handsets before selling them.

More shopping options in the phone store?

Unqualified hooray!

Image of locked phone courtesy of Shutterstock.


I’ve ditched contracts and subsidized phones. I just buy the phone I want and shop for the plan I want. It’s so much easier than the contract BS.


Good for you! I do exactly the same thing. No worry about roaming charges; I just get a free or almost free local Simcard when abroad, and a cheap short term contract for the duration of my stay, with a heavily discounted foreign use addition. It’s much cheaper than having to phone via the UK to order an Australian takeaway or taxi. And it’s cheaper to phone home too!


Didnt say anything about the Straightalk, Tracfone, or Net10. How does this apply to them too? Have a locked Galaxy S3 from Straightalk that needs unlocking so I can get all the junk apps off of it I never use.


When I unlocked an original Galaxy from AT&T so I could go to T Mobil I was not able to remove bloat ware… Think it is a Samsung thing.


There are two sides to “unlocking” phones (or other mobile devices). There’s unlocking the actual telephony part so that the phone will connect to and make calls/send data on anyone’s cellular network. And there’s unlocking the operating system so that you can change the higher-level software. (The latter sort of unlocking is usually called “rooting” on Android and “jailbreaking” on iOS, for historical reasons.)

Sounds like you need to _root_ your phone, so you can reinstall the operating system and choose your pre-installed software to suit yourself. (Try the xda-developers website, perhaps?)


Does this mean that carriors must allow you to unlock the phone’s bootloader too? Because I would love to be able to install cyanogenmod on my smart phone without having to buy one that comes unlocked.


I doubt it. (But IANAL, not in any country of the world.)

After all, my iPhone is unlocked from a network perspective – I can put in any SIM from any mobile provider in any country and it’ll work – but the OS is nevertheless locked down tight. I can jailbreak it if I figure out how, but Apple has no obligation to give me any help. On the contrary: Apple is allowed to try to re-lock my jailbroken phone, for example if I later update if with one of Apple’s “fixes.”

Ask around. It may be possible to “root” your phone (Android’s version of a jailbreak), unlock the bootloader, install what you like. (You might want to check with a lawyer that it’s legal in your jusridiction.)


UNLOCKING is different from ROOTING. When you UNLOCK your smartphone, it allows you to use it on any compatible cell network. When you ROOT or JAILBREAK it, it allows you to modify the system software or install new software from unofficial channels (e.g. via Cydia on iOS).


If I root, will I later need to unlock it?


Depends. You can have a rooted phone that is still locked to a specific carrier. (Just as you can have an unlocked phone, e.g. an Apple Store iPhone, that is unrooted, or in iDevice parlance, unjailbroken.)


Keep in mind that modern LTE devices may work on any US carrier as Sprint and Verizon now support LTE in many markets. So CDMA phones with LTE are somewhat carrier agnostic. You can usually tell if you CDMA device supports LTE as it will have a SIM card.


In Singapore all handsets have to be sold unlocked. You are free to buy the handset in one shop, and the simcard, whether on contract or Pay as you Go, in another shop. Ofcom should insist on that here.


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