Unlocking a phone refers to altering the software so that it can work with any carrier. Most phones start out "locked", meaning that they will only function properly when they are used with the carrier that sold the phone to you. This can be annoying if you want to switch carriers but keep your phone, or if you want to use a phone that isn't issued by the carrier that holds your contract. Unlocking a phone disables the software that keeps a phone tied to a specific carrier. It is a very useful thing to know how to do, and usually it isn't that difficult.
History and Legality
Unlocking phones used to be illegal. Carriers hated the practice, because they wanted to control which phones would work on their network. They were also worried that if they permitted unlocking phones, people would switch away from their networks to the networks of the competition. As a result of these fears, the major carriers lobbied for unlocking phones to be made illegal.
However, pressure from the public and the Obama administration mounted to rescind the unpopular policy. After months of negotiations, the Federal Trade Commission and the five major carriers agreed to allow their customers to unlock phones. The major carriers also adopted a set of six principles to guide unlocking. These are the following:
First, disclosure - The carriers must maintain an up to date and easy to understand guide to unlocking their network's phones on their website, so that it is easy for consumers to access the information they need to unlock a phone.
Next, the prepaid unlocking policy - For all mobile devices that are prepaid, the carrier is required to unlock the device if the owner has owned the phone for at least one year and they request an unlock.
Third, the postpaid unlocking policy - If the phone is under a contract that does not involve paying off the price of the phone in advance, the carrier must either unlock the phone or provide detailed instructions for how to do so when the contract ends. This happens when the contract ends naturally, when the financing for the phone ends, or when the customer pays an early termination fee and leaves the contract.
The fourth policy is notice - If a carrier chooses to lock their phones, they are required either to notify customers when their phones become eligible for unlocking or simply unlock the phones automatically.
Next, response time - If a carrier gets a request to unlock a phone, and the phone is eligible for an unlock, the carrier must unlock the phone within two business days.
Last, the special deployed military personnel policy - Any customer that is in good standing and is a deployed member of the military should be automatically eligible for an unlocked phone.
These six policies place tight restrictions on carriers about how easy they need to make it to unlock phones. The carriers must comply with these policies by law. Furthermore, they do not only apply to phones. Tablets and similar devices that have contracts tied to a specific network fall under the same policies for unlocking.
Two Types of Network
Before getting into the actual mechanics of getting a phone unlocked, it's important to learn about the two major types of networks. There are two different standards for phone networks, and they are not compatible. Even after you unlock a phone from one type of network, it will be unable to work with the other type of network: this is a technological barrier, not an artificial restriction that the carriers have placed on their devices.
The first kind of network is called GSM. The major carriers that use this network are AT&T and T-Mobile. GSM stands for Global System for Mobiles, and in fact, most of the world uses the GSM standard for their networks. The reason that GSM is so popular outside the US is that the European Union mandated the use of GSM only within its territory. GSM was developed in Europe, which is why the EU decided to choose that standard for its sole legal standard.
The second kind of network is CDMA, which stands for Code Division Multiple Access. CDMA was developed by Qualcomm, a communications company in the United States. Sprint and Verizon are the largest carriers in the US that use the CDMA standard. CDMA was developed after GSM, and when it first hit the market, it was a faster and better standard. However, the two are now currently about even in terms of performance, because GSM has adapted many of the benefits of CDMA.
The bottom line is that the two networks are completely incompatible. There is no way to take a phone from GSM to CDMA, and vice versa. Unlocking won't do anything to change that.
How to Unlock a Phone
The procedure for unlocking a phone depends on the network standard. For GSM phones, the process is quite simple. Each GSM carrier has a list of requirements that anyone who wants to unlock their phone must meet- these correspond to the six policies outlined above. If your device and contract meet all of the requirements, then you go through a process on the carrier's website where you enter in your contract information so that the carrier can verify that you are eligible. After that, the carrier sends you information that is specific to your device, and you follow the instructions to finish the unlock process.
If it is a CDMA device, then the process is more complicated. This is because each individual carrier has their own list of permitted devices that work on their network. That means that it is a two-step process to use your phone on a different network. First, you need to get it unlocked the same way you would for a GSM phone- the steps are very similar. After that, however, you need to find the network that you want to switch to and ask them for permission to move the phone onto their network. They are under no obligation to accept your request, because the FTC agreement only covered unlocking, not the process of getting approved on a new network.
In either case, the exact steps for unlocking a phone vary by model and come from the manufacturer, so it isn't possible to list them all here. However, the carrier should send you detailed instructions after you make a request and they confirm that you are eligible for an unlocked phone.
The Bottom Line
Unlocking a phone can be a useful way to bring an old phone over to a new network, but you need to be aware of the issues that might prevent you from switching. Notably, you won't be able to cross the CDMA/GSM line no matter what. Furthermore, if you have a CDMA carrier, then you will have problems trying to switch between different carriers within that network standard. If you have a GSM phone, then unlocking it can be a good way to move across carriers. On the other hand, if you have CDMA, then you might just be better off getting a new phone with a new contract when you switch carriers. The hassle of getting a phone unlocked and then reapproved for a new network might not be worth the effort, because CDMA companies are reluctant to allow their competitors' phones on their network.
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