Cellular carriers can no longer use locking as a way of preventing customers from switching carriers. As of February 11, 2015, all carriers must unlock cell phones, tablets or other mobile devices. The FCC has created a website that explains this new legal right for consumers. Importantly, carriers must not charge any fees or create any unreasonable hurdles for unlocking your phone. Importantly, your prepaid device is eligible to be unlocked by a participating provider no later than one year after activation.
This new consumer right was created by the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. It became law in August 2014. (Although the law is complicated by a conflicting law passed in 1998; it’s a long story) So, if you want to change carriers but keep your mobile device, the carriers can no longer block you by locking you. However, like any law, there are some wrinkles about which you should be aware. For example, if you bought your device through an installment plan, the plan term needs to be over, with all installments paid. If you purchased a subsidized phone as part of a one- or two-year contract, the contract term needs to be over.
There is one other major wrinkle: interoperability. For instance, phones that work on AT&T Mobility’s network are unlikely to work on Sprint’s network since the two carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands. There’s also frequency issues; to use a smartphone on a certain LTE network, that smartphone will have to support that LTE network’s frequency. Different models of phones are often created to work on different LTE networks around the world. So choosing a phone with broad LTE capability is important.
If you are an AT&T customer, you can unlock your phone using this link.
If you are a T-Mobile customer, you can unlock your phone using this link.
If you are a Sprint customer, things are a bit trickier. Because it is on a CDMA platform (like Verizon), unlocking is complicated. CDMA phones don’t have removable modules like this. All CDMA phones ship locked to a specific network and you’d have to get both your old carrier and your new carrier to cooperate to switch phones between them. In reality, many people just consider CDMA phones eternally locked to a specific carrier. Details of how to unlock a Sprint device can be found using this link. It turns out that some older Sprint phones don’t unlock easily.
So if you have a desire to switch cell carriers, you no longer need to be frustrated by carriers’ reluctance to unlock the devices. But beware of entering into subsidized phone contracts — they are the primary tool by which carriers will continue to thwart your desire to change carriers.