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It will soon be a lot easier to unlock a phone from America's top carriers — here's what you need to know

SIM tray open
SIM tray open (Image credit: Android Central)

The top five carriers in the United States will on Feb. 11 implement new unlocking procedures for smartphones, tablets, and other cellular devices sold on their networks. The new unlocking standards were set forth by the CTIA in late 2013 and, though a voluntary commitment by the carriers, define the conditions under which carriers must unlock your devices — and it's all looking good for the consumer. Once you've paid off your phone, you'll probably be able to get it unlocked, and it'll be even easier with future smartphones.

Read up on our favorite Verizon prepaid phones!

Here are the broad strokes of what you need to know:

  • AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon will all adopt these standards starting February 11, 2015.
  • Post-paid devices will qualify for unlocking as soon as the device is paid off or the service contract ends (depending on your specific plan, naturally).
  • Prepaid devices will qualify for unlocking no later than one year after activation.
  • Military personnel can have their phones unlocked upon presentation of deployment orders, regardless of payment status.
  • Unlocking for current customers will be performed at no cost, and at "a reasonable cost" for non-customers and former customers.

There are, naturally, some restrictions on all of this. Owners of both postpaid and prepaid devices will need to ensure that their devices have been fully paid off and that their account is in good standing with the carrier. Devices must also not have been flagged as stolen, lost, or associated with fraudulent activity. Additionally, there are two different kinds of devices that we're looking at here, Master Subsidy Lock (MSL) and Domestic SIM Unlock-capable (DSU), and that will affect how the unlocking process happens:

  • MSL devices have been manufactured and/or launched prior to February 2015. They will require an MSL code from the carrier to override the restrictions keeping that device locked to the carrier's network.
  • DSU devices will launch starting in February 2015 and will be capable of receiving an over-the-air unlock command from the carrier. Very few (apparently only one) devices have been manufacturer before now with DSU capability.

Either way, MSL or DSU devices that are unlocked will have their SIM card slots unshackled and free to take a SIM card from whatever carrier you so choose. Of course, the device still needs to actually support the frequencies used by your carrier of choice, though thankfully most modern flagship smartphones and tablets support a wide range of frequencies for easy interoperability. Older phones and mid-to-low-tier devices won't necessarily have support for your carrier of choice, but it won't hurt to unlock if you're eligible.

We don't have exact details on how all of these carriers will implement these new standards, but we can tell you a bit about what Sprint has planned. Sprint will include a message on the appropriate month's bill for MSL devices when they're eligible for unlocking. DSU-capable devices on Sprint will be automatically unlocked over-the-air once they've become eligible.

There's a brave new world on the horizon for unlocked devices in the United States. Soon it will be easier and clearer than ever to get your smartphone, your tablet, your hotspot, or even your laptop unlocked from the carrier. And that's a very good thing indeed.

Thanks to anonymous for all the details

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm (the old one), and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

86 Comments
  • Nice! Although I can see a lot of people missing the part of 'once you've paid it off'.
  • many people will also think that the price of the phone is "$199.99"
  • No matter how many times I tell my friends the phone they are getting is not free or 200 dollars, they think it is. I paid $450 for a phone -- that's FULL price.
  • How will DSU work if the phone cannot connect to the "Locked Carrier". As an example I live in Guatemala and many US Expats either bring their phones and forget or don't know that they need to be unlocked, or people purchase phones that need to be unlocked. I know....people should research....but people are also idiots......and as a tech-savvy expat I am trying to get educated so I can help folks with this issue. If DSU requires connection to the locking carriers network in order to unlock that will make it impossible for many travelers. Any insight in how DSU will work will be appreciated.
  • Honestly, I don't know, but those people should do their research first.
  • So should journalists/bloggers... :-P
  • Burn. Next-us
  • Great comment! Posted on my OnePlus One
  • Maybe these OTA updates can occur over the Internet via Wi-Fi, so it doesn't matter where you are?
  • I had sprint unlock an inactive phone for me yesterday via wifi..... here is a copy of the email Sprint sent; This email is intended to confirm that Sprint has successfully unlocked your device. Please respond back to this email to confirm that the steps below have been completed successfully. Your device will be removed from sprints system at 5 am pst the next business day. Failure to respond within this time frame could delay the device unlock process. The device will reboot itself once it’s unlocked. If it does not automatically update and reboot within 5 minutes of the receipt of this email please ensure that you are connected to a strong Wi-Fi signal and follow the listed instructions: Galaxy s4: Settings > More (tab) > System Update > UICC unlock This will initiate the necessary update, then you can insert the international SIM card again and the network should change to GSM.
  • Also please stand back, as the device will spontaneously combust. Posted via Android Central App- Via HTC One
  • Hi,
    If by "locked carrier" you mean a telecom carrier from the US... in this case the phone should be within the coverage area of those companies. If the phone is out of their coverage arear it won't work with their service, you will have to buy a local SIM card and use it with an unlocked phone, but the service will be from the local telecom carrier not from company in the US
    PS: I'm not sure if I completely understood you question...
  • You go to a T-Mobile store and Buy a T-Mobile iPhone 6 at full retail Price. But T-Mobile will not unlock the iPhone, for that matter any Phone. You have to be on their Network for atleast 40 days - Postpaid orrrr $100 in refills-prepaid. You paid already, for Your iPhone, But still T-Mobile wants to squeeze the juice from Your ball5 before they let You choose a carrier of Your choice. Similar type of squeezing is done by AT&T and Verizon as well. ( But a Verizon iPhone 6/6+ comes unlocked by default and You are free to use it with AT&T and T-Mobile or GSM as well but not on Sprint, since it does not have the hardware)
    Similarly, if You are with Sprint, 3 conditions need to be met. 1. no Due bill - account should be current. 2. Phone is paid in full 3. Contract should be up. **** What about the Framily plans?? Since they are no contract?? But obviously there will be a restriction on how many phones per line a unlock code can be requested. This is one grey area, which I also have no clue. Hope this helps.
  • So, can I request the unlock if I buy the carrier-locked phone on a 3rd party retailer?
  • It seems by these guidelines--yes--as long as it's paid off. Now if you're NOT a customer of said carrier, they'll probably charge you a "reasonable fee" whatever that means.
  • Since Verizon LTE devices already ship unlocked, I'm guessing not much is changing with regards to those devices.
  • Wait a minute, so my new Droid Turbo is unlocked even though I just started my contract? Posted via the Android Central App on my DROID Turbo
  • Correct
  • Unless this is new, actually incorrect. I got the Verizon M8 and had to do a manual unlock before taking my device to T-Mobile. The same is true for my older RAZR Maxx HD. Both are LTE Verizon phones, for the record.
  • That's odd and no, it's not new. I've been using gsm sim cards for almost the past 2 years. Also, I had the VZW M8 back when it first came out and it worked fine on Tmo without needing to manually unlock it. If you still don't believe me, here it is on Verizon's site https://www.androidcentral.com/e?link=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.anrdoezrs.net%2F...
  • It's very correct, and it's been in effect for a while now. It was a condition set down by the FCC in order for Verizon to acquire some of their LTE spectrum.
  • I have a Verizon LG Lucid 4G LTE phone and a Verizon Nokia Lumia 923 and neither were ever unlocked and both work with my current T-Mobile sim card, so I believe what eao is saying is correct.
  • Hey guys what device is in the main picture ?? Ty
  • I think it's the HTC EYE phone.
  • Desire Eye
  • Hats off to Sprint for being proactive with auto-unlocking!
  • Anyone know if the sprint note 4 will be able to get sim unlocked?
  • Sprint is not unlocking any phones besides iPhones 5s/5c and newer for domestic use. You could get it unlocked and take it to boost or virgin apparently though.
  • Unlocked my at&t g3 for $1.75 on eBay. But check this out. I had to send it back to lg for repair and when I got it back it asked for the unlock code again. Thankfully the same one worked. What a relief. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Now if we can just get them to just unlock their bootloaders voluntarily.....
  • I brought my sprint g3.. From Craigslist.. So there no contact or installment billing on device... So can I just call spring and have them unlock it? I have installment billing on the g2 that i still have but my g3 is being used on that line
  • "Prepaid devices will qualify for unlocking no later than one year after activation." If I'm paying full price for a device unlocking should be available immediately with paid activation.
  • While I see that POV, there's a good chance on many prepaid carriers that they're somewhat subsidizing the cost of the phone in order to get you onto their service. In return you have a branded device that only works on that carrier for up to a year. You can always bring your own phone and skip that process completely.
  • This is good advice for most people that frequent here... Don't get ur device from the carriers in the first place!!! Bring your own device!
  • People are too dumb to do that. They will stay with 2 yr contracts and end up paying twice what the phone is worth.
  • Where can I purchase a N4 that works with Verizon and not 'from the carrier'?
  • You're right, there's plently of unlocked smartphones available in the market... if one is gonna pay the fulll price, is better to have an unbranded device to be free to choose the telecom carrier of your convenience!
    Regards!
  • How is this easier or an improvement? I used to be able to unlock a device (for vacations) with AT&T even while under contract, for free, simply by making a phone call. The current policy is that the device needs to be paid off. Not only is this more restrictive, but it's the same policy that this article is proposing as the "new, less restrictive" policy. I'm not looking to change domestic carriers, I've been with the same carrier since cell phones were invented, and they won't let me use my device with a foreign carrier when I travel. This new policy is no different than the current policy and there is no basis for it being this restrictive, since one is obligated to pay for the hardware even if one switches carriers. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever and nothing being proposed is new or improved.
  • Most phones will allow any NON-DOMESTIC sim to be used, even without calling your carrier. No unlocking needed. Most of this applies to newer phones that are locked for the domestic market. My verizon phone can use any sim card when I travel overseas. However, it won't let me pop in an ATT or Tmobile sim card for use in the US. This will eliminate that restriction.
  • This is pretty much true! Your comment kinda made me chuckle a little lol! Anyhow don't you all wish the bootloaders weren't encrypted on these carrier devices as well... or even from some manufacturers (I'm looking at you Samsung!).
  • AT&T won't unlock phones on consumer lines that are under contract even if the phone is paid in full. You have to fulfill your entire service agreement or pay the ETF if you are under contract on AT&T. AT&T has the worst unlock policy of the major US carriers. They won't even unlock them for travel if you are under contract still. Even Sprint & T-Mobile do that. See bullet point 4 in the restrictions here - https://www.androidcentral.com/e?link=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.kqzyfj.com%2Fcli...
  • I imagine that the improvement is that this is for domestic unlocks. To my (limited) knowledge, the carriers don't mind unlocking devices for vacations--like your example. However, they do NOT want to unlock devices (as easily, anyway) for people to switch domestic carriers--like I did from VZ to T-Mo.
  • I think the same, also the OTA unlocking process will make things easier...!
  • Verizon devices are not locked.
  • Will this have any effect on my Nexus 6 that I'm using on Verizon? Specifically, the phone is unlocked, and it works, but Verizon shows it as a non-vzw device. That is making it difficult, not impossible, to change my plan, but it's definitely preventing me to use VoLTE.
  • No change. VZ would only recognize it if it was bought via VZ. T-Mo and I believe most other carriers do this as well. I know T-Mo does that for my One M8.
  • Thanks.
  • T-Mobile and at&t you just pop a sim card in.
  • yeah this doesn't help me with the prepaid at&t 635 i had to buy a unlock code for on ebay.
    was only $12 so it's whatever but still if I pay off the whole phone I shouldn't need service for a year before getting the unlock code.
  • Factory unlocked smartphones are much better that prepaid options always that you won't need to wait a whole year!
  • the price wasn't better.
    $45 prepaid vs $130 factory unlocked
  • Thus your phone was on subsidy :>)
  • This is great. I do not want to be told where i can and can not use somethin i paid for. How do you no if your phone is unlocked or not Posted via the Android Central App
  • The best way to know if your phone is unlocked is by trying to use a SIM card from a different carrier in your phone. For instance, I you bought your device with AT&T try using a T-Mobile SIM card on it, if it shows a message that says something like "please enter your unlocking code" that means that is locked to AT&T, if it works without issues it's probably factory unlocked. In summary, it has a lot to do with where you bought your phone, here you can get more details about it: http://dualsimandroidphones.com/how_to_activate_an_unlocked_phone
  • All Verizon LTE phones released since October 2012 are SIM unlocked, out of the box. Posted via Note 4
  • Only for international use. This article is referring to domestic use. I've had both a RAZR Maxx HD and One M8 that both needed to be manually unlocked for use on T-Mobile and AT&T
  • Incorrect. They are completely unlocked. I gave my sister my Verizon S4 to use on AT&T. I have had a T-Mobile SIM in my Note 4. Get educated. Posted via Note 4
  • I have the different VZW phones working just fine on Tmo Posted via the Android Central App
  • Stupid question, but how does a Verizon phone work on AT&T? I thought one was GSM and the other CDMA? Posted via Android Central App
  • It depends on the phone, but most CDMA phones have GSM radios for use outside the US, which also work on domestic carriers, both of my Verizon LTE phones work with my T-Mobile sim.
  • Ah so it's mostly if I want to make calls when I am overseas. What's the practicality of using my HTC one M7 for both Verizon and say T-mobile locally in the states? Posted via Android Central App
  • All Phones are quad band GSM/UMTS. Even sprint phones will work on T-Mobile. No LTE like verizon though. The four GSM bands include the 850 and 1900 MHz bands - used in the Americas - and 900 / 1800, used in most other parts of the world. The 1900 band is key for HSPA on T-Mobile And Verizon phones have a few LTE bands but 1 of them is the one T-Mobile uses(Band IV). The practicality of using a M7 on T-Mo and verizon in the states is that you don't need to buy a new phone if you leave verizon, you can gift your old phone to a friend on t-mo, you can sell your phone to vzw and T-Mobile user, And if you want a VZW exclusive (Droid Turbo, Droid DNA) and you're not on vzw you can buy it and use it on T-Mobile.
  • My moto luge was released in August 2014,and it will not accept domestic sims. Granted it is basically a razr m, however, nothing I got with the phone ever mentioned that it is a razr m. Posted via the Android Central App
  • But with other carriers like T-Mobile & at&t you will not get LTE. Posted via Android Central App
  • With a sprint phone you won't but with a vzw phone you will.
    Band IV LTE is used by 3 out of the big 4. Sprint being the one that doesn't use it.
    AT&T is dependent on location as they don't use it in many places.
    T-Mobile uses Band IV exclusively so you'll get LTE everywhere a T-Mobile phone would.
    the biggest thing T-Mobile costumer miss out is the 1700 hspa band which is being refarmed for most part anyway
  • I feel like once you've been a customer for so long, there shouldn't be any restrictions.
  • Just gonna use Smartphone tools to send a "unlock message". Let the good times roll.
  • What phone is in that picture? Posted via the Android Central App
  • This is tracfone's unlocking policy.. Doesn't tell me jack..
    https://www.androidcentral.com/e?link=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.kqzyfj.com%2Fcli... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Now we need to ban locked bootloaders. It's MY phone, and I should be able to run any ROM I want.
  • That is just fine for someone who knows what they are doing and accepts the consequences if their phone gets bricked, but what of the novice that accidentally deletes something from their phone that it needs to work and they don't know how to fix it? Locked bootloaders are a bad thing for those of us who know how to recover a soft bricked phone, but a good thing for everyone else.
  • Then they shouldn't be messing with their phones that way. That is no reason for them to illegally prevent me from modifying MY phone.
  • And who is to say you actually know what you are doing? Not to doubt you do but what should take a certification class to run a ROM? Posted by my soon to be retired Note 3
  • Who cares if i know what I am doing. it is MY phone, I can do whatever I want to it. Because it is MINE. I don't need someone else to certify me to mess with MY property.
  • How is it illegal for them to lock their bootloader? They built the product, they can do whatever they want to the product. You are not forced to buy it. Posted via Android Central App
  • Because it is MY phone. Haven't you been reading? MY phone. Which means I get to choose what software is on it. If I choose to remove theirs, that is my right. They are interfering with my right by actively preventing me from removing their software from MY phone. Android is an Open Source OS - the license terms REQUIRE that I be able to modify or remove it.
  • I don't disagree that once you have bought the product it should not be illegal if you want to remove the software and put your own in. But that is not to say that the phone manufacturer is obligated to make it simple from a legality standpoint. If Chevy wanted to make it really hard to remove the radio from their vehicle they should not be punished under a law, rather they should be punished by declining profits from everyone who chooses not to buy their product because it is hard to remove the stereo. The same should apply to our phones. If it is that important to you to have the ability to play with the software then reward the company that is most friendly to your needs. Posted via Android Central App
  • So currently on Sprints site, they make mention that they have no method to unlock for domestic carriers... Verbiage makes it seems like it's "impossible". Will it be possible once they implement these changes?
  • Now they just need to stop their illegal and unethical bootloader encryption.
  • What part of the legal code States it is illegal? I can submit to you the dcma that actually States that it is illegal for you to alter the software, bootloader, ROM and all. Posted by my soon to be retired Note 3
  • It is only illegal via the DMCA because they encrypted it, and it is illegal for me to decrypt it, even if it is mine (which is a load of crap). I don't need a code to say that it is illegal, as my property rights are pre-existing. Dell can't sell me a computer and force me to use Windows. Ford can't sell me a car, then force me to keep the stock stereo. This is literally the same thing. I choose what I can do with my property, including removing the software from it and replacing it with other software.
  • haii i am facing a problem with my samsung note 3
    problem is the pictures are dissapearing suddenly and it is very important for me
    thank you in advance kindly comment me if any solution is there
  • Does anyone know if Sprint would unlock phones released prior to this date? Iphone 6 and LG G3? That would be nice to move them along to Cricket!
  • Does this mean you will be able to have root access to the phone after it's unlocked??
  • For all having any difficulty unlocking Sprint phones, all that's necessary to complete is head to sprintunlockiphone.(com), we can unlock all Sprint phones.
  • I can't understand why the bootloaders are locked. When I've paid for the device then it's mine. Why should any carrier get any say over what I can and can not do with MY device?