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.


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


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
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

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.