Unlocked phones are all the rage, but what does the term mean, and when is the right time to make the investment?
What is an unlocked phone?
An unlocked phone is one that has no restrictions on which carrier it can be used. Most Canadian carriers, in exchange for providing a handsome subsidy, sell handsets that are locked to their networks, making it more likely that you will purchase, and continue using, their service. Popping a SIM card from, say, Bell into a Rogers-locked device will throw an error and won't connect. Put a Rogers SIM card back in that phone, and it starts working again.
When a phone is unlocked, you are free to shop around for the best monthly plan — one that is not tied to the sale of a handset. Most carriers, in fact, offer monthly discounts for bringing an unlocked phone to their network, since they don't have to sell a subsidized phone — money that comes out of their bottom line — to sell a service plan.
Should you buy an unlocked phone?
These days, you hear a lot about "buying unlocked" and how it's so much better. But, like all things, it's not that simple. Whether you should buy an unlocked depends on a lot of things, but thankfully it's easier than ever to make that decision; the number of ways to obtain one has risen dramatically over the past few years.
But should you? There are several reasons to buy an unlocked phone:
- Carriers often give meaningful discounts to customers who buy an unlocked phone beforehand and purchase service.
- Unlocked phones are often less encumbered with carrier-related software, often known as bloatware.
- Unlocked devices can be used on any carrier whose wireless bands are supported on the handset. These days, most unlocked phones sold throughout the world work on the major Canadian carriers.
- Unlocked devices can be used internationally, with local SIM cards, that avoid often-expensive roaming plans.
- Unlocked phones are not beholden to carriers' often-slow update schedules. They are usually updated directly from the manufacturer, which means they arrive more often and more quickly.
Are there any downsides to buying an unlocked phone?
They are typically more expensive, since they are purchased at their full retail price, with no carrier subsidy. Fortunately, there are dozens of unlocked Android smartphones in the $200 to $500 price range that are worth considering. Devices like the Moto G4 Plus, ZTE Axon 7, OnePlus 3, and many others, are primarily sold unlocked, and rival many hero devices like the HTC 10 that are nearly double the cost.
Where to get one?
Many Canadian retailers, both land and virtual, sell unlocked phones, namely Staples, Newegg, Canada Computers, NCIX, London Drugs, and many others.
Some Android OEMs sell their devices directly to consumers, too: HTC sells the One A9 and HTC 10 from its web store; Alcatel sells the Idol 3 4.7" (and soon its successor, the Idol 4 and 4S) on its website; and Google sells the Nexus 5X and 6P from the Google Store.
If you're looking to buy a second-hand unlocked phone, make sure that its IMEI — a unique identifier that differentiates one phone for another — has not been blacklisted by the CWTA. Before buying a used phone, make sure to ask the seller the IMEI and run the number through the database, which is shared with other agencies throughout the world. If the IMEI is blacklisted, the phone may be stolen, and will likely not work on any Canadian carrier.
Unlocking an existing phone
It's fairly easy to unlock an existing phone, if you want to go that route. To do so, you'll need to come at the problem in one of two ways:
- If you purchased it directly from your carrier, call them and pay a fee for them to unlock it. That fee is usually $35 to $50, depending on the provider, and may only be possible when the device is fully paid off, or the account is in good standing.
- If you purchased it from someone else (who presumably got it from a carrier), websites like cellunlocker.net have proven reliable and inexpensive.
Will an unlocked phone work on your carrier?
I can't answer that for you specifically, but chances are, yes. Handsets sold in the last couple of years usually have some, if not all, the requisite hardware to support most Canadian carriers.
If you're looking to purchase an unlocked phone, make sure it has at least one of the following compatible LTE bands. (Not sure what a "band" is? Read up on our Guide to LTE in Canada.)
- Band 4 (All carriers)
- Band 7 (Bell / Rogers)
- Band 12/17 (All carriers)
- Band 13 (All carriers)
- Band 2 (Bell / Telus)
- Band 5 (Bell / Telus)
Was there anything we forgot? Let us know in the comments.