When it comes to buying phones in the US, one has to take a lot of factors into consideration, rather than just the price and the specifications of the device. The network carrier system in the US is complicated!
The number one issue with phones bought from carriers is that they almost always come with some kind of lock, which prevents you from using the phone with other network providers.
So when you want to switch the network provider on your carrier-locked phone, the main question on your mind is, how do I unlock my phone?
Here’s our guide on how to unlock your phone on all US carriers!
Carrier Locking and Compatibility
In the US, the network carriers partner up with phone manufacturers to offer new phone models with various offers. Usually, there is a significant price cut, and a monthly plan contract that gives you options for unlimited calling and data, and the carrier makes back the subsidized amount throughout the contract period.
There are other perks as well, like switching out your phone for a newer model at an additional discount, and such. However, if you try to use the phone with another provider, it will not work.
Now, the way this lock is enforced depends upon the network carrier and the contract. Some carriers have a fixed minimum time period for the phone to be used on their network, after which, one can request an unlock. Other carriers will ask you to pay a fee, often the full price of the phone, to unlock it.
Next up, is compatibility. When it comes to carrier phones, they are made to include only those cell frequency bands that are required by that carrier, making compatibility with other carriers thin.
In the US, right now the providers rely on two network technologies, GSM and CDMA, and between them, a lot of frequency bands. If two networks are on the same bands, you should be able to use devices across them after unlocking.
To determine compatibility, you can check your phone’s exact model number in the About section of the Settings, and check the bands for the model on GSM Arena, or a similar source that lists hardware specifications by model.
Unlocking phones, however, is much easier now than it used to be, because of a new regulation by the US Government that simplified the process, a lot.
Unlocking a Verizon Phone
Verizon does not lock their phones anymore. If you have a 4G LTE or 3G device from Verizon (except the non-iPhone 3G World Devices) they’re likely to be unlocked. Verizon says that you don’t need to put in any code for unlocking.
However, Verizon operates on CDMA, which might bring you compatibility issues, especially when it comes to LTE.
To unlock 4G devices, you can call 888-294-6804. If you have a 3G device, it might require a code, either “000000” or “123456” to unlock. Verizon’s World Devices can be unlocked by making a call to 800-922-0204. As far as their prepaid phones go, some will be unlocked with the codes mentioned above, while others will require you to be on the network for 12 months after activation, or to have hit the usage amount mentioned on the box.
Unlocking an AT&T Phone
AT&T locks its phones, but it has a fairly simple set of requirements and a process that you should be able to get through easily. Before you attempt an unlock, make sure:
- Your device isn’t reported as lost, stolen, or involved with fraud.
- Your balance isn’t past-due.
- Your device isn’t active on another AT&T account.
- In case of an early upgrade, wait for 14 days, or 30 days for business customers.
You can fill out a request for unlocking your phone online, on their unlock portal.
You get a confirmation email with a link that has a 24 hour expiry period. Click the link, and AT&T will send you the instructions. Alternatively you can call the AT&T support at 888-211-4727. In case of a prepaid device, the device has to be active for at least 6 months.
Unlocking a T-Mobile Phone
T-Mobile also has a list of requirements to unlock your phones, which is similar to that of AT&T, but with some more restrictions. Following are the requirements:
- The device must not be reported as lost, stolen, or blocked.
- The account must be in good standing, i.e. no overdue bills or fraudulent activity.
- You have not made more than two unlock requests in the last 12 months.
- You may be asked to produce proof of purchase.
- Postpaid account device has been active for at least 40 days.
- Service contract device has had at least 18 consecutive monthly payments.
To place an unlock request, you can use the T-Mobile Mobile Device Unlock Android app.
You can also unlock your phone by calling 611 from a T-Mobile device, or 1-877-746-0909 from any other phone, or by using the T-Mobile live chat on their website. You can type “how to unlock my phone” in the chat and the agent will guide you through the process. In the case of prepaid phones, the phone needs to have been active for at least 12 months and fulfilled at least $100 in refills.
Unlocking a Sprint Phone
Sprint has an automatic unlock mechanism in place, which unlocks eligible devices without the user having to place a request, for SIM card-based devices released after 2015. They also have a system for manual unlocks, with their own set of requirements.
- The device is SIM Unlock capable.
- The device has been active on Sprint for at least 50 days
- All due amounts have been paid off.
- The associated account is in good standing
- The device has not been reported as lost or stolen, associated with fraudulent activity, or flagged as ineligible to be unlocked.
- International unlocks require that the device is capable of an International SIM unlock.
You can place an unlock request through Sprint’s live chat, or by calling 888-211-4722 from a Sprint line, or 888-211-4727 from other carriers. For international unlocks, contact Sprint Worldwide Care at sprint.com/swwsupport or by calling 888-226-7212. Prepaid phones, i.e. Sprint Forward devices require 12 months of activity before requesting an unlock.
Third-Party Unlocking Services
Now, the question on your mind must be how can I unlock my phone for free? If that’s you, and you are considering using a third-party service that claims free unlocks, chances are, it’s fake.
If you just do a Google search for “unlock my phone online”, you get bombarded with tons of services, many of which are far from legitimate. The rule of thumb with unlocking is that you try everything to unlock it through your carrier before attempting other methods.
Paying for a third-party service should be done with care, as many fraudulent services exist, and you might end up with a bad ESN issue on your device, a.k.a. a flagged device, which will ruin your chances of an official unlock.
If you have to use a third-party service, consider trusted services like DoctorSIM, Release My Code, UnlockUnit, UnlockRiver or Unlock Radar.
Do share your unlock experience with us!
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Palash is a technology and entertainment journalist who loves to geek out over the latest gadgets, TV shows, and movies.