When you purchase a cell phone from a carrier, it generally comes locked — meaning it includes a software code that ensures your mobile device connects only to a specific network so you can’t get or use a signal with any other service.
Unlocking your phone means that you can switch carriers if you’re dissatisfied with the service, move to a different region, are traveling, or want to keep your old handset when you change networks. If you’re looking to switch providers or are just hoping to add some value when selling your phone, unlocking it is a must. Don’t worry — it’s completely legal to do.
While most cell phone operators offer unlocking services after you’ve fully paid off your phone and all installments or your contract term has expired, it doesn’t always happen automatically. AT&T, Boost Mobile, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Virgin Mobile, Xfinity, and many more offer unlocking services. The process can be tedious and differs depending on the provider, so we’ve broken down the steps for each one. It’s generally a good idea to unlock your phone when it goes off-contract. On the Apple side, if you paid for your iPhone in full upon purchase, then it’s probably unlocked already. Unlocked phones are generally worth more than locked ones.
What you’ll need
Unlocking a phone that’s come off contract should be second nature, and you will find it’s worth the effort. The difficulty of unlocking a phone can vary based on the carrier, and what is a straightforward process with one can be a pain with another. No matter how challenging the unlocking procedure gets, it’s a good idea to unlock your phone before you leave your current carrier because it will likely prove even tougher after your contract has run out. Even if you’re not planning to use your old phone, who knows when you might need it in the future? While procedures vary, there’s a list of information you’ll need to unlock your phone, so keep it handy before you start.
- Account holder’s name and account number
- IMEI number of your device
- Your phone number
- Account holder’s Social Security number or password
- A completed contract and/or device payment plan
- Overseas deployment papers, for military personnel who want to unlock the phone before the contract expires
With that information, here’s how each carrier handles unlocking your phone.
Unlocking a Verizon phone
Verizon locks its devices — but only for a short time. According to Verizon’s policy, newly purchased devices are locked to Verizon’s networks for 60 days after purchase to help mitigate theft and fraud. This rule applies to both postpaid and prepaid devices, and the lock is automatically removed after 60 days. This means that — unlike most other carriers — there isn’t really a list of criteria to unlock your phone. Deployed military are exempt from this rule, and can request an unlock during this period by calling Verizon’s support line at 800-922-0204.
Even though SIM-equipped Verizon phones can be used on AT&T, T-Mobile, or other GSM carriers, the phone will need roaming GSM radios to make calls and send texts in the U.S. While most recent Verizon handsets work just fine on American GSM bands, your mileage will vary when it comes to LTE support. Verizon’s unlocking policies don’t mention international devices, which may still require assistance, in which case you can call the company’s support line at 800-922-0204. Off-the-shelf Phone-in-a-Box prepaid 4G handsets are locked to the network for the amount of time specified on the box. You may also have to call Verizon’s prepaid support line at 888-294-6804 to start the unlock process.
Unlocking an AT&T phone
Unlocking a phone from AT&T is a bit complex, but still pretty easy. Here’s the checklist of what you need to unlock your AT&T handset.
- The device must work on AT&T’s networks.
- If you’re a current customer, your contract or installment plan must be fully paid off (including early termination fees). If not, pay off your plan early and wait 48 hours before making a request.
- It must not have been reported lost or stolen or involved in fraud.
- The account must be in “good standing” — not associated with fraudulent activity.
- It must not be active on a different AT&T customer’s account.
- On a postpaid account, it must have been active for at least 60 days, with “no past due or unpaid balance.”
- If it’s an AT&T prepaid device, it must be in service for at least six months.
- If you’ve upgraded early, you must wait for the 14-day “buyer’s remorse” period (30 days for business customers) before unlocking your old phone.
- If it’s a business device, then you must have your company’s permission.
- For military personnel, email AT&T your TCS or PCS (Temporary/permanent change of station) documents to unlock before your contract or payments end.
AT&T has an unlock request form you can complete online. Enter your AT&T mobile number — or if you’ve already switched — the IMEI number from your AT&T device. After submitting this form, you’ll have 24 hours to click the link from the confirmation email sent to you. AT&T will send instructions for unlocking your device via text or email within two business days. AT&T no longer has a hard unlock limit per year, so unless you’re sending a hundred unlock requests a month don’t worry about being flagged as suspicious. You can check to see whether your request has been successful on AT&T’s unlock status page. The network also offers limited unlocks via its support line at 800-331-0500, but doesn’t officially unlock handsets over the phone.
Unlock instructions and codes provided by AT&T vary depending on the device. Apple iPhones don’t need an unlock code. Instead, after receiving the email approving your unlock request, just remove your AT&T SIM card and insert the SIM card for your new carrier to begin the setup process. Military members can unlock iPhones, including those on installment plans, but must register active-duty status when filling out AT&T’s forms.
Unlocking a T-Mobile phone
T-Mobile may well be the Un-carrier, but it has very similar criteria for unlocking to other carriers. Here’s what you need to keep in mind if you want to unlock your T-Mobile phone:
- It must be a T-Mobile device.
- It must not have been reported lost, stolen, or blocked (via IMEI).
- It must be attached to an account that is in “good standing.”
- On postpaid accounts, the device must have been fully paid for and have been active for at least 40 days on the requesting line.
- On prepaid accounts, the device must have had more than $100 in refills since the first use date, or have been active for at least a year.
- If the device is on a service contract, at least 18 consecutive monthly payments must have been made.
- If using T-Mobile’s Equipment Installment Plan, or if your phone is leased through JUMP! On Demand, all payments must be made and the device must be fully paid for.
- You’ve made fewer than two unlock requests, per line, in the last 12 months.
- T-Mobile may request to see proof of purchase.
Some Android phones can be unlocked via their Settings menus. Others, like Google Pixel or older Samsung phones, can use Device Unlock apps from T-Mobile — these methods are not compatible with all phones. Deployed military personnel can also get their phones unlocked as long as they’re in good standing, and can produce deployment papers.
T-Mobile should send unlock notifications to your iPhone once it is eligible, and may send you an unlock code. If you don’t have this information, contact T-Mobile directly and ask for it. You can also unlock your phone through a live chat with a T-Mobile customer representative, or by calling 611 from a T-Mobile device, or 877-746-0909 from another phone. There is no iOS version of the T-Mobile unlocking app.
Unlocking a Sprint phone
After its merger with T-Mobile, Sprint is no longer an independent entity. Sprint says that domestic SIM unlock-capable devices launched after 2015 will automatically unlock when they become eligible on postpaid accounts. Sprint phones released before this period generally cannot be SIM unlocked. Before Sprint unlocks your phone, you’ll need to ensure your device and account meet the requirements below.
- It must be a device from Sprint.
- It must be domestic SIM Unlock capable (if unlocking in the U.S.).
- It must not have been reported lost, stolen or blocked, or associated with any fraud.
- It must be attached to an account in “good standing.”
- It must have been active for at least 40 days on the requesting line.
- There must be no outstanding or pending payments or fees.
If your device is currently inactive, call Sprint Customer Service at 888-211-4727 to get the device unlocked. Be prepared to potentially force an over-the-air update to get it unlocked, and you may have to submit to extra validation to ensure your device can be unlocked. If you have a Sprint iPhone that is still locked, your best bet is to call Sprint Customer Service. If you’re unlocking for international use, you must also ensure the device is capable of international SIM unlock. Because the carrier relied on CDMA networking technology, many Sprint phones won’t be compatible with carriers running on GSM networks. You should first verify compatibility with your new carrier before unlocking your phone.
If you’re a member of the U.S. military deployed overseas, with an account in good standing, and you want your Sprint phone unlocked, the carrier relaxes some of its requirements. Family members on the same account are subject to the policy. Unlock your phone by contacting Sprint International Support or by calling 888-226-7212.
Unlocking a Metro by T-Mobile phone
Metro by T-Mobile, formerly known as Metro PCS, is one of the most popular choices when it comes to prepaid services. While it bears the T-Mobile branding, the requirements to unlock your phone vary slightly.
- It must be from Metro.
- It must have had active service for a minimum of 180 consecutive days (about six months).
- If you have a warranty-exchanged handset, then the 180 days is based on the activation date of the original phone.
- The 180-day service requirement is waived for military personnel — you can visit a corporate store with deployment papers, and an agent will provide an unlock code for your device.
You can also contact Metro by T-Mobile Customer Service or visit a Metro Store and request an unlock code for the phone. Be sure to have the phone number of the handset you are unlocking, the name on the account, and the account billing PIN. Another method of unlocking is through the Device Unlock app, usually found in the Metro by T-Mobile folder of your phone. This can only be done with a select group of phones, including the Alcatel A30, LG Aristo, and Samsung J7 Prime. Since rebranding, Metro by T-Mobile now operates in the GSM network as opposed to CDMA, so your unlocked Metro phone will work only with other GSM carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T.
If you have an Apple device, once it becomes eligible, Metro by T-Mobile will automatically authorize and initiate an unlock for your device remotely. To complete the unlock on your device, verify that your device is eligible to be unlocked, make sure your device is on Wi-Fi, insert a non-T-Mobile SIM card into your iPhone, and complete the first-time use. If the device has already been set up, follow the on-screen instructions to sign in to your Apple ID.
Military personnel must visit a Metro by T-Mobile store for unlocking services. You need to show proof of military status, so bring your deployment papers with you. Once verified, Metro will email you an unlock code in two to three days to use to unlock your phone.
Unlocking a Boost Mobile phone
Boost Mobile operates on the CDMA network, and after unlocking, a Boost Mobile phone is compatible with SIM cards from other CDMA carriers like Verizon and U.S. Cellular — but not GSM carriers like AT&T. The best way to unlock a Boost Mobile phone is to call the customer service line at 833-502-6678 or chat on boostmobile.com. After getting the unlock code, enter it per the customer support team’s instructions, and the unlock will get processed within a few days. Before you do anything, ensure your Boost Mobile device is unlockable. Boost requires the following:
- It must not be reported lost or stolen or flagged as unlockable.
- The device has been active for at least 12 months on the account.
- The device’s account is in good standing and active.
- All payments must have been made within three months.
Like Metro by T-Mobile, A SIM unlock is not possible for many phones manufactured before 2015. The carrier cannot unlock other carrier locks, so your device must have been purchased from Boost. Newer phones have some compatibility with GSM/LTE networks through T-Mobile, which continues coverage for Boost Mobile customers, though an agreement of the Sprint-T-Mobile merger allocates Boost Mobile customers to the Dish network.
Active military personnel can request an unlock with their deployment papers and an account in good standing, and family members on the same account are also eligible for SIM unlocks. Each phone number is allowed up to two unlocked devices during a 12-month period.
Unlocking a U.S. Cellular phone
Most of U.S. Cellular’s 4G LTE devices are sold unlocked. Phones sold before 2016 can potentially be updated through an over-the-air update, so make sure your device is up to date before contacting U.S. Cellular about unlocking. If that doesn’t apply to your device, or if you have a 3G or 1X device, then you’ll need an unlock code from U.S. Cellular’s customer service line on 611 (from a U.S. Cellular device) or 888-944-9400 on another device.
Like other carriers, U.S. Cellular’s unlocking procedure facilitates unlocking of phones and tablets, as long as they adhere to the following criteria.
- It must be a device from U.S. Cellular.
- The device in question must not have been lost, stolen, or obtained fraudulently.
- The device in question must have been fully paid for.
A specific range of popular phones from Apple and Samsung, whether prepaid or postpaid, are subject to a 120-day lock policy to deter theft and fraud. An account in good standing that meets those requirements can still request an early unlock. Deployed military personnel can also get their device unlocked earlier by presenting their deployment papers, as long as their account has no past-due balance.
U.S. Cellular warns some devices can’t be unlocked, either because of the age of the device or because it doesn’t have the technology to access other networks. If that sounds like your device, you can contact U.S. Cellular on 611 (from a U.S. Cellular device) or 888-944-9400 on another device.
iPhone error message? Here’s what to do
You might see this message on your computer or on your iPhone: “The SIM card inserted in this iPhone does not appear to be supported. Only compatible SIM cards from a supported carrier may be used to activate iPhone. Please insert the SIM card that came with your iPhone or visit a supported carrier store.” If you see that message, do this:
Since iOS 14, you can check your phone’s status. Go to Settings > General > About and scroll down to the section called Carrier Lock. This section should say No SIM Restrictions. If you don’t see that message, then your carrier probably hasn’t unlocked your phone yet. Contact your carrier immediately to find out what is going on. This should be enough to get your iPhone properly unlocked, but if you keep having difficulties, you may have to restore your iPhone to factory settings and reboot from a backup.
Unlocking your prepaid or fully paid phone
Unlocking a fully paid up device is, for the most part, relatively straightforward. While there was already a generalized unlocking policy, the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA) put forth a set of standardized unlocking policies for cell phones and tablets. The terms require carriers to unlock a phone paid in full, or a prepaid phone in service for a year, if a subscriber requests it. Cellular providers also have to alert subscribers when their handsets are eligible for an unlock. Finally, carriers must unlock phones for U.S. military personnel upon request. All major carriers are now in line with the terms.
Unlocking your phone doesn’t mean you can just take it to any other provider. Some modern phones are built for that kind of compatibility, but others are still only designed for the network capabilities and features of a particular carrier. Most carriers offer an online Bring Your Own Phone tool to see if your unlocked device will work on their network. You’ll just need to enter your device’s IMEI number to get an instant check.
Third-party lock breakers
If you encounter problems with an official carrier unlock, you can still opt for an IMEI unlock, which works identically to the official carrier unlock. There are plenty of IMEI unlock companies, but it’s best to go with trusted vendors like Express Unlocks (for iPhones), DoctorSIM, MobileUnlocked, UnlockBase, Cellphone Unlock, UnlockUnit, Unlock River, and Unlock Radar. Check review sites like Trustpilot before making a final decision or paying up. The price to unlock an iPhone varies based on your carrier. Lock breaker services support models from the newest iPhone series all the way back to the iPhone 4.
Most third-party unlocking services operate the same way. From their website, you pay varying amounts, usually under $100, for an email-based unlock code. Most require upfront payment. Reputable unlocking services have customer support lines and deliver codes quickly.
Buying unlocked phones
When all is said and done, the best option for most people is purchasing an unlocked phone rather than figuring out how to unlock one. Doing that saves you the hassle of getting it unlocked and you can choose whichever cell phone service you’d like, whether it’s prepaid, postpaid, or in between. It’s a significant investment and may hurt a little if you already have a phone, but the freedom to switch carriers at any time is worth it.
Retailers like Amazon and Walmart sell unlocked phones, but often with high upfront costs. However, there are bargains out there if you know where to look, like Amazon’s Alexa Built-in unlocked phones, for example. Those phones are much more affordable but at the expense of having Amazon’s services pre-installed.
Every iPhone you buy from Apple — either online or from an Apple Store — is unlocked, except for specific carrier financing options. An unlocked iPhone lets you choose any carrier you want. To get started with a new carrier, do the following.
- Switch off your iPhone.
- Remove the current SIM card from your old carrier.
- Insert the new SIM card for your new carrier.
- Restart your phone.
- Upon restart, follow the on-screen instructions to set up your phone.
You can also buy a SIM-free iPhone, which means your iPhone does not come with a carrier SIM card. That frees you to use a SIM card from any compatible carrier. Of course, you will have to pay for your new phone upfront and in full.
If you can’t pay in full, consider Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, where you get an unlocked iPhone in much the same manner as the SIM-free option — though it does require a credit check. Not only do you avoid the upfront cost, but you also get to pay in monthly installments and are eligible for an upgrade after 12 payments. The program includes the AppleCare+ protection program alongside a $4.17 per month add-on for AppleCare+ with Theft and Loss protection.