What’s the Deal with Unlocked Phones?


Recently, there has been a lot of talk about unlocked phones, thanks to a bill regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the exemption of these devices. But what exactly is an unlocked phone?

“Did you say ‘unlocked’ phone? That sounds sketchy…”

You may be surprised, but unlocked phones can be very practical for certain users! Are you someone who would benefit from one? Read on to find out:

What is an Unlocked Phone?

First things first, let’s talk about what an unlocked phone actually is. Usually when you purchase a phone, it is “locked” to a specific mobile carrier. Some carriers offer unlocked versions of their phones, or you can unlock a phone yourself. Unlocking a phone typically involves entering a specific code to enable you to swap out the SIM card, or completely reprogramming the phone’s software (depending on the technology).

“Okay… so?”

So, say you want to switch up service providers. With a locked phone, you can’t take your AT&T phone, for example, walk on over to T-Mobile and say, “Hey, I want your network on my phone.” You want a new network? You’ll have to get a new phone.

“But I love my phone,” you say. “I want to keep it.”

Well… with an unlocked phone, you can! Unlocking a phone enables you to use it with different mobile carriers. Say you want to bring that AT&T phone on over to us here at Pure TalkUSA. If it’s unlocked and compatible, all you have to do is purchase a plan. We’ll give you a new SIM card and voila! You now have our service on your old phone. Some carriers even offer unlocked versions of their phone models up front.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. You might have noticed we said unlocked and compatible.

It all comes back to GSM vs. CDMA phones.

Wait… that sounds familiar. This has something to do with SIM cards, right?

Exactly! You probably remember from our post about SIM cards that GSM phones require SIM cards, while CDMA phones don’t. This makes your phone a bit more complicated than locked vs. unlocked.

Remember how, in the example above, you brought your old phone to us and we swapped out the SIM card? Well, CDMA phones don’t have SIM cards. So, if you want to unlock your CDMA phone, you’re going to have to reprogram the device to be compatible with another network.

What does this mean?

 This means a couple of things:

1) Your phone can only work on a network with the same technology: If you want to unlock your phone in order to switch service providers, you have to stay within the same technology. This means (with a few rare exceptions) CDMA phones can only use CDMA networks, and GSM phones can only use GSM networks. You can’t take your unlocked Sprint or Verizon phone (CDMA) and add a GSM network (like us).

2) Phones unlock in different ways: As we mentioned before, a CDMA phone has to be reprogrammed to be unlocked, because it does not have a SIM card. With a GSM phone, however, just enter a specific code to unlock the device. Afterwards, swap out SIM cards to switch service providers.

3) CDMA phones must be programmed with every carrier you use: Unlocking a CDMA phone isn’t a one and done deal. Every time you switch service providers with a CDMA phone, you have to reprogram, or unlock, the phone for the new network.

Should I unlock my phone?

Based on your needs, an unlocked phone can be very convenient. If you plan on switching service providers, unlocking your phone after fulfilling your contract obligations can save you a good deal of money in the process- no new phone costs!

Unlocking your phone can also give you more phone choices when switching carriers. With an unlocked phone, you are not restricted by a specific carrier’s phone selection. If you have a phone with compatible technology (and it’s unlocked), you can use it with the new service.

Also, unlocked phones are incredibly useful for abroad travel. If your service provider doesn’t offer coverage where you’re traveling, you are probably subject to cringe-worthy roaming charges. With an unlocked phone, you can purchase a SIM card locally, have a local number, and avoid these charges. More souvenir money!

Are there any downsides to unlocking my phone?

Just like all pros, there are some cons to unlocking your phone. If you buy an unlocked phone, they often don’t come with as many features as traditional locked phones. These phones are designed specifically for a particular network, so some special features may be limited to service-specific, locked phones.

Another downside of purchasing an unlocked phone is expense. Unlocked phones tend to be pricier than their locked counterparts because you can use any service provider. Locked phones lock you into a specific carrier (pun intended). With unlocked phones, you can choose your provider, and that luxury isn’t free.

Also, techies don’t recommend trying to unlock your phone yourself. If done improperly, your phone can become unusable. That would be bad—what would you do without those late night Angry Birds sessions?

Is this even legal?

Well, if you buy an unlocked phone, of course it’s legal!

As far as unlocking the phone yourself, this was recently in debate. Prior to 2012, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exempted unlocked cell phones. Under this exemption, users could unlock their phones or authorize someone to do it for them (which techies recommend), as long as they had complied with their original terms of service.

However, in a highly contested decision, the Liberian of Congress reversed this exemption. This action made it illegal for consumers to unlock their own phones without permission from service providers, even after their contract was complete.

Sound unfair? Congress (and consumers) seemed to think so, too. A bill was just signed by President Obama that will essentially reinstate the exemption, making it legal for users to unlock their phones, without service providers’ permission, after they have completed their terms of service with said providers.

Update – 02.13.2015

As of February 12, 2015, US carries must unlock customers’ phones after they’ve fulfilled the terms of their contract, as part of the voluntary Consumer Code for Wireless Service. For customers with prepaid phones, providers must unlock the devices no later than one year after activation.  

This comes on the heels of President Obama’s move to reinstate the unlocked phone exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Providers must inform customers of their unlocking policy, notify customers when their phone is eligible to be unlocked, and complete unlock requests in two business days.

Make sure you’re up to speed with your provider’s policies and your unlocking eligibility!

I didn’t know there was so much to know about unlocked phones!

Right? Who knew you had so many options when it came to your phone!

Remember, just like deciding between a GSM or CDMA phone, determining whether or not you should get an unlocked phone is based on your own needs. Do you want to keep your phone, but switch providers? Are you moving to a provider with the same technology? Do you need coverage to avoid roaming charges?

If you’re looking to switch providers but would like to keep your phone, see if your phone is compatible with our services.

And, as always, if you have more questions regarding unlocked cell phones, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. We’d love to talk with you further!

Share this:Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest