Verizon phones use SIM cards

How to unlock your phone (so you can take it to a new carrier)

Most cell phones sold in North America - mostly contracted - are tied to a specific carrier. You can only use it in the network of this provider. So you can't switch to another provider without unlocking the phone first.

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The phone lock applies to almost all types of cell phone, from the lowest, cheapest dumb phone to the highest end smartphone. Unlocking is different from jailbreaking and rooting, which bypass other software restrictions on mobile devices.

Unlocking does not make phones fully portable

First of all, it should be noted that telephones cannot always work on a different network operator, even if this is unlocked. In the US, for example, AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM cellular standard, while Verizon and Sprint use the CDMA cellular standard. These are not compatible with each other. This means that you cannot unlock a CDMA phone purchased from Verizon and bring it to AT & T's GSM network or vice versa.

CDMA is also a more restrictive type of network: while you can unlock an AT&T phone and bring it to T-Mobile, you can't unlock a Verizon phone and bring it to Sprint because Sprint's CDMA network refuses the phone.

Fortunately, most of the world has opted for the decidedly less restrictive GSM standard. Before you unlock a phone and take it to another operator, make sure that your phone actually works on that operator's network.

Phone lock explained

The CDMA / GSM difference is a legitimate technical obstacle to moving phones between carriers. However, there are also man-made barriers. Cellular providers lock phones so that they only work in the network of the respective cellular provider.

For example, let's say you enter AT&T and you take a smartphone with you when you sign a contract. The phone will then work in the AT&T network. However, if you try to insert a T-Mobile SIM card into the phone and switch to the T-Mobile network, the T-Mobile SIM card will be rejected by the phone. There's no legitimate technical reason for this - it's compatible - but the AT&T phone is “tied” to the AT&T network and only accepts AT&T SIM cards.

This artificial lock would also get into yours if you've been traveling and want to use a local airline in the country you are visiting, you don't pay expensive roaming fees. Your locked phone would reject anything but an AT&T SIM card.

Why are phones locked?

Cellular operators argue that the phone lock is a necessary part of their business. By blocking cell phones that they sell on a contract basis, they can keep customers on their network so they can continue to pay their monthly bills. Remember, phones aren't really worth their contractual prices - they're subsidized. No phone is actually "free," and the latest iPhone is actually over $ 199. Therefore, the mobile network provider must reimburse the costs for the contract-bound telephone over the contract period. If consumers were able to move their phones to other networks, operators would struggle to regain the phone's price and their business model would suffer a blow.

In reality, this is a pretty silly argument. When you buy a contract phone, you sign a two-year contract. If you want to move this phone to another carrier, you'll need to cancel your contract and pay an early termination fee or keep paying the monthly bill for the duration of the contract. This contractual obligation remains in effect even if the phone was sold unlocked and you took it to another provider. Some smartphones can even be sold locked out if you buy them at full price from a carrier without signing a contract. This shows how silly this argument is.

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Cell phone lock is really just a way to create additional friction for the average citizen switching provider, encouraging them to stick with their current provider rather than looking for a cheaper price. This is one of the many horrific business practices that freight forwarders use to undermine their customers.

Unlock phone

So you want to unlock your phone. Your contract may have expired and you want to switch to a different operator, you may be visiting another country, or you just want to pay an early termination fee and early termination.

There are several ways to unlock a phone:

  • Call and ask nicely: Call your mobile operator and ask in a friendly manner - whether your contract has expired. Most carriers (at least in the US) will unlock your phone for you as long as you have paid your phone debt. If you tell your carrier that you are traveling and want to use a SIM card from another country to save on roaming charges, they may be ready to unlock your phone too. They may charge a fee, but it's worth a try.

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  • Unlock it yourself: In the past, unlocking a cell phone without permission was illegal in the United States due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Fortunately that has changed. Unlocking cell phones is now legal in the United States. However, if you live in another country or are willing to be a rebel and break a law that everyone agrees to, you can often unlock phones yourself without anyone's permission. The exact process varies from phone to phone. Hence, you need to do a web search and find directions for your particular mobile phone.

Of course, not all phones are sold locked. Often times, phones sold directly by the manufacturer rather than a cellular provider are unlocked. You usually have to pay full price to get an unlocked phone that you can switch between operator networks as there is no operator who subsidizes the full cost of the phone.

Photo credit: Kai Hendry on Flickr, Kai Hendry on Flickr, Richard Eriksson on Flickr