How to Unlock Your Phone From Any Major Carrier

You can switch carriers without buying a new device. Here’s how.

how to, android, how to unlock your phone from any major carrier

By Melanie Pinola

Changing wireless providers can sometimes save you big money. It can also help if you are traveling abroad or if you want to get the most value when selling your old phone. But before you make the switch, you may have to unlock your phone from your current carrier’s network.

Unlocking your phone isn’t hard to do—and it’s completely legal—but a little help can go a long way, because the process varies from phone to phone and carrier to carrier.

If you didn’t make a point of buying an unlocked model when you purchased your phone, it’s likely tied to your current network.

“When you buy a locked phone, it will work only on that carrier’s service,” says Richard Fisco, who oversees electronics testing at Consumer Reports.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, however, the carrier must unlock your phone for free after you’ve fully paid off the device (or coughed up an early termination fee).

In some cases, the carrier will push a software update to your phone, then all you need to do is insert the new carrier’s SIM card and you’re good to go. Or you might need to enter an unlock card before you can install a new SIM card.

If you have a phone that’s compatible with eSIM, such as Apple’s new iPhone 14 phones and several Android devices, moving to a new carrier is easier—but you’ll still need to have your current carrier unlock your phone.

The process can take up to two business days, but once it’s done, you’re free to take the phone to another wireless carrier. To be clear, this doesn’t cancel your service; it just gives you the option to move to a new provider with your current phone.

If you’d rather not handle this yourself, you can pay for a service to unlock the phone. But be careful: People have been caught running fraudulent unlocking schemes in the past. “Do your research,” Fisco says.

And there’s really no reason you can’t handle this on your own. It’s easy.

Here’s what you need to do.

Make Sure Your Phone Is Compatible With the New Network

While most phones can work with any carrier in the U.S., some—especially older, less expensive devices—might still be confined to specific network types. In the past, two standards divided carriers: Verizon used a standard called CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile used GSM.

The quickest way to confirm that your phone is compatible with a new network is to type the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number, a unique identifier for every mobile phone manufactured, into an online tool on the carrier’s website.

Almost every carrier, whether one of the three largest or a smaller provider, will have a section on its website where you can use your IMEI to confirm that your phone is compatible.

Here’s how to find the IMEI.

  • On an Android phone: Go to Settings > About phone. The number should be on that screen.
  • On an iPhone: Go to Settings > General > About. Scroll down to find the number. If you don’t see the IMEI/MEID there, the number may be etched on the SIM tray or engraved on the back of the phone.

Next, head to the new carrier’s website and insert the IMEI number into the tool. Here are the appropriate pages for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

On top of all of that, if you have a 5G-compatible phone, you’ll also want to make sure it works on your new carrier’s 5G network. While your phone may operate perfectly well on your new carrier’s 4G or LTE network, it might not have the hardware built in to connect with the network’s 5G signals.

You can check your manufacturer’s website for more information, or just give your new carrier a call. And while you have a representative on the phone, you might as well ask if they’ll just give you a phone locked to their network free of charge, or at least at a heavy discount.

The wireless carriers are embroiled in a never-ending war for each other’s customers and will often offer hefty incentives if they think it’ll get you to switch.

What You’ll Need

Once you’ve paid off the phone and confirmed that it will work on the new network, get ready to unlock the phone.

Be sure to keep the IMEI number handy because you’re likely to need it again.

Additionally, you should have some other info ready before you start. The list includes the account number, account holder’s name, Social Security number, and the phone number attached to the device you want to unlock.

If you’re in the military and about to be deployed overseas, the carriers will expedite the unlocking process, but you’ll need to provide proof, so gather up your deployment papers, too.

Ready to go? Choose your carrier and complete the final steps.

Unlock a Phone on AT&T

Go to AT&T’s unlock page and select “Unlock your device.” You’ll need to agree that you meet the eligibility requirements, then submit the form. Among the requirements: If you paid off your installment plan early, you’ll need to wait 48 hours after you make your final payment to submit the unlock request.

After that, you’ll get a confirmation email with the unlock request number. Click the link in the email within 24 hours to confirm the unlock request. If you wait too long, the request will be canceled.

AT&T will respond within two business days to confirm that your phone is unlocked.

Here’s AT&T’s SIM unlock policy.

Unlock a Phone on T-Mobile

This carrier restricts how many devices you can unlock in a 12-month period, which can create problems for those on a family plan. If you ask to have more than two T-Mobile phones unlocked in a given year, the company will deny your request.

To unlock a T-Mobile device, go to T-Mobile’s unlock page and follow the steps listed for your phone’s manufacturer.

If 40 days have passed since you bought your phone through the carrier and your postpaid account is in good standing, T-Mobile will unlock your phone.

The company may send you an unlock code or ask you to unlock your phone via a T-Mobile app. You can also have your phone unlocked by calling 611 from your T-Mobile phone or 800-937-8997.

Here’s T-Mobile’s SIM unlock policy.

Unlock a Phone on Verizon

This carrier automatically locks any phone bought through Verizon for 60 days. After that 60-day period, your phone is unlocked—with no extra steps needed.

To confirm that your phone is unlocked, you can dial *611 from the device or call Verizon’s customer service at 800-922-0204.

Here’s Verizon’s SIM unlock policy.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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