Rejoice! Beginning February 11, your smartphone or tablet will no longer be tied down by the shackles of your wireless carrier’s ridiculous rules. Carriers will be required to honor your unlock request so that you can take your phone to whatever other carrier you damn well please.
The carriers and the FCC have all offered up their own informative FAQ on the matter, but if you’d rather not trudge through all of that, here’s a quick run-down on everything you need to know about unlocking your device.
What are you talking about?
Back in 2013, the CTIA (a wireless trade group) set forth a list of new voluntary standards for carriers to abide by. One of those standards specifically called out the right for users to have an unlocked device:
“...wireless provider will abide by the following standards regarding the ability of customers, former customers, and individual owners of eligible devices to unlock phones and tablets, (‘mobile wireless devices’) that are locked by or at the direction of the carrier.”
Who is participating?
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and U.S. Cellular will all adopt the new standards on February 11, 2015. From then on, you’ll be able to call your carrier and say, “Hey! I want to unlock my phone!” and they’ll comply.
Then you can take your phone and sign up for service on any other carrier, or pop in a SIM when visiting another country, and it'll work (as long as your phone is compatible with the network).
How do I unlock my phone?
It’s easy, but before you call your carrier you should make sure that your device is paid off in full and that you’re in good financial standing before you call customer service to unlock your device. If your phone is still being subsidized by your carrier, or you're behind on your bill, they don't have to unlock it.
Your carrier may also alert you when you’re eligible for unlocking, either through your monthly bill or a text message. The method varies.
If you’re already a customer of the carrier you’re contacting, you won’t have to pay a thing. But if you’re a former customer, you’ll probably have to pay a minor fee of some sort. So get your phone unlocked before you cancel service!
Military personnel can have their phones unlocked for free as long as they have proof of deployment orders, regardless if they’re currently a customer or not.
Here are handy links to all the carriers’ FAQ pages on unlocking your device:
What if I’m a pre-paid customer?
MetroPCS, Verizon Prepaid, Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, Sprint Prepaid, T-Mobile Prepaid, and AT&T’s GoPhone are all required by law to participate in this massive unlocking initiative. Their prepaid phones are normally sold unlocked, but are otherwise eligible for unlocking a year after the device has been purchased, provided that you’ve had an active account during that time. The law states that requirements have to be "reasonable," and this fits within those parameters.
Why should I unlock my phone?
The better question is: why wouldn’t you unlock your phone? Gartner Principal Research Analyst, Bill Menezes, agrees that there’s no good reason not to. “Not only does it increase your flexibility in changing carriers, but also it allows you to more easily do things like buy a prepaid international SIM when you’re traveling abroad, or even switch from a postpaid to a prepaid service if that works better for you.”
Just bear in mind that your phone or tablet may be incompatible with certain bands and carrier-specific features, and thus you may not be able to take your device to a certain network. For instance, a Verizon-exclusive phone like the Motorola Droid Turbo is not compatible with Sprint’s LTE network. Likewise, T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling capabilities are built into the operating system of certain handsets you purchase directly from T-Mobile, so in order to take advantage of that feature, you’ll want to stick with a T-Mobile-sold device.
In short: Take advantage of the opportunity to unlock your device, but do your research before taking it to another carrier or country. You’ll save yourself a ton of headache in the end, and you’ll be taking full advantage of your device’s newfound freedom.