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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

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.

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, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

102 Comments
  • They should just remove the locking altogether. The bands limit it well enough.
  • They mostly want to be able to exploit customers who have to travel overseas by forcing them to pay ridiculous international rates. After all, if your device is locked: Picking up a local SIM isn't an option.
  • I agree with this. I had a blackberry storm that I unlocked and used on tmobile. That doesn't necessarily mean a phone from tmobile will work on Verizon. More to do with controlling updates than anything else, or nah?
  • All phones should be unlocked everywhere regardless of contract and network. Why lock phone to a specific network while the customer is paying upfront or rental fee. Hope things will be better in coming days.
  • Agreed. I wish chipsets would support North America amd European frequencies. Then we wouldn't have this damn L930 issue. I opted to pick up the unlocked version of the L830 so I could have fully functioning service from T-Mobile.
  • The Lumia Icon would be more functional on T-Mobile than the Lumia 930. The 830 better still, as you note, though. The 830 is missing Band IV HSPA (AWS), it only supports AWS over LTE. It's also missing Band 12 LTE, but most devices do at this point so that's par for the course.
    I believe the only Lumias that support every frequency T-Mobile has deployed over both HSPA and LTE (again, band 12 LTE excepted) are the Canadian variants of the Lumia 920 and 1020, and the Lumia 1520.3 (the Central American variant).
  • But most of the PCS band has been refarmed for HSPA+ and LTE is rolling out on PCS if I'm not mistaken.
  • I believe the 830 supports PCS on 2G, HSPA, and LTE anyway. I was showing about Band IV HSPA support (AKA AWS).
  • I can see not unlocking something that you are on a contract subsidy for, but prepaid phones which are bought outright shuld not be locked at all.
  • +1 this!!
  • I work at VZW (insert disclaimer about this not being an official post here), and while I can't say why other carriers lock phones (you're welcome to guess), a lot of our old 3G phones had your number *programmed* in, making it a possibility to accidentally use your US number, even with another carrier's SIM card inserted. (Think of those chinese phones that have 2 sim slots. It's similar to that, except one number is programmed in...) The way it was explained to me, the lock is so the customer has to call in to be warned of this possibility. This is why rules for unlocking at VZW are very loose.  
  • In the UK when you buy phones from Carphone warehouse they are all unlocked...you guys across the pond are always being ripped off..
  • Those are unlocked phones
  • Thanks based anon
  • We will see. Will see if at&t will unlock my Sony ericson handset.
  • Sony Ericsson? Wow last time I've seen one was about 5-7years ago
  • Yeah just used for sister, only there for a few weeks. I have older phones than that :)
  • How about Motorola A925? :) Still have it, but dont have charger. It was very nice phone back in 2003, costing $1000+, and Very ugly today
  • I'll believe it when I see it. Still not interested in a carrier controlled phone.
  • I think that Microsoft needs to bypass the carriers altogether if possible, especially when it comes to updates to their OS. Hell Denim was released what, months ago, and there are still people who can't get it because of carriers not pushing it out fast enough.
  • I hate locked phones.
  • So will I be able to buy an att gophone on amazon and then unlock it ?
  • I'd like that, but "prepaid devices no later than 1 year" and "reasonable fee for non-customers" scare me
  • Theoretically: The new rules require they have to with-in a year of purchase.
  • Yup. As in day #364 lol
  • Exactly. :(
  • But isn't the current wait on unlocking the GoPhone 6 months of continuous service??? How are these new policies any better???
  • My Sony Z3 got over the air unlocked using the Tmobile app. That must be the phone that has the MSU unlock. Anyway, I enjoy using the unlocked phone just like my 930.
  • IThe Canadian government enacted a law a few years ago that says carriers have to provide unlocking services to their customers and for no more than $50. I believe the phone also has to be paid off but I'm not sure on that part.
  • Yes bill c-343
  • So the US finally follows what Europe has had for a few years now? Any, definitely progression (thumbs UP!).
  • Ahh....the illusion of the free market. We Americans are masters of illusion.
  • What about if I buy a AT&T locked phone on EBay (That hasn't been stolen or anything), Do I be able to unlock it with out any issue? Someone who knows about it?
  • Assuming it's not under contract (or something like AT&T Next): Sure.
  • Cool Thanks, Always with AT&T is an issue to unlock, I bought a NL1520 (AT&T locked via eBay) and it took +3 weeks for MetroPCS to get the fu**ing code I was desperate but now I'm paying $55.00 with T-Mobile LTE totally unlimited:)
  • Hopefully this opens up the Icon on T-Mobile! No more finagling with APNs and maximum data speeds just to be able to text. February is shaping up to be an interesting month!
  • This doesn't change the frequencies which the phones radio supports.
  • I know. The Icon supports T-Mobile frequencies, but the software doesn't play nicely with a T-Mobile SIM. You can make calls, get LTE/SMS/MMS, but not all with the same configuration, and not reliably over reboots, travel.
  • I know what you mean(bought a icon to use on rogers) sacrifice voice for fast data or sacrifice fast data for voice decisions decisions decisions....
  • Right, that should be addressed going forward. Wouldn't it save OEMs a ton of money to include most frequencies?
  • Carriers would be less likely to subsidize the phone if it could work on someone else's network
     
  • I always wonder that. Wouldn't making a single phone with all frequencies save manufature costs instead of the dozen variants?
  • So this means that I still can't take a Lumia for AT&T and use it on Verizon, right? Because Verizon is on CDMA? Is there some standard that most carriers use that will maximize the 'portability' of a phone? Like, if dump Verizon for AT&T and then get an AT&T Lumia, will that Lumia be able to switch to T-Mobile, or Sprint, or some carrier in Europe or some carrier in Japan?
  • GSM is (globally) the most popular standard for mobile communications. So yes, dump CDMA (Verizon & Sprint) and pickup a GSM phone for the greatest chance at "maximizing the portability of your phone." You still need to pay attention to the bands that each phone supports.
  • And I'd be willing to bet that unlocked GSM phones have a higher resale value than CDMA phones...
  • welcome to the free world
  • In US you have two possibilities - they shoot you or steel your money, I really feel sorry for them.
  • You've forgotten incarceration. It's quite the thing here. 
  • Cool, here carriers can't sold locked phones anymore. You can buy a phone from a carrier and choose any SIM-Card to put on your phone.
  • Where do you live?
  • Brazil. Our taxes are very high, but at least that phone it's mine. For good.
  • So I can buy a Phone from Us
  • The article mentions how the phone must Support the new carriers frequency. Does this mean an unlocked Verizon phone will perform badly in GSM? I remember unlocking a T-Mobile phone and using it on at&t and the performance was noticeably worse.
  • It means that the frequencies must match up for the device to perform well on the network. Meaning, if you're missing AWS or thr PCS band for LTE or HSPA, you may have slower speeds.
  • It's possible. It's all down to what's inside the phone, which varies depending on the model. The iPhone 6 or Galaxy S5, purely for example, will work on any carrier once unlocked as they support all of the frequencies. An iPhone 5, however, has explicit Verizon, rest-of-USA, and rest-of-world models unique bundles of frequencies with some, but not a lot, of overlap. An unlocked Verizon iPhone 5 might not work well on AT&T, if at all.
  • All American iPhones work when they are unlocked Sprint iPhone can work T-Mobile and ATT oh ya Verizon Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Just imagine if cable providers were able to lock our televisions, earn exclusive rights to various television models and plaster their logo on the television --- ludicrous right? Carriers should provide us a service, not a phone.
  • They do. Look at your cablebox.
  • I have a windows media center PC, so no branding for me. :)
  • That's not what he meant.
  • Thankfully carriers are little more than network providers outside the US!
  • Now give us a way to unshackle the carrier from the OS update process after the phone is paid off and unlocked!
  • So I'm still confused. Does this mean that if I am an ongoing AT&T customer, or sign up to be one, I can pay upfront for a device and have it unlocked right away? Because that's the only scenario of interest to me.
  • Doesn't sound better than AT&T's current policy where I can unlock a phone that is still on contract after 6 months.
  • All phones should unlocked updates should not be held back for months on end.
  • I've always purchased network unlocked devices - though glad it'll be easier to unlock, if the phone is on contract (I buy off contract).
  • I wonder where this leaves LTE capabilities.
  • about dang time. Just a month ago I bought 2 new sammys for my siblings abroad at tmo store paid off outright...Tmo gave me a run around for 2-3 weeks saying the phones must be used on the network before they could unlock it. Then I threatened to cancel all my lines and they buckled immediate with 2 unlock codes on the phone. Such a prick move considering I've been with the. for over 10 yrs.
  • Post paid devices are phones you buy upfront at a price with no contract right?
  • Post paid = subsidized as part of a contract or installment payments. "Post" as in you're billed for the month that just passed, versus prepaid where you're paying for the coming month.
  • So if I bought say a Lumia 635 go phone at a store, I'd have to activate it and use it for a year with AT&T before I can unlock it?
  • On the image you have the sim tray upside down. Its Lumia 925. It fits there, but when I did it once this way, it broke my sim reader. No preasure was needed. So please change the image, otherwise you might give the same bad idea to more people. ;)
  • My bad. Wrong vision om my side. Need to... sleep.
  • Yup, I will be jumping ship from AT&T to Cricket later this month.  Considering how little I require LTE specifically, I can get by with 8Mbps 4G data just fine.  Plus Cricket just upped their data plans so I'll have 1.5GB more data than I do with AT&T.  Oh and my bill would drop by $20 bucks, so that's another bonus.
  • Basically your going from AT&T postpaid to AT&T prepaid. Cricket is AT&T now.
  • So in other words, what they've done before. :) not many changes.
  • next flagship i will buy from US when i come there.
  • What, you guys in the states have contract phones locked to the carrier?
  • Yup, though we also have prepaid services too where you can bring your own phone. Still, the carriers have far too much power over what you do with your phone and they love locking out features like internet sharing unless you pay up.
  • Brazil a third world country? Here in Brazil, every phone is unlocked because the carriers can only sell unlocked phone and if someone have an old locked phone, it can be unlocked without cost in all carriers, even the phone was bought in an different carrier. So Brazil is a third world country?
  • Your comment makes no sense. What is being said about Brazil? Also 3rd world country and unlocking phones are unrelated issues. Offtopic. You are correct that Brazil is not a 3rd world country. However, It is a developing country because of  its huge gaps in wealth distribution and human development rates.
  • Now during the cold war, first world countries were countries that were anti Communists and Allies behind the United States while Third world countries were neutral countries during the cold war. So doesn't have anything to do with resources and the like but in modern terms third world countries are referred to poor countries. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Yeah same in Australia, all.contract phones are unlocked.
  • It's all about control and now we are getting some of it back. Losen tin foil hat slightly
  • it still seems like a win win for the carrier cause u still have to pay off the phone or be at the end of you contract. unless i read the aritcla wrong who should be happy?
  • Got a question. I have 2 Verizon smartphones from 2012 that are obviously locked. I am no longer a Verizon customer. If i get them unlocked, can i use them on ATT since they have the gsm and hspa frequencies needed for it?
  • How lucky we are in the UK. Carphone Warehouse sells all its handsets unlocked. Handsets from Three are unlocked. EE will unlock PAYG handsets for £20 regardless of how long youve had the handset (I applied the day I bought my L735, and received the code 5 days later; used credit to pay for it); O2 will unlock contract phones free upon request, but pAYG have to wait a year , I think; giffgaff phones are unlocked... And all the phones here work on all networks.  
  • The fact that they could still make you wait one year for a prepaid device is ridiculous.   I'll continue to buy my phones unlocked from the start, thank you carriers!
  • These policies are not much better. They can charge a "reasonable fee" to unlock a phone for a non-customer? That's ridiculous. This whole lock stuff is stupid. The lock should automatically expire or the carrier should push the unlock when a contract is paid in full. No fee to unlock a phone is reasonable. Also, when you call a carrier to unlock, it's a minimum of 30 minutes on the phone and a couple days waiting for an e-mail code. At the very least they should have put up a simple web page where anyone can lookup an imei and get the unlock code. When the contract is paid the unlock should be made public.
  • Make locking illegal. Problem solved.
  • I wish
  • That, of course, is the only fair and correct thing to do.  However, no federal legislation will ever address this consumer problem because the lawmakers have all been "bought-off" by the powerful cell phone carriers.  
  • What about SIM-less phones? Prior to getting my Lumia 920, I loved my LG Lotus feature phone. Locked to Sprint using CDMA, not GSM. It was illegal for anyone, including Sprint's own Boost prepaid service, to reflash the ROM. Are these phones completely worthless?
  • Yes unless you visit somewhere that has service providers that do that stuff
  • U can unlock you phone for $4 on eBay, just skip that juicy Carls Jr. Burger for once
  • Does this mean I can get my at&t vivotab unlocked without being a customer? I just want to use it in Canada where I bought it.
  • I just finished my unlock code request on the official at&t site, the Non-Customer option is now active! Go to att.com/deviceunlock
  • Welcome to 2005! :P
  • Glad to see our friends in the US are finally able to make carrier's compliant. Here in Australia its been against the law to lock carrier sold devices since 2012.
    Regards JOHN
  • In my case I would definetely have my Nokia 521 from Tmo unlocked starting next week (it's paid off) just in case I need to sell it. I don't see any other benefits.
  • Nobody warns you as to how truly difficult it can be to switch carriers if you attempt to BYOD (bring your own device). I wasted four visits to the local AT&T store, one trip to a regional AT&T center, and several hours on the phone to attempt to get my wife's iPhone unlocked after her two-year contract was completed and we had switched to T-Mobile.  I never got the same answer twice as far as how long it would take to get this phone unlocked: anywhere from a few days to two months. It was a very difficult situation because my wife relied almost totally on her phone to stay in contact with her patients. I bought a prepaid phone to tide her over and paid an online service (not related to AT&T) to unlock the phone, which they did in about 24 hours. Dealing with AT&T is enough to bring on a case of Stockholm Syndrome!
  • I just finished my code request using the att.com/deviceunlock page. Now it has the Non-Customer option and it only asks you for the IMEI, your name and your email. Then it sais that they'll email me with the notification of the status of my request within 2 days. Let's find out what happens. By the way, my phone is a Lumia 1520, I'm from Mexico and I haven´t even taken out the SIM from the card where it comes, bought it in the presale from the Microsoft Store.