You could be forgiven for thinking that phone contracts go something like this: buying the phone will give you the ability to switch networks easily, while getting the device under contract means you’re tied to the provider.
While this is true to some degree, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A locked phone will prevent you from using your minutes, texts and data with a new SIM card, but once the contract is over you’re probably free to do whatever you want.
In the UK, networks are no longer allowed to sell locked handsets. UK communications regulator Ofcom has introduced a new set of rules that will prevent any network from being allowed to sell an unlocked phone, which came into force in December 2021.
That’s not true everywhere though, and in the US in particular, most smartphones are still sold locked to a specific carrier.
Just to clarify, we’re referring to phones that can be locked to particular service providers. If you can’t access your device anymore because you forgot your password, PIN or swipe gesture, check out our guide here.
Is it legal to unlock your phone?
If you have finished paying your contract, it is completely legal to unlock your phone. The same goes for any phone you purchased outright.
However, if you are still paying off your original contract, unlocking your phone from other providers may not be possible until the end of the contract. Some carriers may not have anything against it, but it’s definitely worth checking before you start the process.
Before proceeding, make 100% sure that your phone is already locked. Check out our dedicated guide to find out how.
How to unlock your phone
Unlocking a phone can be surprisingly easy once you know how.
- First, you will need to contact your provider and request an unlock. This should be the original network, not the network of the new SIM card you are trying to use.
- You will normally need your IMEI number, which you can usually find on the original packaging, or which you can find out by dialing *#06* on the phone’s keypad.
- Once you have received confirmation that your phone has been unlocked by your provider, you can turn off the phone, insert your new SIM card into the SIM card slot, and turn the phone back on.
- Now try to make a call to know if the unlock was successful or not. If you are able to connect a phone call on the new network, the unlock worked. If not, contact your network provider again for assistance.
If you don’t have the original SIM card, you may need to reset the phone before you can unlock it.
Taking a closer look at step one, we’ve listed each of the popular network providers in the US and UK to help you learn how to unlock your phone. Find your carrier from the list below and follow the instructions provided.
To unlock an AT&T phone, you must have paid for your plan in full – or if it’s a prepaid phone, you must have used it for at least six months.
Go to the AT&T unlock page to find your IMEI number and begin the process of unlocking your device.
Sprint also requires your payment plan to be fully refunded, in addition to a minimum of 40 days of use on the Sprint network.
It actually aims to automatically unlock most devices within two days of qualifying – so your phone may already be unlocked. If not, you should receive a notification with instructions.
If you’re not sure, head over to Sprint’s unlock page – at the very bottom you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to unlock your phone.
If you’re on T-Mobile, you can unlock your phone as long as you’ve paid for it and used it on the network for 40 days. Prepaid phones must be used for at least one year. You should receive a notification once your device is eligible.
If you’re not sure, you can find out by logging into My T-Mobile and choosing your line of accounts. page (note that this does not work in the app). Then choose “Check device unlock status”.
Once you’re ready to unlock, T-Mobile has step-by-step instructions for different types of Android phones for you to follow.
Verizon phones are locked for 60 days after purchase, but after that time they should unlock automatically.
The company doesn’t provide unlocking instructions as the process should be automatic, but contact customer support if for some reason your device didn’t unlock.
Visit EE’s Phone Unlock Page
To unlock your EE phone, you must be the account holder of the device and number, have owned the device for at least six months, have paid your bill up to date, and have not reported the device as lost or stolen.
While EE used to charge to unlock certain handsets, such as those still under contract, it will now unlock any device for free.
EE aims to unlock your phone instantly, but it can take up to seven days in some cases.
You can learn more about unlocking your EE phone and contact EE directly by clicking here.
Giffgaff is a little unusual in that it offers an “unlockapedia” that you can use to research your phone’s make and model so you know how to go about unlocking it.
You can find the Giffgaff unlockapedia here.
O2 will unlock your phone anytime for free. However, you will have to continue to pay your contract until its end.
O2 says the easiest way to do this is to use My O2 Online or the My O2 app, and the network has more detailed instructions here.
Phones purchased through Sky should already be unlocked, so you won’t need to contact the company to unlock your phone. Instead, try your new SIM card and it should work.
If you’re using an iPhone, you may need to go to Settings > Mobile data > Mobile data options > Mobile data network > Reset settings.
If you have a phone with Tesco Mobile it will be free to unlock whether you are on contract or not.
All you need to do is submit an unlock request and have your IMEI number handy.
It can take up to seven days to unlock a phone on Tesco Mobile.
Three offers an online unlock form, but if you purchased your phone from Three after January 1, 2014, your device will already be unlocked.
Most Virgin Mobile phones will already be unlocked, so you shouldn’t have a problem here. Just try the new SIM card and it should work without requiring any further action.
You will be able to use Vodafone’s online unlock request form. It can take up to 10 business days to receive an unlock code from the company. You will also need to be up to date with your bills.
Using a third-party unlocking service
We always recommend checking with your network provider before using a third-party unlocking service, but sometimes it can be much quicker and easier.
It’s important to watch out for third-party unlocking services that sting customers with extra bills at the end of the process, so be sure to read the fine print before handing over your money.
We’ve tried and tested Doctor SIM in the UK, which promises a refund if unlocking fails and didn’t surprise us with any hidden charges. This might be an option if you have tried the methods listed above.
We don’t recommend paying more than $25/£25 to unlock your phone. If someone tries to charge you more than that, they’re taking a chance.
If you have multiple phones, you may also need our guide on how to unlock an iPhone.