Independence Day: You Can Now Unlock Your Phone from Your Carrier

Stuck with an unsatisfactory carrier but don't want to shell out for a new phone? Starting today, you can unshackle yourself from your provider, thanks to an agreement made between service providers and the FCC effective today (Feb. 11).

Both prepaid and postpaid subscribers are eligible for unlocking their devices, as long as those on contracts have paid off their plans. It will be free to unlock your phone, as long as you go to the carrier it's locked to. 

MORE: What Are No-Contract Phones?

Most handsets are locked to a wireless provider, unless you specifically bought an unlocked device. Carriers do this to prevent devices they provide special deals on from being used with rival providers. Freeing your phone from a specific carrier means you'll be able to use it with another compatible network, either by switching out the SIM card or using special software to program the phone.

As of now, all four major carriers in the United States (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) offer instructions and guidelines for unlocking your device. They also have to, according to the terms of the agreement, notify customers when their handsets are eligible for unlocking, respond to unlocking requests within two business days and unlock devices for deployed military personnel.

As long as you meet the requirements, such as having paid the service commitments and having no record of fraudulent activity on your device, it should take just a few simple steps and some time with customer service before you're liberated from your carrier's chains. 

Staff writer Cherlynn Low wants a new smartphone for cheap. Follow her @cherlynnlow. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide on Facebook.

Cherlynn Low

Cherlynn is Deputy Editor, Reviews at Engadget and also leads the site's Google reporting. She graduated with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University before joining Tom's Guide and its sister site LaptopMag as a staff writer, where she covered wearables, cameras, laptops, computers and smartphones, among many other subjects.

  • velocityg4
    I wonder if this means AT&T will have to unlock the iPhone 1, 2 and 3G. Also the Kindle Fire phone.
  • CherlynnLow
    I'm pretty sure it means yes, as long as the phones support the other networks!
  • Osmin
    What if we are faithfully paying our monthly dues on a two-year contract, can we now put a sim card from another carrier while we temporarily visit a foreign country? If we pay our monthly contract on time then we should be able to change our service whenever the needs arise as long as we keep paying off our monthly bill.
  • Cun Con
    What's new? I've been having my iPhone unlocked by ATT in the last 3 years (5 iPhone: iPhone 4, 4S, 2 iPhone 5 and 1 5S total). Even with my 5S was just 11 months into the contract, and ATT allowed me to upgrade to iPhone 6 with Next plan in last Oct, so I got it unlocked as well and didn't pay anything extra that 2-year contract which supposed to end in Oct 2015. I sold that 5S for $350 in Dec.
  • lizzy2759
    atnt has an out I asked them to unlock my lg thrill they said no because the phone was being used by someone under contract I told them that was impossible because I paid for the phone and have the phone physically in my possesstion, so they look into it again and came up with the exact same excuse for not unlocking it bogus how can you fight it when you buy it and they tell you it belongs to someone else.
  • PhoneQueen
    Unlocking your phone only applies to GSM networks like the ones mentioned in the article. CDMA networks like Sprint or US Cellular don't and won't "unlock" your phone.
  • SBMfromLA
    I've been with AT&T since before the Cingular takeover... and they will send you the unlock code... but ONLY if your contract is completed. I had 6 weeks left on my 2 year with them and when I contacted them... they denied my request... the lady told me their computers wouldn't not allow it. When I was finally done with the contract, I contacted them again... and a week after my request.. they emailed me the unlock code. Unfortunately, I'm currently unable to use that unlock code because the instructions say I need to first insert a non-AT&T SIM card into the phone to enter the code... and everyone I know is with AT&T. So I'll have to wait until I can find time to search for someone using another carrier.