Unlocking a cell phone allows consumers to move their cell phone from one network to another compatible network.
Some cell phones may contain software that prevents them from being used on different mobile networks even when those networks are technologically compatible. For example, if a consumer purchased a phone from one provider to use on that provider's network, the phone may contain software that prevents it from being operated on another provider's technologically compatible network. This software "locks" the phone to a provider's network.
The unlocking process varies by device and by carrier. A carrier may automatically unlock a device after certain conditions are met, send instructions to customers on how to unlock a device upon request, or complete the unlocking process in-store.
On February 11, 2014, CTIA-The Wireless Association adopted six standards on mobile wireless device unlocking ("the commitment") into the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service:
- Disclosure. Each carrier will post on its website its clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on mobile wireless device unlocking.
- Postpaid Unlocking Policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices, for customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.
- Prepaid Unlocking Policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment, or usage requirements.
- Notice. Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee. Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former-customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier's website.
- Response Time. Within two business days after receiving a request, carriers will unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request to the OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] to unlock the eligible device, or provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request.
- Deployed Personnel Unlocking Policy. Carriers will unlock mobile wireless devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.
Signatories to the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service ("participating providers") implemented all of these principles on or before February 11, 2015.
Contact your wireless service provider to find out when and how your phone may be unlocked. Many devices can be unlocked with unlock codes or other software updates. Participating providers will unlock postpaid mobile wireless devices for customers or former customers in good standing after fulfillment of the applicable service contract or device installment plan, or payment of an early termination fee. For devices purchased for prepaid wireless service, participating providers will unlock devices within one year of initial activation, consistent with the provider's reasonable time, payment, or usage requirements.
Carriers typically use different frequencies and air interface technologies to provide mobile wireless network access. Accordingly, a device that works on one provider's network may not be technologically compatible with another provider's network. "Unlocking" a device refers only to disabling software that would prevent a consumer from attempting to activate a device designed for one provider's network on another provider's network even if that network is technologically compatible. In other words, "unlocking" a device will not make a device fully interoperable—a device designed for one network is not made technologically compatible with another network merely by "unlocking" it. Additionally, "unlocking" a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all (e.g., an unlocked device may support voice services but not data services).
For information about other telecommunications issues, visit the FCC's Consumer Help Center Website, or contact the FCC's Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
45 L Street NE
Washington, DC 20554