In the past, carriers made it difficult to switch cell phone providers while bringing your own device (BYOD). Due to changes in FCC regulations, it is now easier to unlock mobile phones and switch providers. BYOD cell phone plans are becoming more popular due to the money saving potential.
GSM vs. CDMA
Different cell phone providers use different technologies; either GSM or CDMA. T-Mobile and AT&T operate on the GSM network technology, while Verizon and Sprint operate on the CDMA technology. For the consumer, this means that switching providers is generally limited to networks that operate on the same network technology, though there are some exceptions.
The difference between GSM and CDMA is that GSM-compatible devices use a SIM card to identify subscribers, whereas CDMA-compatible devices use only electronic serial numbers (ESN) to identify subscribers. A GSM compatible device still uses a serial number, but it's called an IMEI. A SIM card can be removed from one device and inserted into another within minutes using a phone from the same carrier, while a CDMA phone utilizing an ESN generally has to be reprogrammed.
Before Unlocking Your Cell Phone
Before unlocking a device, consumers should review available BYOD cell phone plans to ensure the plan and the network technology that the carrier operates on (CDMA or GSM) are compatible with their device. 4G LTE Technology allows for more flexibility for switching providers to BYOD cell phone plans between GSM and CDMA networks.
For example, some T-Mobile 4G LTE devices can be used on Verizon's LTE network because they both run on the same frequency spectrum. However, Sprint's LTE network is run on a different band of spectrum than T-Mobile or Verizon. Surprisingly, Sprint still will not activate any non-Sprint device on it's network.
Unlocking and The Four Major Carriers
Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are the four major cell phone providers in the U.S. Despite the recent changes in FCC regulations regarding unlocking cell phones, some carriers are easier to work with than others when unlocking your device to switch cell phone providers.
One requirement to unlock a cell phone and switch to a BYOD cell phone plan, regardless of carrier, is that the device must not have been reported as lost or stolen and cannot be associated with fraudulent activity. For GSM devices, this is tracked by the IMEI serial number and for CDMA devices this is tracked by the ESN.
How to Unlock a Verizon Phone (CDMA)
Making the switch from the Verizon network to a BYOD cell phone plan requires the device to be paid for in full if financed through Verizon Edge, the terms of the contract must be fulfilled and the account must be in good standing. Verizon has the most relaxed policy for unlocking cell phones amongst the four major carriers. In fact, Verizon actually does not lock the majority of their smart phones.
Exceptions with Verizon include postpaid non-iPhone Global Ready 3G Phones (though the following unlock codes can be used for these devices: try 000000 or 123456 to use these phones on a different carrier). For prepaid devices, Verizon Prepaid Phone-in-the-Box devices are locked to the carrier for the first 12 months after activation. After this, the same unlock codes (000000 or 123456) can be used to unlock a Verizon device.
Unlocked Verizon 4G LTE devices should still be able to be used on T-Mobile or AT&T plans, though Verizon operates on a different technology. To be sure, always check with the new potential carrier. Again, Sprint will not activate any non-Sprint device on it's network.
How to Unlock an AT&T Phone (GSM)
Similar to Verizon, the service plan commitment with AT&T Wireless must be fulfilled and the device must be paid in full if purchased through the AT&T Next Early Upgrade Program.
In addition, if there's been a recent upgrade, to unlock a previous device, there is a 14 waiting period. For AT&T Wireless postpaid plans, the account must have been active for the past 60 days and for prepaid plans; 6 months.
AT&T allows customers to apply for a device unlock online. Detailed device and account holder information is required to do so.
Unlocked AT&T 4G LTE devices should still be able to be used on T-Mobile or Verizon plans, though Verizon operates on a different technology. To be sure, always check with the new potential carrier. Again, Sprint will not activate any non-Sprint device on it's network.
How to Unlock a T-Mobile Phone (GSM)
T-Mobile limits the number of unlocks each customer can have per year. Before T-Mobile will unlock a device, it must have been actively used on T-Mobile's network for at least 40 days. T-Mobile is a bit more lax regarding contract fulfillment. At least 18 consecutive months of on-time payments must have been made. Alternately, there is the option to switch to a monthly Simple Choice plan. Either way, an account in good standing, with no overdue payments is required.
Financed phones through the EIP (equipment installment plan or T-Mobile JUMP!) must be paid off completely with no past due balances. For prepaid devices on the T-Mobile network, the account must be active for at least 12 months before being granted an unlock, though there are options for those who've been active for less than 12 months. Detailed device and account holder information is required to do so.
Exceptions are made for deployed military personnel who wish to unlock their T-Mobile devices.
Unlocked T-Mobile devices should be able to easily convert to AT&T. In some cases, an unlocked T-Mobile 4G LTE device can be converted to Verizon. Unfortunately, at this time, Sprint does not allow any non-Sprint device on it's network.
How to Unlock a Sprint Phone (CDMA)
Like the other major U.S. carriers, in order to unlock a Sprint device, the device must not have been reported as lost or stolen and can't be associated with any fraudulent activity, the contract must be fulfilled with no outstanding balance and financed phones (Sprint Easy Pay, Sprint Lease and iPhone for Life) must be paid in full.
Sprint customers now receive a notification when their device is eligible to unlock and phones launched (not purchased, launched) after February 2015 are automatically unlocked.
Sprint is unique in that they allow eligible customers to unlock their device for international travel. This does mean that the device will necessary be unlocked for domestic use. Sprint also does not require contract completion or handset payoff for deployment. Of course, documentation is required.
Activating a Sprint device on another carrier's network is more difficult compared to other cell phone providers. Sprint phones have been known to be mostly incompatible with the Verizon service.
On the other hand, some Sprint devices have dual compatibility meaning they support both GSM and CDMA. These phones are identified as "global" phones and may be able to be used on the T-Mobile and AT&T networks. The device itself determines compatibility as some global device features don't always function properly.
Other Cell Phone Provider Options
An MVNO is a mobile network virtual operator. An MVNO is a cell phone carrier that subsists on the network infrastructure and radio spectrum of a larger mobile network. They pay a wholesale fee and then sells the service at retail prices under their own branding. Essentially, an MVNO is more of a reseller versus a competitor. They are typically much smaller than their wholesaler and can afford to operate on lower profit margins, while providing more for the money.
BYOD Cell Phone Plans
Handset satisfaction doesn't always lead to satisfaction with a cell phone provider. Researching BYOD cell phone plans might lead to finding a cell phone provider that offers cost-savings as well as the ability to avoid lengthy cell phone contracts. Before unlocking, device compatibility should be checked with the potential cell phone provider of the BYOD Cell Phone Plan. MVNOs allow for more options to switch from GSM to GSM and CDMA to CDMA, however at the end of the day, the money still goes to the same place. After contract completion or paying off a financed cell phone is the perfect time to research BYOD cell phone plans to save money.
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