How do I know if my phone is unlocked?

Device lock status shows unlocked on a OnePlus Android phone
(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

How do I know if my phone is unlocked?

Many models will report the phone's carrier lock status in the About section of the settings. If you bought the phone for full price from the manufacturer, it shouldn't be locked at all. If you bought it from a carrier, you may need to call support to check its lock status and request an unlock. If neither of those options works, you can simply try another carrier's SIM card in your phone to see if it will read. You can get cheap or free SIMs from some prepaid carriers to try the network.

Where did you buy it, and how?

Mobile carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon first and foremost want to keep you paying monthly for their service. To do this, they offer some steep discounts for those willing to stick around for a couple of years. In order to make sure people don't just take advantage of the discounts and then switch to another carrier, the phones are usually locked to that carrier until they are paid off.

While your phone is locked, you won't be able to use service from another carrier. Luckily, getting your phone unlocked isn't too hard, and it may even unlock automatically if enough time has passed. You may have to jump through a couple of hoops to get the phone unlocked, but if you own the phone, you can get it unlocked.

If you bought your phone from a carrier, the first thing to do is make sure it's paid off. If you were paying it off with a series of payments, you'd need to make sure you have paid the full balance. If you see a deduction offset by a bill credit for a phone purchase, the phone isn't yet paid off. Contact customer support to see how much time is left on your payment plan or to find out how much it would cost to pay it off if you're ready to switch carriers.

One thing to keep in mind is that some carriers use buy-one-get-one deals with monthly bill credits to lock customers into a cycle of paying off the phone for the full term. If you've participated in one of these promotions, you still have to pay for the phones and switching to a new carrier could invalidate the bill credits that were bringing the price down on the phone.

Once it's paid off, it will either unlock automatically, or you can request an unlock from the carrier. If you're switching to a new carrier, make sure to get your phone unlocked before you leave your old carrier. You can still get your phone unlocked down the line, but it can take a lot longer and may require account information you don't have handy.

If you bought your phone from Amazon or another online retailer, the phone would be listed as unlocked or carrier-specific. Be sure to choose the unlocked version for your region. International models will more often than not work with U.S. carriers, but you may not have access to all carrier bands and 5G support may be weaker than U.S. models.

Of course, if you bought your phone directly from the manufacturer and listed it as unlocked, it would be. All phones sold directly from Google are unlocked, and many phones from other manufacturers like Samsung, OnePlus, Asus, and even Apple can be sold SIM unlocked.

For the rest of the phones out there, there's really only one foolproof way to check: Try it.

How to check if your phone is unlocked

Google Fi Sim on map

(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

If you're a few pages into your DuckDuckGo search results, you might see websites that claim you can check if your phone is unlocked online. While that might be true, these services cost money and are often incorrect. I'll come right out and say it: Don't bother.

Instead, you can call your carrier or the carrier/MVNO you're thinking of switching. Companies keep a database of IMEI numbers that says which phones are compatible, unlocked, or blacklisted. 

You might not have any luck here, though, because the person answering the phone might not be able to give you that information — they either don't have access to it or aren't allowed to tell you over the phone. It's worth a try if you don't have access to a SIM card from a different company, though.

Skipping all of that, the easiest way to find out if your phone is unlocked is to just put in a SIM card from another carrier. It doesn't have to be a SIM card connected to an active account — the phone will try to initiate a connection with any SIM card in place. Some carriers like Google Fi will even send you a SIM for free, and you aren't charged anything until you activate the card. The process is as follows:

Visible SIM card next to Pixel 3a

(Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)
  1. Make a phone call using your current SIM card, if possible. This is to check that the phone is working properly. (Call your mom and tell her "hello"; she'll appreciate it.)
  2. Shut off the phone and remove the SIM card. Look in the manual or online if you're not sure how to do this, and if you need a SIM card removal tool, there's usually one stuck to the paperwork in your phone's box. A small paper clip may also work if you can't find the tool. You may also want to give it a SIM PIN code first so no one can steal and use your old SIM card.
  3. Put the new SIM card in your phone and power it back on.
  4. If you're greeted with a dialog box telling you to enter a SIM unlock code, your phone is SIM-locked to the carrier from which it was originally purchased.
  5. If you don't see an unlock code prompt, check that it says you have service if you used a valid SIM card. If you do, your phone is probably unlocked. Sometimes, it takes a few minutes for the phone to configure to a new network, so have a bit of patience. Try making another phone call. (Mom won't mind two calls on the same day.)

If you can't call using the new SIM card, you'll probably get a recorded message with an error code. You can jot down the code and check online to see why the call can't be completed so you know if it's because of a SIM lock or incompatible hardware. Having a wholly incompatible phone with another network is unlikely nowadays, but it's worth checking.

If you don't have access to another SIM card, you can also take your phone to a carrier store and tell them you're thinking of switching carriers and want to check if it's unlocked. Don't feel bad about telling a little white lie to a carrier — they tell them to us all of the time and the employees won't mind talking to someone polite every once in a while. They should be able to help you put in a SIM card and check.

If your phone is SIM-locked, don't fret. Carriers are required to SIM unlock your phone provided it has been paid for in full and your account is in good standing. Each carrier has slightly different rules regarding how long you have to own the phone and how long your account has to be open.

You may be able to request an unlock directly from your phone's settings. T-Mobile has a help page dedicated specifically to showing customers how to request an unlock. You can also download the T-Mobile Device Unlocker app if your phone doesn't have the option. 

AT&T also has an unlocker app and a website to request unlocks. This might take a little time, depending on your device, so be patient if it doesn't unlock immediately.

In many cases, you may need to do nothing at all. Verizon, for example, states that it will automatically unlock phones 60 days after the purchase. If your Verizon phone hasn't been unlocked automatically after 60 days, you may need to call customer service to have them submit the unlock request.

If all of that doesn't work, you can give customer service a call, and they'll help you out. The long and short of it is that if you've paid the phone off and it hasn't been reported lost or stolen, you should have no trouble getting it unlocked.

Do you need an unlocked phone?

Nothing phone (1) SIM eject tool

(Image credit: Nicholas Sutrich / Android Central)

Most smartphone owners ask how to check if their phone is unlocked because they plan to switch carriers. You've probably seen some ads for prepaid MVNO carriers, which offer cheaper service than the Big Three. And since they use the same networks as the Big Three, they'll usually work with just about any unlocked phone.

We think that's great because having even more choices can't be a bad thing. And even if you go with one of the big carriers, having the ability to switch whenever you want to one of the best cell phone plans puts the power in your hands.

But no matter which of them you want to adopt, you'll need to make sure you have a SIM-unlocked phone first. That means you can use a SIM card from any company, so long as the hardware is compatible with the network, with no restrictions.

Most of the best Android phones are available unlocked, but if you're paying a monthly fee to your carrier for a phone, it's more than likely locked. Just be careful not to get trapped into a buy one lease one free agreement, with monthly bill credits that keep you on the carrier for 24 or 36 months. If you can't pay for the phone outright, you can often set up payment plans with the manufacturer, like Samsung, without getting locked into a carrier.

Switching to an MVNO

Now that you know how to check if your phone is unlocked, your next question should be what to do with your newly freed phone. There are several important considerations you should make when switching to an MNVO, including checking if your phone works with MNVOs.

If you've already decided that's your path forward, then your next step is choosing an MNVO. Since your phone may be restricted to a single provider, we have round-ups on the best Verizon prepaid carriers, best T-Mobile prepaid carriers, and all AT&T prepaid carriers to help you decide.

Samuel Contreras

When Samuel is not writing about networking or 5G at Android Central, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.