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)

Best answer: Many models will tell the phone's locked status in the about section of the settings. If you can't find that, you can simply try another carrier's SIM card in your phone to see if it will read. Finally, if you bought it from a carrier, you may need to call support to check its lock status, or request an unlock. 

Where did you buy it, and how?

Carrier-locked phones are limited to using a SIM from just one carrier. This means that if you want to change carriers, you'll need to make sure your phone is unlocked or get ready to buy a new one. The good news is that if you've paid off your phone, you can get it unlocked and bring it to another carrier.

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. 

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 may need to pay off two phones rather than just one.

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 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, and even Apple are sold directly, and SIM unlocked.

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

How to check if your phone is unlocked

Visible Swap with an older Huawei phone

(Image credit: Source: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

You'll 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 to. 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, a paperclip usually works fine. 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 it was originally purchased from.
  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. 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 some 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 because of 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 into 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. 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 (opens in new tab) dedicated specifically to showing customers how to request an unlock. You can also download the T-Mobile Device Unlocker app (opens in new tab) if your phone doesn't have the option. 

AT&T also has an unlocker app (opens in new tab) as well as a website to request unlocks (opens in new tab). 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 they have been paid off. 

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; 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 may or may not have heard of MVNO carriers, which are gaining popularity as a cheaper alternative for service. 

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 puts the power in your hands.

But no matter which of the best cell phone plans 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.

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.

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.