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How to Unlock a Phone

Bring your own phone to a cheaper carrier

Unlocking a cell phone

By Rob Webber - Last updated on

If you're planning to dump your carrier but want to keep your phone, you'll almost certainly need to unlock your cell phone first.

The major carriers know that if a phone is locked to one network, there is a good chance that the owner will stay on that network for the lifetime of that phone, or even longer if they can persuade you to upgrade to a new model.

Once your phone is unlocked, you can switch away from the Big Four carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) to realize major savings with one of the growing armies of low-cost carriers, like Tello, Mint SIM, Boost, or US Mobile.

Here's our guide to how to get your phone unlocked and make that money-saving switch.

Your Existing Carrier Must Help You Unlock Your Device

If there are no outstanding payments due on your locked phone, your carrier cannot refuse to give you the unlock code.

There is an unlocking law enforced by the FCC which states that a user who has paid in full for their device - and completed all formal procedures of their service agreement - has the legal right to have their device unlocked by the phone's original carrier.

Requesting an Unlock Code

Requesting an unlock code is not only easy - it's free.

Each of the major carriers has slightly different procedures and conditions for unlocking your phone, so we have produced a short unlocking guide for each of the big guys to help you, whether you are currently with Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. You'll also be able to find our guides on individual devices, including how to unlock the iPhone, and how to unlock a Samsung phone.

Be ready for your existing carrier to ask you for the following information when you request an unlock code:

  • The account holder's name and the account number.
  • Either the password to the account or the last four digits of the account holder's social security number
  • The phone's IMEI number. You can find this number by dialing *#06# on your phone; the 14 or 15 digits IMEI number will appear onscreen after you dial and press Call or Send. You can also check underneath the battery cover or, in the case of some iPhones, on the back of the device.
  • The phone number belonging to the mobile device.
  • Your deployment papers, if you're in the military and requesting an overseas unlock for the purposes of deployment.

Cell Phone Compatibility

  • If you have a phone that works on T-Mobile's network, then you should know that after unlocking your T-Mobile phone, you can transfer your phone to AT&T's network, at it should cause you no issues. After all, both carriers run their networks on GSM technology, and better yet, they use Band 4 for LTE service, so all 4G LTE devices should be able to use AT&T's network without any problems. All you need to do is insert a SIM card using AT&T's network and you should be good to go!
  • While Verizon uses CDMA as a network, there is a chance that you can use T-Mobile devices on Verizon's Verizon 4G LTE network, as both networks run on the same spectrum. However, some functions, such as calls or texts, may be limited, so check with the carrier and your device's manufacturer before you switch to a Verizon carrier.
  • As for Sprint, Sprint is a CDMA network like Verizon, but it runs on a different band compared to the other three carriers. With that being said, Sprint's network does accept certain devices from T-Mobile, but you need to check with the particular carrier to make sure.

Overall, check your phone's compatibility with each of the four networks to be sure that your phone can be transferred to your desired carrier.

Switching to a New Carrier? Save Money with a MVNO

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) are companies like US Mobile, ROK Mobile, and Mint SIM. These alternative mobile service providers lease coverage on the major carriers' towers and resell that coverage to you for lower prices than you're paying the big carriers.

There are several advantages offered by these smaller carriers:

  • Better prices: MVNOs don't have the same massive overhead and marketing costs as the major carriers so they can sell you similar service at lower prices.
  • Customized plans: The big carriers' main offerings are unlimited data plans. Most smartphone owners don't even need unlimited data! It is no different than paying for 200 TV channels and watching 10. MVNOs let you pay for what you need, so you're only paying for what you actually use.
  • No contracts or credit check: All low-cost carriers offer prepaid plans. If you're unhappy, you can leave the carrier at any time you want.
  • BYOP: Bringing your own phone to an MVNO you can pocket the extra money you'd put into a costly device payment plan. And don't worry, you can keep your number too.

Selling Your Old Phone? Compare Offers to Get the Best Price

Now that you've unlocked your old phone, you may be looking to sell it to raise some cash. The big carriers will try to tempt you to trade it in as an inducement to buy the very latest model smartphone, but you'll almost always get a better price by selling it yourself. If your phone is in good condition (no cracks on screen or body; powers on and makes calls; no major scratches or scuffs), there will be several online companies ready to make you an offer.

Prices can vary quite widely, but we help you get the best prices by doing the comparisons for you. Take this example - with prices correct at the time of writing. An iPhone 6s (128GB) in good condition would qualify for offers of $140 from Gazelle, $185 from Buy Back World and $212 from Decluttr. So when you sell your phone, be sure to compare offers as the difference in prices can vary widely and we've already done the hard work for you!

Additionally, when considering your next phone, if you're prepared to forego the very latest model, there are great savings to be made when buying a used phone or when buying a cheap unlocked phone. A refurbished phone in excellent condition can be purchased at up to 50 percent off the MSRP. If you want to save time - and even more money, our used phone price comparison tool will make it simple for you to be sure of getting the right price.

Rob Webber
Rob Webber

Rob has 15+ years experience in the US and UK running price comparison sites for cell phone plans, smartphone deals, TV, and internet. He loves thinking outside of the box to build tools that empower consumers to make more informed decisions.