Want to Unlock Your iPhone? There's a Law for That

Thanks to an FCC requirement that went into effect yesterday, cell service providers must now offer a clear way for customers to unlock their smartphones. That means it'll be easier unlock your iPhone for use on other carrier networks, but there are some strings attached.

New carrier smartphone unlocking rules went in place WednesdayNew carrier smartphone unlocking rules went in place Wednesday

Carrier locking binds a smartphone to a specific carrier—a practice cell service providers use to keep customers from switching to competitors. Devices can be unlocked through a software update, but carriers prefer to make that a difficult process to discourage their customers from doing so.

Current laws say it's legal for smartphone owners to unlock their devices, and the FCC imposed a February 11 deadline for carriers to post clear policies on their websites.

Getting your carrier to unlock your smartphone does include a few restrictions. If you're on a pre-paid plan, expect your carrier to make you wait a year before requesting an unlock. For post-paid plans, you need to complete your two-year contract before requesting the procedure.

Once your smartphone is unlocked you can pop in a SIM card from another carrier and use their service, but with some caveats. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology while AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. The two technologies aren't compatible, so jumping between them just doesn't work. World phones, however, include both so you can easily switch between GSM and CDMA if that's what you're carrying in your parket.

Here's a quick rundown of the cell carrier unlocking policies:

  • AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular all require your contract to be paid in full, or for your contract to expire, before unlocking.
  • T-Mobile also sells unlocked and off-contract iPhones. You'll pay more up front because there isn't a subsidized price option, but the overall phone cost is lower because you don't continue to pay off the subsidy after hitting the phone's actual cost.
  • Verizon sells LTE-capable phones unlocked, and the few phones it does sell that are carrier locked can typically be unlocked by end users with a simple code.

If your recently purchased iPhone originally came with a T-Mobile or Verizon contract, then there's a good chance it's already unlocked. For other US carriers, any subsidized phone is locked. That said, your locked phone doesn't have to stay that way forever, and now it's much easier to find the steps for getting it unlocked.