Clark Howard

Is my phone unlocked? Here's how to know

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.

Unlock your phone: What is jailbreaking?

The term “jailbreaking” means that your phone has been manipulated in a way that frees it from its carrier network. Over the years, people have come up with ways to hack the system to effectively “jailbreak” their phones.

Your phone is considered jailbroken if it is capable of working on any network, especially if it’s a new device not tied to a native carrier. In practical terms, it usually means that you own the phone free and clear.

Thanks to strenuous lobbying by the carrier companies, jailbreaking used to be illegal — thus the name. But in 2012 the Library of Congress legalized the act under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Federal Trade Commission codified the legislation.

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


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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