What You Need to Know About Unlocking Your Cell Phone

Whether you’re taking an extended trip to a foreign country where you want to use an international SIM card, or keeping your phone but changing phone companies after your contract has finished, you will probably need to unlock your phone to allow you to use the device with a new company’s service plan. This process can be time consuming and aggravating, but it is certainly worth the money you’ll save by keeping your old phone instead of buying a new one.

How and Why Are Phones Locked in the First Place?

It seems very restrictive that your cellphone carrier would lock your cellphone in the first place, but this feature actually helps prevent your phone from being used on the network after it is stolen.

Virtually every cellphone is paired with a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI, which is a number that identifies the phone for its operating network. If you report to your network that your phone has been stolen, they will be able to put your phone on a “blacklist” to stop the thief from accessing the network and racking up your monthly charges. The caveat is that this same IMEI can prevent you from using your phone on a new network because the IMEI associated with your phone is usually only valid for one network.

Keep in mind that not necessarily all phones are locked. While they still have an IMEI associated with them, they can be easily transferred from one network to another. Verizon’s 4G LTE devices, for example, are unlocked. This means that if you are using one of these devices, you’ll simply need to insert your new carrier’s SIM card, and your phone should be good to go, even if your contract with Verizon is not yet terminated. This is especially convenient if you are a frequent international traveler, as you can change between your Verizon SIM and your foreign SIM without difficulties.

If your phone is locked, however, this guide will help you sort out what you need to do to get it unlocked.

What Do I Need to Do to Unlock My Phone?

Keep in mind that your account will need to be in good standing in order to unlock your phone, and that depending on the provider, you are only able to unlock a maximum of two to five phones per year. With that said, for every provider, you will need the following information to unlock your phone:

  • Your phone’s unique IMEI, which is usually either printed inside the phone’s battery compartment, or available immediately by typing this code into your dial pad: *#06#
  • Your phone number.
  • Your account information, including the account number, the account holder’s name and social security number, and the account’s password.
  • A finished contract with the provider, or overseas deployment papers if your contract is not yet finished.

From there, you will need to contact your current or former cellphone provider. If you use AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, these requests are done online, although each company provides an assistance number to walk you through the unlock process.

For AT&T, it is required to complete the general phone unlock request online first, and within five business days, they will contact you with further information for how to unlock your phone. For assistance, contact their help desk at (800) 331-0500.

For Sprint, in addition to being able to unlock a phone after a contract has been completed, offers a special unlock service for extended international trips. These are both accessible online. Assistance is available over the phone from (888) 211-4727.

T-Mobile offers the T-Mobile Mobile Device Unlock app, which you can download in order to unlock your T-Mobile cellphone. If you need additional help, you can contact (800) 746-0949.

For Verizon, for all non-4G LTE devices that are not already unlocked, you’ll call (800) 922-0204 to complete your unlock request with the assistance of a Verizon tech.

Can I Use a Third-Party Company IMEI Unlocking Website to Unlock my Cellphone?

Sometimes, if you’re in a hurry, you might want to avoid going through your old carrier to unlock your phone. It is possible, but it does present some risk, as payment for these websites is usually required before they send you the code. This means that they might never send you your code, which is obviously infuriating if you really need to IMEI unlock your phone fast.

When looking for a third-party IMEI unlocking service, check to see if they have customer service and if the reviews for the website seem reasonable. You shouldn’t have to wait very long to get a code to unlock your phone from these websites, and a legitimate company will offer some kind of customer support.

This Is Complicated. Can I Just Buy an Unlocked Phone?

Unlocked cellphones can be pricey, but they are certainly an option, and they will save you the hassle if you tend to travel often or if you tend keep your cellphone for many, many years. Many manufacturers sell their phones to consumers directly on their websites, including Apple, HTC, Google, Sony, and more. You can also find unlocked devices from Amazon and Walmart.

Mettus / Shutterstock.com

Mettus / Shutterstock.com