One of the most frustrating things about cellular devices is the practice of carriers "locking" them so that they can not be used on other networks.
Locking phones prevents users from keeping their current phones as they change carriers, decreases the resale value of used devices, and locking is especially frustrating for international travelers - blocking the usage of local phone plans and forcing travelers into paying expensive international roaming rates.
And though there were occasionally ways around the locks - until congress took action last July, any consumer unlocking their own phone was technically breaking the law.
Under pressure from the FCC, in 2013 the major US carriers agreed to implement a code of "voluntary industry principles" to allow customers in good standing to easily unlock their phones - and today is the final deadline by which all carriers agreed to comply.
The key provisions:
Postpaid Unlocking Policy. 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.
Prepaid Unlocking Policy. 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.
In other words - once your device is paid off, the locks come off.
Smartphones & Tablets - But What About Hotspots?
The carriers are clear that the new policies apply to Phones and Tablets, but whether or not they will unlock mobile hotspots remains less clear. Hotspots tend to be closely integrated with the carriers they are designed to work with - so unlocking may not make much sense.
If anyone has any successes or failures to report with hotspot unlocking - we'd love to hear about them.
Unlocking Does Not Guarantee Compatibility!
Unlocking isn't the whole story however.
Cellular carriers use different frequencies and networking technology - and just because a device is unlocked that does not mean it will suddenly become magically compatible with every other carrier.
In particular - the CDMA radios used for Verizon's and Sprint's voice network just physically do not exist in most GSM phones sold for T-Mobile and AT&T's networks, meaning that many GSM phones are just plain incompatible with the CDMA network.
On the other hand - essentially all LTE phones from Verizon and Sprint have support for GSM, and can talk to at least some of the frequencies used by AT&T and T-Mobile.
In general - the newer and more advanced a phone is, the more carriers and frequencies it can support.
But to avoid disappointment - do your homework and double check compatibility!
Breaking Your Shackles & Getting Unlocked
Here are the links to the pages with the unlock policies and procedures for the major carriers:
- Verizon - Verizon has never locked LTE devices, thanks to provisions in place as part of the auction Verizon won to buy its LTE frequencies.
- AT&T - AT&T devices are normally sold locked, but now there is an online form in place to request an unlock. Some people have recently noticed that their devices have auto-unlocked when their contracts have ended.
- Sprint - Sprint is the most frustrating carrier regarding unlocking, even with the new policies. Most current Sprint devices are actually not technically able to be unlocked for use on other domestic networks (international is different), and only devices introduced from February 2015 onward will be designed to allow for domestic unlocking. The iPhone 5s, 5c, 6, and 6+ seem to be the only exceptions from Sprint's current portfolio that can be unlocked. Sprint is also known to block the use of unlocked devices originally sold on other carriers networks, making bringing outside devices to Sprint's network notoriously difficult. Sprint even warns that unlocked Sprint devices may be blocked from future use on the Sprint network once they have been taken to a different carrier - an absolutely consumer hostile move.
- T-Mobile - T-Mobile devices are typically sold locked, and T-Mobile will now perform up to two unlocks per year for accounts that are eligible.
The FCC has also published a FAQ on unlocking as well.
If your devices are paid off and eligible, it makes sense to get them unlocked sooner rather than later.
Why wait, after all?