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Why do I care if my phone is SIM unlocked?

Android SIM tray
Android SIM tray

SIM unlocked, or network unlocked, phones aren't a big deal for many of us. We're using a network provider that works well in the places where we spend most of our time (or should be), and using a phone that was designed to work on that particular network. Everyone is happy, everything just works, and we don't take time to think about it.

But we should.

While we're just fine with the status quo described above most of the time, there are three really good reasons why you would want a network unlocked phone. Let's have a look at them.

Prepaid service plans

Prepaid SIM cards

Phones in Europe are done (mostly) right on the network side. They support the necessary frequencies required to be used on all carriers, and you're usually using the exact same hardware whether you bought your phone from EE or Orange or Three. Phones in North America are getting there, with devices like the Nexus 6 supporting every carrier, and even cheaper alternatives like the Alcatel Idol 3 allow you to use any of the GSM carriers available. There are phones that even support all the networks in Europe and the GSM networks in North America, like the unlocked version of the LG G4. The people making the phones are using better, newer technology to produce fewer models that are compatible with more networks. That's a good thing.

Unlocked phones are a great value when combined with prepaid service

It becomes a great thing if you're not using your phone under a long-term service contract, thanks to the value of pre-paid service.

Of course, you can't use a phone locked to the AT&T network on T-Mobile's prepaid service, and the same goes for carriers in Europe. You'll want an unlocked phone (and ideally something like a Google Voice number) to be able to use whatever network you want to use, and freely switching when a better deal comes along. Andrew and I do just that. This month, I'm using AT&T's gophone plan with my Nexus 6. Next month, I might be using Net10, or T-Mobile. Pre-paid providers often run specials and sales, and if the network works well for you, taking advantage of this can save you some money. Using Google Voice, I keep the same phone number. It works, and I have service everywhere without any obligation to one particular carrier.

While a network locked phone may be able to use several pre-paid services (AT&T and their MVNOs are good at this), having an unlocked phone means I can use whichever service I want.

Roaming

SIM Unlock your phone

We all have service with a company that works best where we live, work and play, but sometimes you get out of your comfort zone and end up in a place where your carrier just doesn't cut it. T-Mobile users can feel me here. You probably have excellent service with fast speeds at home or at work, but a weekend trip to the country means slow speeds, or even worse, roaming on AT&T's 3G network. Besides being slow, it can get expensive, too. Most carriers don't offer unlimited high-speed roaming, and it's easy to eat up 100MB of data in an afternoon.

Sometimes you get out of your comfort zone and end up in a place where your carrier just doesn't cut it

That's where an unlocked phone and a "temporary" prepaid SIM comes in. A weekend at the ski resort or fishing lodge with no cell service, or expensive and slow service while roaming can become a thing of the past with the right SIM card. Many pre-paid providers allow you to use your data allotment while tethering, so you can share the service you're getting with friends and family, too. My wife can Facebook all night on her T-Mobile Note 3 using the Wifi hotspot I create with my AT&T-powered Nexus 6 when we're at our favorite weekend getaway spot, and not have to worry about eating away the free 100MB of roaming T-Mobile gives her for the month.

International travel

London Bridge

This takes roaming to the extreme. Your carrier probably provides an international voice and data plan, where you get a certain number of minutes and Megabytes to use when outside of the country you live in. It's usually expensive, often unreliable, and never enough. An unlocked phone shines here.

With a phone that supports the correct network frequencies, and is also network unlocked, you can buy a month's service on a local network provider that works better and is cheaper than anything your carrier has to offer.

And we're not just talking about flying across the ocean here. If you live in the US, a trip to Mexico or Canada can be a real eye-opener when you get your monthly bill. A trip to a shop or kiosk can usually get you set up and running on a local network without any hassle — if your phone is SIM unlocked.

I never leave the house

Sprint

That's cool, too. Some of us will never be in a place where we don't get reliable coverage from our carrier of choice, and have no need for a SIM unlocked phone. You won't have to worry about roaming or international data rates, and if you're happy with what you have, shopping the pre-paid providers is something you're never going to do.

We're happy that you have things set up in a way that works for you, and hope you still have a little bit to think about when we write this sort of article. Hopefully you know someone who might need to think about SIM unlocked phones, and can point them in the right direction!

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

56 Comments
  • Those of us with dual SIM phones. It's a requirement.
    Combine your corporate sim with your personal.
  • Are there any good dual SIM phones with 4G on one SIM and 3G on the other, or even 4G on both? Most dual SIM phones I see are 3G on one SIM and 2G on the second SIM. Posted via Android Central App
  • You can get a zenfone 2 from Asus. It is sold unlocked and works great on AT&T and T-Mobile. It is dual sim and one works on 4G, while the other is only 3G.
    I highly recommend it. http://www.androidcentral.com/asus-zenfone-2-review Posted via the Android Central App
  • Just purchased one to replace my broken N5 - never getting a locked or financed/contract phone again.
  • Not according to what I've read. I was interested in the Zenfone2 until I saw that the second SIM is GSM / 2G only.. If you look at the SIM slot picture on Andrews report it will say second SIM 2G only. The only one I know of is the Moto G but waiting for the 2015 version to come out to see what it has..
  • Correct. The 2nd SIM is 2G only. Both can do voice.
  • Which is not much help if the network you're wanting to use has no GSM/2G only UMTS and LTE.
  • Sorry, I thought it was 3g. I do like the phone though. Thanks for the correction. Posted via the Android Central App
  • What about Galaxy S6 Dual?
  • My LG G4 is capable of lte on both sims, h818p to be precise. Cmiiw Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanx. may be worth taking a look at..
  • Xiaomi mi4i, huawei honor 4x, etc... Posted via the Android Central App
  • Galaxy S6 Dual!
  • My last trip to Canada was an eye-opener. Wireless carriers have temporary plans for international travel but changing out the sim card would have been simpler and cheaper. Good stuff.
  • If i purchase a phone outright, why shouldn't I be free to do whatever I want with it? For the last 4 years that is all I've done is buy unlocked phones with the freedom to go to whichever carrier I feel to go to. Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 running Lollipop 5.0.1 on the T-Mobile Network.
  • It would be really nice if there were simpler methods for phone number portability, specifically for those roaming situations described above-- if I'm going camping for the weekend, and know that only one cell company has towers in that area, it would be nice to be able to snag a pre-paid card from them for the weekend, and still have my old number work. Yes, I could screw with Google Voice or forwarding or whatever, but the idea is to make this something you can do on the fly without jumping through hoops.
  • agreed. I have a business and don't want to advertise some 216 number ... my customers want to do business with a local company (which I am) and that would throw them off Posted via the Android Central App
  • Don't think people care Posted via the Android Central App
  • I saw a picture with Sprint thinking you'll elaborate on the limitations of buying a Sprint phone....but then nothing. It's worth noting that sim unlocking a Sprint or Verizon phone doesn't guarantee you usage on ATT or T-Mobile's GSM network. (At least not for 4G LTE) correct me if i'm wrong but i believe the extent of the moving from carrier to carrier is completely limited by the technology each carrier uses. case in point, i have a sprint galaxy s6 edge, but there's no reason to domestic sim unlock because none of the other GSM carriers would work on my phone.
  • You would be surprised about that Sprint phone. Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 running Lollipop 5.0.1 on the T-Mobile Network.
  • And yet I can't get my Sprint LG G3 to work with the GSM Mode. All I want to do is use it on Cricket or Straight Talk!!!! Why couldn't Sprint be more like Verizon in the phone unlocking department. They do good with updates though, well at least better than Verizon. Ok done with my rant. Continue on. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Doesn't sprint offer to unlock it after a certain amount of time? Posted via the Android Central App
  • They only gave me a MSL code. Is that what I need to get the GSM radios to start and recognize the sim? And the phone has never been active on a Sprint account. So every time I restart the phone it tries to activate. So I cancel it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Verizon is forced to unlock things out of the box because of the spectrum they bought for LTE. It's not out of the kindness in their heart haha it's because the government demanded that whoever buys the license has to open up phones on their network...and Verizon bought that 700MHz license. Those same restrictions are also why they haven't throttled unlimited users into oblivion. Compatibility is still hit or miss, but Voice and 3G support seem good. HSPDA+(or whatever that blob of letters is) and LTE support can be partial, so 4G is a bit weird.
  • hold on a sec....please elaborate. you have my attention....
  • I have a Nexus 6 on Sprint and it is capable of working on GSM so not all Sprint phones have that problem.
  • I am finally ditching the locked down CDMA world. I started with Sprint, then to Verizon and currently Republic but tomorrow my Cricket SIM cards will be delivered.
    I can't wait to finally be on GSM and to be able to very easily buy and sell phones easily. I have a Note 4 for myself, a G3 for my teenage son and iPhone 5S's for my wife and daughter. All unlocked and purchased off Swappa for far less than retail. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm on sprint and switch phones relatively often off of eBay etc.. Just a little more annoying buying a phone because you have to endure the imei is clean and not currently in use... Not as easy as a sim swap, but also not necessarily that much worse for how often one usually switches phones. Posted via the Android Central App
  • So much easier overseas with a SIM unlocked phone! Some people have to get ripped a new one by the US carriers before they get that! Four unlocked devices here. Posted via my Galaxy S6!
  • I do this exclusively using the Google Voice # like you suggest, I wish Google would really work on the hangouts dialer to make this function closer to a phone experience - crazy you cannot have custom ringtones when using Google Voice # thru Hangouts Dialer..
  • I wish Google did a better job of integrating Voice & Hangouts if you opted into receiving Voice text messages in Hangouts. The Voice website is great for being able to search previous calls, texts etc. Is there a way to see all of that info in Hangouts??
  • And then you have the Verizons of the world that sell phone you can't use on other networks (unless you're satisfied with 3G). Posted via the Android Central App
  • I just bought the Motorola Droid Turbo, which is equipped with GSM bands 850, 900, 1800 & 1900 MHz. Is there any benefit to having the Turbo unlocked while I'm a Verizon customer? Is it even possible to get it unlocked?
  • Awesome article, need more unlocked phones and options. The days of having to start from scratch with a new phone and all is getting played out!!!!!!!!! These need to be video formatted as well, that way I can listen to them and not have to stop what Im doing and can keep working.
  • Has anyone noticed that Google Voice isn't working anymore? Posted via the One M9
  • O_o what? I use it daily. Working fine.
  • No way, really? Since I had the One M9 since about 3 months already its not working at all. Do u have an idea what the problem would be? I miss using this app so bad :( Posted via the One M9
  • I rarely use Google Voice (set it up as my 'cell' for when I was temporarily selling insurance), but I just called my number and it worked just fine. I wonder if you need to open the app and make sure that it's tied into Hangouts... otherwise, I wonder if you need to log into the Google Voice settings and make some changes. Finally, if that doesn't work, I suppose you could try getting a new number.
  • Google Voice now is Called Hangouts and it is still alive just update with your Google Account.
    I am using it ,it is great ,it will forward the voice mail to you as a text via email.
  • Glad Verizon's devices all ship unlocked. Been using them for my travels to Mexico. Mainly use them for times I know I'll be relying on a data connection. For the times I don't need data, I have a Mexico and Canada plan that allows calls and texts while in Mexico. It still would be nice to have more devices like the Nexus 6 that would be capable of working on multiple carriers without needing to worry about compatibility issues and not having all the necessary network bands present.
  • In Ireland and most of Europe you can port your number between networks when moving to a different network. Don't have worry about things like Google Voice. Not that it worked in Ireland anyway Posted via the Android Central App
  • For me it's weird, because In Brazil we don't pay roaming between the states. And so all phones must be sold unlocked (it's forbidden sell locked phones here). I just don't know why US is so restricted.
  • Love being unlocked on my N4 on Verizon, 2 visits to Ireland in the last few months have been great. $29 in March for Vodafone SIM and 5gb. Recharged it this month for $19 and 5gb again. Having a local number was nice for the customer I was visiting. Can't imagine what my boss ended up paying for AT&T out there. Lol. Doesn't matter since he doesn't pay bill, but still. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Good article. I wouldn't buy a phone that is SIM locked. Down here in New Zealand only the sub $100 phones are SIM locked, but within the first 12 months it is only $30 to get it unlocked , after that time it's free.
  • All mid level and above phones should have global LTE chipsets. A single device that's usable anywhere in the world.
  • That would be too easy haha. I am with you here. The concept is clear and concise, small even, but it's what people want. It's what will work and will make people happy without them knowing. Buying unlocked phones right off the bat ensures peace of mind. I read this article, and it just makes me wonder more and more why people choose to buy phones through the carriers. even my post explaining myself is longer than yours. Your latter sentence is just so true and agreeable.
  • Where I live (Brewton, AL) only 3 carriers work, Verizon AT&T and SouthernLINC, if you go up the road from my house every one of them is spotty or no service but I'm in the lucky spot lol out of all 3 SouthernLINC probably has the most coverage in certain parts of rural Alabama and Georgia but the whole unlocked thing doesn't apply to them yet as they still use iDEN and have not got LTE up and going yet (they are working on it) also their coverage and device support is currently limited since Nextel went off because of no other iDEN network to roam with, I hope they will do byop when they get LTE because they have the best coverage out of the 3 at my location Posted via my Moto G 2nd gen on Cricket
  • I think I have a unique insight here. Are we forgetting the prices of these prepaid services? Shouldn't we be pushing this as an easier way for people to quickly and efficiently enjoy THEIR phone. My very first (and current) phone is a GSM Samsung Galaxy Nexus using Straight Talk's unlimited plan. It's pretty cheap, i get all the data I need, and I never had a thing to worry about. Hell, they let me keep my phone number. The thought of a contract, which is honestly what most people on a major network have, is foreign to me. Buy your phone, take it where you need/want, and at the end of the day these issues aren't even relevant. You end up paying for youre $700 flagship at the majors anyway right? Do yourself a favor, save those pennies, and be like me! Don't overthink it, save your money. First year i had the phone i paid ~$600. Doesn't that sound nice? I use ATT network! So can you!
  • Didn't i see this article in USA Today? Or maybe in my middle school newspaper?
  • Or more importantly, with an unlocked phone your carrier cant hold you hostage. Service/support going down hill and want to leave? Buy a new phone because ours wont work elsewhere muahaha!
  • Nexus 5 works with 3/4 and I couldn't be more happy. AT&T Nexus 5
  • Luckily here in South Africa all phones sold by carriers are unlocked and all use similar frequency bands, so this hasn't been a problem for a number of years. Posted via Android Central App
  • I have no problem with carriers locking subsidised phones to their network and charging to have it unlocked, but I think that once your contract is up, they should unlock it for free on request, especially if you continue the service (e.g. upgrade and renew with them). How any network can try to lock a phone that you bought outright is beyond me, that must be anti-competitive.
  • In Thailand, unlimited data plan for 699 bahts (around $25.00 U.S.). Plus free WiFi in multiple public palces. All this for a $3.00 sim card that you can buy everywhere (airport, convenience store, pharmacy, street sale...).
    Leave USA and see the world!
  • I picked up the Maxwest Android Astro 5 (Kit Kat) from Yippz. This phone has a 5 inch screen, 1.3GHz quad core, 8.0 mp camera and is Dual SIM. It's also manufactured unlocked. I use Puretalk (at&t) for only 10 dollars a month (personal line).This phone has tethering & wi-fi built in., so I can use it at any coffee shop, restaurant, park, or who ever is offering free wi-fi. The best thing is I am not stuck in a contract and I can switch to any MVNO carrier at any time. I use one sim for personal and the other sim slot for business. It's so nice not to carry two phones.
    I'm really excited to have it because, I am going to be traveling and I can take it with me and use it oversea's. All I have to do is pick up a sim card in the country I am visiting at the airport or at a local store.
  • How do I root my LG Sunrise Posted via the Android Central App