MTE Explains: The Difference Between a Locked and an Unlocked Smartphone

As smartphones become an integral part of our daily lives, so, too, does lingo and terminology revolving around them. For someone who hasn’t kept u with them, they can be a little confusing. One word you may have heard before is the word “unlocked.” You may have also noticed that unlocked phones are often mentioned in a positive light. Shops and auction sites may proudly boast that the phone they’re selling has been unlocked, for instance.

So, what is unlocking, and why do people want to perform it on their phones?

What Unlocking Means

First of all, let’s explore what kind of lock an “unlocked” phone has defeated exactly. When phone manufacturers make a phone, they add special software on it that can be accessed with a code. This software and its code is only meant to be used by phone carriers who sell the phone. When the carriers decide to support the manufacturer’s phone as part of their product range, they access this software using the code and use it to add a carrier lock to the phone. The lock ties the phone to the carrier’s network, so people who purchase the phone from the carrier can’t use it on anyone else’s network even if they remove the SIM card and replace it with one that uses a different network.

It’s entirely possible for a phone model to be picked up by multiple carriers which means you can see the exact same model of a phone locked to different networks.


Why Do Carriers Lock Phones?

So why is locking done in the first place? Carriers state it’s to stop people from picking up a phone cheaper than market price using a two-year contract, and then switching carriers, leaving the original carrier out of pocket. However, to get out of these two-year contracts, you need to pay the additional money upfront to fully cover the cost the carrier would lose, so they wouldn’t lose out even if someone did do this.

The real reason probably lies in a very simple argument: It makes it harder for people to leave the carrier. If they want to try someone else’s network, they can’t just slot in a rival carrier’s SIM card. This means that consumers either sacrifice their phone and leave or keep their phone and stay. Of course, this isn’t an issue if the lock on the phone has been circumvented. This is where unlocking comes in.


How Are Phones Unlocked?

When someone is interested in unlocking their phone, they can take one of several routes.

1. Asking Their Carrier

Sometimes people check with their carrier to see if they can unlock the phone through them. Some carriers come with special terms which mean that after someone adheres to them the carrier will happily unlock the phone for people who ask.

2. Unlocking It Themselves

Some phones (especially older ones) have had their lock codes published on the Internet already. If someone gets their hands on a code, it means they can enter it into their phone themselves and unlock it.

3. Use a Third Party Unlocker

Some people offer unlocking services, offering to unlock phones for a small fee. People can take their phones to these third parties and have them unlock the phone instead. You may have seen shops on the Internet and elsewhere that offer “unlocking services” as part of their range of skills; these are the kind of places people go to either unlock their phones or buy one already unlocked.

Is Unlocking a Phone Illegal?

Unlocking a phone may sound like some form of piracy. The ability to take a device and remove its restrictions to a carrier definitely sounds like something a law might protect.

Veteran smartphone users may roll their eyes at this question, but it’s entirely valid! Back in October 2012, it was illegal to unlock your phone in America. It wasn’t until February 2015 when it was realised that manufacturers were selling unlocked phones as legitimate products, and thus unlocking your phone was made legal again. In fact, if you fully pay off your contract with a phone carrier, the carrier now has to unlock a compatible phone.


Are There Any Disadvantages to Unlocking?

There aren’t really many disadvantages to a phone which has been unlocked. If someone performed the action of unlocking their phone, it may or may not void their warranty. This is a grey area and seems to vary between carriers, and even between methods of unlocking. If performed correctly while following the rules dictated by the carrier, it can be done without voiding the warranty.

Other than that, the only real disadvantage to an unlocked phone is acquiring one. Given how any SIM card can be slotted in and used on an unlocked phone, they’re often in high demand by consumers. The result is often an increase in price, so people end up paying more than they’d like for an unlocked phone. This then shows the benefit of sticking in the market of locked phones; if you can find a phone you want that’s locked to the carrier you use, and you don’t think you’ll change carriers any time soon, you can save yourself some money.

Unlocking the Mystery

With how quick the smartphone world is growing, it’s easy to get swamped in all the terminology thrown around. Hopefully now you’re a little more prepared to understand what’s happening in the smartphone world. Have you unlocked your own phone? Do you think it’s worth the hassle? Let us know in the comments.

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