After talking with family and friends, you may realize you’re paying way too much for your mobile phone service and decide to give your carrier a call.
They assure you that the price for the plan you’re on is the best they can offer. So you decide to take your business elsewhere since you’ve done your homework and found that other carriers cost less, including a crop of new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) undercutting many of the big guys — with comparable call quality, coverage and data speeds.
But is your phone unlocked so you have the freedom to go to another company? Or will you have to shell out big bucks for a new device?
Join today and get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Other reasons to figure out whether your phone is unlocked: You’re ready to take that bucket list trip to Europe and want to rent a SIM card while you’re there since it likely will be much cheaper than roaming charges overseas with your existing carrier. Or perhaps you've purchased a new phone and want to make sure your old one is unlocked to sell it.
Here’s how to determine if your phone is unlocked and how to request that it be unlocked with your carrier. The answers vary by what kind of phone you have and which carrier you’re with.
Carriers used to have two standards. Verizon used CDMA, which stands for code division multiple access, while AT&T and T-Mobile used GSM, Global System for Mobiles.
But most phones manufactured after 2010 are “dual band” and have been able to operate on either network as mobile phone companies built up their 4G LTE networks. Carriers will be shutting down both their CDMA and GSM networks at various times in 2022 because they are 3G bands, so be aware that at some time during the next year you'll stop being able to use any CDMA- or GSM-only phone.
How to tell if your phone is unlocked
If you purchased your phone without a SIM card — say, directly from the manufacturer or a big box store rather than on a contract or from a phone retailer — it’s probably unlocked already. Unlocked phones are more common than they used to be, but if you’re not sure, here’s what to do:
The easiest way to tell is to pop in a SIM card from another carrier to see if you can make a call.
Bend open a paper clip and use it to eject a SIM card from a friend or family member’s phone. Look for a little pinhole at the top, side or bottom of the phone. A SIM card is tiny and can be tricky to hold so be careful not to drop it. Unless it’s a really old SIM, which is larger, your friend’s SIM should fit into your existing phone’s SIM tray. If you need some help, some walk-throughs are available online.
No signal? Your phone is likely locked. But to make sure, restart it and repeat the steps.
You may see a message asking for a SIM unlock code. This means your device is locked to the carrier from which it was originally purchased.
If you don't have access to another SIM card, you can take your phone into a carrier store or to a mall kiosk and tell them you’d like to know if your phone is unlocked. You don’t have to say you’re thinking of joining their service. Just be honest and say you’re not sure yet and you’d be happy to consider their company.
Other ways to see if your phone is unlocked
An iPhone has an easy way to tell if it’s unlocked, but you need to be running iOS 14 or newer. To find out which version of the operating system you’re running, to go Settings | General | About | Software Version.
To see if your iPhone is unlocked, go to Settings | General | About. If you see the phrase "No SIM Restrictions" next to Carrier Lock, your phone is unlocked.
If you’re on Android, try another SIM or call your carrier. The carrier's representative likely will ask you for your phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, a unique code associated with your device. Android devices vary, but you can dial *#06# and it will be displayed on your phone’s screen. Or Google the name of your phone and “how to find IMEI” to see where to find it in Settings.
You also can call the carrier you’re thinking of switching to and ask if they have a database of IMEI numbers that shows which phones are compatible with that network or if it’s unlocked.
Be wary of apps and websites that claim to tell you if your phone is unlocked. These are not free and aren’t accurate. Don’t bother.
How to unlock a phone
If your phone is locked, know that carriers are required to unlock your phone provided it has been paid in full and your account is in good standing. Instead of giving you a lump-sum discount when you buy a handset, some carriers spread credits out over several months. Ask, but you'll probably have to wait until those account credits have ended to have your company unlock your phone.
The process can take up to two business days. Once done, you’re free to take the phone to another wireless carrier.
The major carriers do have some differences in their processes, but the methods are similar:
AT&T. As long as you have had your phone with AT&T for at least 60 days, head over to AT&T’s unlock page and select Unlock your device. You will receive an email confirmation with the unlock request number. Click the link in the email within 24 hours to verify it was you. AT&T says it will respond within two business days to confirm that your phone is unlocked. More information is here: AT&T’s SIM unlock policy.
Sprint. Like Verizon, Sprint says it automatically unlocks your device within two days of it becoming eligible, usually after 60 days. If it is not technically possible for Sprint to remotely unlock your device, you will receive a notification with next steps to complete the unlock process. More information is here: Sprint SIM unlock policy. Be aware that Sprint has merged with T-Mobile but not all of each company's policies and systems are the same yet.
T-Mobile. Unlock a phone connected to T-Mobile by going to the T-Mobile unlock page and following the steps based on the type of phone you own. As long as your postpaid account is in good standing and you’ve had your postpaid phone for at least 40 days, T-Mobile will unlock your phone within two business days. More information is here: T-Mobile SIM unlock policy.
UScellular. The carrier says your postpaid device will be locked to its network for 120 days after activation and then is automatically unlocked if your account is in good standing. No further action is required on your part. If your account is not in good standing, here is information on what to do.
Verizon. As long as you’ve had a phone with Verizon past 60 days, your phone will automatically be unlocked. You don't need to do anything more. If you want to confirm your phone is unlocked, dial *611 from the device to chat with someone. More information is here: Verizon’s SIM unlock policy.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.