A great way to save money on your monthly bills is to switch your cell phone service to a cheaper carrier. But to do that and keep your existing device, you almost always need to have an unlocked phone.
In this article, I’ll show you how to find out whether your phone is unlocked. And if it’s not, I’ll show you how to unlock it. I personally went through the process to unlock my phone with T-Mobile, but these simple steps should also work if you have a phone you bought from AT&T or Verizon.
Unlock Your Phone on These Major Carriers
First, let’s start with some basics about your mobile phone and what it means to unlock it.
How Can I Tell If I Have an Unlocked Phone?
An unlocked phone means that the operation of the device is not contractually bound to a carrier such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile. If you are still under contract and paying monthly for your phone, the service provider “locks” the phone into its network so that it won’t work on any other carrier’s service.
But if you paid for your smartphone upfront, it might be unlocked. Here are three ways you can tell:
1. Check Your Settings
To tell if your iPhone is unlocked, go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data. If you see Cellular Data Network, then your phone is probably unlocked. While this method is the easiest, it’s not foolproof.
There are lots of different Android phones out there, so there are many different Settings configurations. But in general, you can go to Settings > Connections > Mobile Networks > Network Operators and tap Search Now to see if the names of other carriers come up. If multiple carrier names show up, your phone might be unlocked. This method works a lot of the time but is not always 100% accurate.
2. Contact Your Carrier
Call the customer service number of your carrier to ask whether your phone is unlocked. Here are the phone numbers for the major wireless carriers:
- AT&T: 1-800-331-0500
- Verizon: 1-800-922-0204
- T-Mobile: 1-877-453-1304
- Sprint (now part of T-Mobile): 1-866-275-1411
3. Switch SIM Cards
Another way to determine whether your phone is unlocked is by inserting a SIM card from another carrier and seeing if you can make a call. If your call successfully connects, then your phone is unlocked and should work with other SIM cards.
How to Unlock Your Phone on the Major Wireless Carriers
Many carriers now sell phones advertised as unlocked. Others have simple steps you can follow to unlock your phone, including special rules for deployed military personnel.
Please note that, if the phone you want to unlock has been reported lost, stolen or involved in fraudulent activity, none of the major carriers will unlock it.
Before you request that your phone be unlocked, you need to have some basic information handy including:
- Your phone number
- Other account information (name, password, etc.)
- Your phone’s IMEI number
Using that information, here’s how to unlock your phone on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint:
How to Unlock Your AT&T Phone
AT&T allows you to submit an unlock request for your phone, tablet or other smart devices. But note that the company says on its website, “We can only unlock devices that work on the AT&T network. Some unlocked phones may not be compatible with other providers.”
Some of AT&T’s requirements to unlock your phone include:
- You can’t have a past-due balance.
- You need to have your company’s permission if it’s a business phone.
- The phone can’t be active on another AT&T account.
If your phone meets the requirements and you send your unlock request, once it’s approved you’ll get an email with information on how to unlock your device and insert the new carrier’s SIM card.
How to Unlock Your T-Mobile Phone
T-Mobile has made it easier to unlock your mobile phone. However, the carrier says it will unlock only T-Mobile devices.
T-Mobile allows you to request an unlock code by logging into your account and contacting the company online or via phone: 800-937-8997 or 611 from a T-Mobile phone. There is a T-Mobile Device Unlock App for Google Pixel phones, but the app is not available for other Android phones or any Apple phones, as of this writing.
The requirements for T-Mobile to unlock your phone include:
- Your account is in good standing.
- You can’t have requested more than two unlock codes per line in the last year.
- Your phone meets the unlocking rules pertaining to prepaid or postpaid devices.
How to Unlock Your Verizon Phone
Verizon’s unlocking policy lists different rules for prepaid and postpaid devices.
Unlocking Rules for Postpaid Verizon Phones:
- Verizon says on its website that if you buy the phone from Verizon, the device will be locked for 60 days after purchase. If bought it from a Verizon partner, the device will be locked for 60 days after activation. After that, Verizon will automatically remove the lock.
Unlocking Rules for Prepaid Verizon Phones:
- If you buy a prepaid phone from Verizon — and certain devices from its retail partners — it will be locked for 60 days after activation. Then the lock is automatically removed.
If you purchased a 4G Phone-in-a-Box from one of Verizon’s authorized retailers, the carrier says “you should review the back of the box to determine the lock period applicable to that device.”
As for a 3G phone, Verizon no longer posts the unlocking instructions on its website. If you still have one of those older phones, here’s what those instructions were: “The simple code to program such 3G devices for use with another carrier is either 000000 or 123456.”
How to Unlock Your Sprint Phone
Because of the merger, you may be wondering if T-Mobile is able to unlock Sprint’s devices. A T-Mobile customer service representative told me in December 2020, “We are still in the process of merging with Sprint … to unlock a device that is carrier-locked, the carrier who sold it will be the one who can gain access to unlocking the device.”
In most cases, Sprint will automatically unlock postpaid phones activated since 2015. Please note that, just because your Sprint phone can be unlocked, doesn’t mean the device or all of its functionalities will work on other networks.
Some key requirements for unlocking a Sprint phone include the following:
- You’ve used Sprint as your network for at least 40 days.
- You’ve completed your contract.
- Your phone is SIM unlock capable (this involves enabling the device’s SIM slot)
The company says if you can’t use SIM unlock, you may be able to get an associated MSL (Master Subsidy Lock) code, if the phone was manufactured before February 2015. All you have to do is call Sprint Customer Care at the number listed above.
Unlocking your phone may take a little time, but it’s as easy as ever if you follow the steps mentioned above.
If you choose to contact your carrier to request that your phone be unlocked, please note that the process could take up to 72 hours. To make sure that the process was successful, you may want to reach out to your carrier to confirm (like I did).
Thinking about bringing an unlocked device to a new cell phone service provider? Make sure you avoid this mistake before you switch!