Is my phone unlocked? Here’s how to know

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Smartphones have become one of the most expensive gadgets we use on a daily basis. Because of this, we often look for ways to save on the monthly bill — and one strategy to do that involves switching carriers. But to do that we have to have an unlocked phone.

According to recent data, Americans hold onto their cell phones for around 22 months, on average — about the time it takes for that two-year contract to run out. Many customers find that they can find better rates or a cheaper plan by going to another carrier. But before you do that, you need to know your phone’s compatibility standards as well as what’s allowed by your respective service provider.

First, let’s start with some basic questions and answers about your mobile phone and what it means to unlock it:

Do I have an unlocked phone & how can I tell?

An unlocked phone means that operation of the device is not contractually bound to a carrier like Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T or any of the others. If you happen to still be under contract and paying monthly on your phone, the service provider “locks” the phone into its network, meaning that it won’t work on any other carrier.

On the other hand, if you paid full price for your smartphone, it could very well be unlocked.

There are several ways to tell if your phone is unlocked. Here are three:

  • Switch SIM cards: One way to tell if 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 be able to work with other SIM cards.
  • Check your settings: Another way to tell if your iPhone is unlocked is to go to Settings> Cellular> Cellular Data. If you see Cellular Data Options, then your phone is unlocked. If you have an Android, go to Settings> Mobile Network> Network Operators and see if other carriers will come up. If it shows other networks, your phone may well be unlocked, but this method is not fool-proof.
  • Contact your carrier: Call Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint or AT&T’s customer service numbers and they will tell you.

How to unlock your phone on the major carriers

Many carriers now sell phones advertised as unlocked. Others have simple steps you must follow to unlock your phone, including special rules for deployed military personnel:

Unlock your AT&T phone

AT&T allows you to submit an unlock request for your phone, iPad or other smart devices. You don’t have to be an AT&T customer, either. The company says, “As long as you have an eligible device designed to work on our network, we’ve got you covered.”

The requirements include that you’re 60 days clear of your completed two-year contract. The phone also can’t be reported lost or stolen. Check out the full eligibility requirements.

If your request is approved, you’ll get an email with steps to unlock your device and insert the new carrier SIM card. For iPhone, you’ll have to contact Apple Support.

Unlock your T-Mobile phone

T-Mobile has made it easier to unlock your mobile phone, as well. Unlike AT&T, T-Mobile says it will only unlock T-Mobile devices.

T-Mobile allows you to request an unlock code by contacting them for the steps. There is also a T-Mobile Unlock App for Android, but none for Apple.

The requirements include that you’ve had service on T-Mobile for at least 40 days and your account was in good standing. The phone also can’t be reported lost or stolen. Check out the full eligibility requirements.

Unlock your Verizon phone

Verizon has different rules for pre-paid phones vs. post-paid phones depending on how fast your wireless data network is.

The company says that it doesn’t lock most phones, especially its 4G LTE devices. However, when it comes to 3G devices (with the exception of its iPhones) other smartphones are locked.

“The simple code to program such 3G devices for use with another carrier is either ‘000000’ or ‘123456,’” the carrier says. Most instructions can be found in the device’s user guide. If not, you can dial *611 from your Verizon Wireless phone or call 800-922-0204 for customer service.

Unlock your Sprint phone

Sprint says that it will only activate devices certified to work on the Sprint network. They won’t unlock phones from other carriers.

The requirements for unlocking include that you’ve used Sprint as your network for at least 50 days and that you’ve completed your contract. The phone also can’t be reported lost, stolen or involved in fraudulent activity. Check out the full eligibility requirements.

The company says customers can request a SIM unlock and/or the associated MSL (Master Subsidy Lock) Code by calling Sprint Customer Care at 888-211-4727. Sprint Forward customers are encouraged to call Customer Care at 855-639-4644.

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Craig Johnson is a conscious money-saver who still reads paperback books and listens to vinyl. He likes to write about how technology is making things easier and more affordable — but also sometimes more dangerous — for the modern consumer.  You can reach Craig at craig@clark.com
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