Android devices are great for folks who want many options when it comes to their cell phone. With a myriad of manufacturers pumping out a variety of models every year, there truly is something for everyone. But what happens when you purchase a great Android phone from a carrier but want to use it with another cell service provider? Do you have to abandon your phone and start fresh with something new and unfamiliar? Thankfully, unlocking an Android phone is easy, legal, and totally safe. Read on to discover how to unlock an Android phone.
Good to know: check out these essential Android apps and start using them on your phone.
What Is an Unlocked Phone?
Generally, cell phones are "locked" to a particular service provider, preventing them from being used with another network. Unlocking a phone allows you to change service providers easily. In most cases, you need to swap SIM cards. Unlocking a phone has a number of benefits. Being able to use a phone with any network can add resale value, as you have a much larger field of potential buyers. Furthermore, unlocking enables you to shop around and change providers if you become dissatisfied with your current service.
What You Will Need
The unlocking process varies from carrier to carrier. Some are simple and straightforward, while others may require you to jump through more hoops. That said, unlocking your device is worth the effort.
Regardless of which carrier you're with, you're going to need a few bits of information on hand to complete the unlocking process. The information outlined below may not be necessary for every carrier, but we recommend having it on hand just in case.
- Account holder details (name, account number, address)
- Cell phone number
- Account holder's social security number or password
- IMEI number of the device
- Deployment papers for military personnel who wish to unlock their phone before their contract is up.
Tip: for additional details about the IMEI number, check out our dedicated post.
What Is an IMEI and How to Find It
IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity. The IMEI is a unique string of digits that identifies your device. It can also tell you a bunch of information about your Android, including things like the manufacturer, year of release, and other specifications. No two IMEI numbers are the same; therefore, you can think of the IMEI as a social security number or a car's VIN (vehicle identification number).
The easiest way to find your device's IMEI is to dial *#06#. Doing so will display the IMEI number along with some other information. If you have a phone that supports two SIM cards, you will see two different IMEI numbers: one for each SIM card slot. Alternatively, you can pull up the IMEI from your device's Settings. Head to "Settings -> About Phone -> IMEI" on most Android phones.
Each carrier has a slightly different method when it comes to unlocking a device. In addition, there are different stipulations as to which devices are eligible for unlocking. We have detailed how each major carrier in the United States handles device unlocking below.
While Verizon does lock their phones, they only do so for 60 days. This means that after two months, your device should be unlocked automatically, all without having to lift a finger. This applies to both postpaid (where the user pays a monthly bill after service has been rendered) and prepaid (where the user pays for the service upfront) devices.
Deployed military are exempt from the 60-day rule; however, they would need to request an early unlock by contacting Verizon. You can read more about Verizon's device unlocking policies here.
FYI: deleted a phone number by mistake? Learn how to recover your Android contacts.
Unlocking an AT&T phone requires a bit more elbow grease compared to Verizon, but it's a fairly simple process overall. The time it takes to process an unlock request can try your patience. AT&T requires users to submit an unlock request form online. However, before you do that, you'll want to make sure your device is eligible. AT&T has quite a few stipulations that must be met before they will unlock a device.
- Device must be active on AT&T's network for 60 days
- Device must be paid for – wait 48 hours after you make your final payment to submit the unlock request
- Device can't be reported lost or stolen
- There can't be a past-due account balance
- Prepaid phones must be active for 60 days, and the unlock request must be submitted via AT&T's device unlock app
If your device meets all of the requirements listed above, submit the online unlock request form. As mentioned above, AT&T takes a bit more time to process your unlock request. However, check the status of your request online with your IMEI number. Finally, if you are active military or have a business account with AT&T, the unlock process can vary.
Unlocking a device on T-Mobile can be done entirely online. However, like AT&T, you will need to ensure that your device is eligible by satisfying the requirements outlined below.
- Device must be sold by T-Mobile
- Device cannot be reported lost or stolen
- Account associated with the device must be in good standing
- Postpaid devices must be active for at least 40 days before unlocking and be paid for and all payments satisfied
- At least 365 days must have passed since a prepaid device was activated. Alternatively, if it was activated less than 365 days ago, there must have been more than $100 of refills on the account that is required to be active for at least 14 days
If your device meets the requirements, check your device's unlock status or learn how to unlock devices from different manufacturers. Active military are eligible to have a device unlocked at any time upon provision of deployment papers. Contact T-Mobile for more information.
Tip: looking for a new device? Check out our list of the best budget Android phones you can purchase right now.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are the three major network carriers in the United States. However, there are many other providers to choose from. These carriers are MVNOs or Mobile Virtual Network Operators.
This means that these providers essentially piggyback off of the network hardware supplied by the three major networks we mentioned earlier. There are pros and cons to MVNOs, but when it comes to unlocking devices on their networks, the steps are going to mirror the major three. For more information, refer to the links provided below.
Since virtually all of the major carriers in the U.S. offer device unlocking, third-party unlocking services aren't really necessary. If your phone isn't eligible to be unlocked from the carrier itself, or your device can't be unlocked using the methods outlined above, there are other options.
There are a variety of IMEI unlocking services. For a fee, these services can disable the software that locks the device to a particular carrier. If you decide to go down this route, you definitely want to do your research. There have been a number of scams associated with device unlocking, so make sure you're going with a reputable company. Consult a website like Trustpilot to read reviews of an unlocking service before you fork over the cash. Some of the best-reviewed unlocking services include the following:
Tip: getting a "No SIM card detected" error message on your Android device? Learn what you can do about it.
Is Unlocking My Phone Legal?
Yes. Unlocking your Android device is completely free and legal. In fact, back in 2014, the CTIA Wireless Association adopted six standards related to mobile device unlocking. You can read all about it, courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission. However, the long and short of it says that network carriers must provide device unlocking upon request – provided certain "reasonable" eligibility requirements are met. Virtually all carriers in the United States are CTIA compliant. They will all provide device unlocking services, provided they have no evidence of fraudulent activity.
Is There Any Risk Associated with Unlocking?
Generally speaking, there is no risk associated with unlocking your phone from a hardware standpoint. If a phone is locked, it simply means that the network carrier has placed a software lock on the device. This software lock can be removed without impacting the functionality of your device. Once you unlock a device from a network, you will no longer receive support from that carrier. If you experience connectivity issues or any other problems, you'll be on your own.
Good to know: check out how to change your SIM PIN on Android and iPhone.
Making the Right Decision for You
Unlocking your Android device is safe and affords a number of benefits. From increased resale value to the ability to easily change network carriers, there aren't many arguments against unlocking. Does unlocking your device sound like something you want to do on your iPhone? You can unlock iOS devices as well. Once your device is unlocked, you may want to shop around for a new carrier, such as an MVNO.
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