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).
Q1: What does it mean to "unlock" a cell phone?
Unlocking a device allows consumers to move their device from one network to another compatible network. The unlocking process varies by device and by provider. A provider 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.
Some phones are sold with built-in software that prevents them from working on a different carrier. That is, if one provider sold you a "locked" phone, then you would not be able to use that phone on another provider's compatible network. "Unlocking" a phone removes those technical limitations, although it does not resolve all technological compatibility issues with switching networks.
Q2: Has the CTIA commitment on device unlocking taken full effect?
On February 11, 2014, CTIA-The Wireless Association adopted six standards on mobile wireless device unlocking into the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service. Signatories to the Consumer Code for Wireless Service implemented all of these standards on or before February 11, 2015.
Q3: Why do providers lock mobile wireless devices?
In many instances, devices are sold with subsidies (or discounts) in exchange for a required service plan commitment, often months or years in length, or pursuant to a device financing plan. Most service plan agreements have an early termination clause that includes a penalty to be paid to end the agreement ahead of schedule. Locking software is meant to ensure that devices will be active for a certain period of time or amount of usage on the network of the provider that sold that device with a subsidy (or discount) or with a device installment plan.
Q4: Is my cell phone locked?
With many providers, unless you purchased a phone or device specifically sold as "unlocked" at the point of purchase, you should presume that it is locked to a specific wireless service provider's network. This may be true whether you purchase the device from a wireless service provider, at a general retail outlet (in person or on the web), or through a third-party. Some wireless service providers do not generally lock the phones or devices they sell.
Q5: Can other mobile devices besides phones be locked?
Tablets and other mobile devices can be locked to networks. The commitment covers phones and tablets. You should check with your service provider to see if your phone or tablet is locked and what terms and conditions apply to unlocking it.
Q6: Will my provider unlock my phone upon request?
You should speak with your service provider to understand the terms and conditions of your agreement with your provider and the provider's policies on unlocking mobile devices. The six principles on unlocking in the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service have been fully implemented by all signatories to the Consumer Code. Participating providers will provide you with a clear, concise and readily accessible policy on mobile wireless device unlocking on their websites, and will respond to your unlock request pursuant to their unlocking policy.
Q7: When is my device eligible for unlocking?
Participating providers will unlock your postpaid device after you have fulfilled the applicable service contract, device installment plan terms or payment of an early termination fee and are in good standing. Your prepaid device is eligible to be unlocked by participating providers no later than one year after activation, consistent with each provider's reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.
Q8: Will my phone automatically be unlocked when my contract is fulfilled?
It depends on your provider. Under the commitment, participating providers will notify you at the time when your postpaid device is eligible for unlocking if the device is not automatically unlocked. For prepaid devices, participating providers will notify when your device is eligible for unlocking at the point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the wireless service provider's policy on its website. When your device is eligible, some providers may automatically unlock it remotely. In this case, providers of postpaid devices are not required to notify you at the time when the device is eligible for unlocking. Other providers may require you to formally request to have your phone unlocked. Under the commitment, participating providers will unlock eligible devices, provide you with unlocking instructions, or initiate an unlocking request to the device manufacturer – or provide an easily understood explanation of denial – within two business days of receiving an unlock request, or will explain why the wireless service provider reasonably needs additional time to process the request.
Q9: Will I be charged fees to unlock my device?
Participating providers will not charge customers or former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked. Providers may charge a reasonable fee to unlock eligible devices for non-customers/non-former-customers.
Q10: Are there exceptions to allow devices to be unlocked for military deployments?
Yes. Under the commitment, if you are deployed internationally or receive orders for international deployment, participating wireless service providers will unlock your device upon verification of deployment.
Q11: Can my provider refuse to unlock my phone because I am not "in good standing"?
Yes. Participating providers do not have to unlock devices for customers or former customers that are not in good standing or have not satisfied the applicable service contract, device financing plan, or paid the applicable early termination fee. You should contact your provider to understand the terms and conditions of your agreement with your provider and your wireless service provider's unlocking policies.
Q12: Will my unlocked mobile device work on all networks?
No. Network technology (GSM, LTE, CDMA, etc.) varies globally and across the United States. In other words, your device technology must be compatible with network technology to enable access and functionality. Because the technologies differ, your device will not work across all networks.
Additionally, devices are optimized to work with wireless service providers' networks for which they are sold. Although your mobile device may work on a compatible network, certain features on your unlocked phone may not work optimally, and some features may not work at all.
Q13: Will unlocking my device enable it roam on international networks?
Whether your device is locked or unlocked, you should check with your provider before you travel internationally to find out if your device will work abroad. Mobile networks differ from country to country, and your device may be incompatible with the networks where you are traveling. Also, if your phone works for voice calls, some other functions – such as sending and receiving mobile data or text messaging – might not work.
Before travelling internationally, you should take time to understand all the roaming rules and rates before you travel. Advance preparation can prevent disappointments such as lack of service or unexpectedly high charges on your next bill.
Research your options and find useful tips using our Consumer Guide: International Roaming – Using Your Mobile Phone in Other Countries.
Q14: How does the Digital Millennium Copyright Act affect consumer use of cell phones?
The DMCA generally prohibits bypassing access controls on copyrighted materials. Cell phones often contain access controls that "lock" the phone to a particular network. The DMCA generally prohibits unauthorized removal or modification of cell phone access controls.
Q15: Where can I find more information about mobile wireless device unlocking?
Please consult our consumer guide on Mobile Phone and Device Unlocking FAQs.
For information about other telecommunications issues, visit the FCC's Consumer Inquiries and Complaint Center, or call 1-888-225-5322 voice or ASL Video 1-844-4432-2275; fax 1-866-418-0232; or write to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
45 L Street NE
Washington, DC 20554