The Checkout

Unlocking Your Phone Easier Said Than Done?

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling saying consumers can unlock their cellphones and take them with them when they switch wireless companies. The decision was widely hailed as a win for consumers, who typically have to shell out for another device when they switch carriers. There was no real reason for it. Carriers did it simply to hang onto customers.

So now that tyranny is over, right?

Well, not so fast. It turns out it may not be so easy to unlock a phone after all.

(I know. I'm being a real Debbie Downer.)

For starters, the ruling means little if you want to switch from, say, T-Mobile to Verizon Wireless because they operate on two different types of networks. T-Mobile is a GSM network and Verizon Wireless is a CDMA. So the ruling only really applies if you are on a GSM network and want to switch to another GSM network, such as Cingular.

(Other carriers that use GSM phones: Nextel and Boost. Carriers that use CDMA phone: Sprint, Verizon, Virgin Mobile, Amp'd, Helio and Alltel.)

As explained on The Phone Boy Blog, GSM networks and CDMA networks identify individual subscribers differently. In GSM, a SIM card is used. The SIM card contains your subscriber information. You can change phones by simply swapping the SIM card into a different phone. In CDMA, your subscriber information is tied to the phone's ESN, which is a kind of serial number. Since the ESN is burned into the phone and not portable among phones, you must contact the carrier (Sprint, Verizon, etc) to change to a different device.

Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco last week told Consumer Union's Hear Us Now blog that having the right to break the locks is far different from having the ability to actually do it.

You can pay an outside service to unlock your phone, but von Lohmann said it remains unclear if that's even legal.

"There really isn't anything in the ruling that speaks to that sort of thing," he told CU. "It may be legal or it may not. It's very murky."

TracFone, which sells prepaid phones, is challenging the ruling. The company complains that the ruling threatens its livelihood because it means prepaid phones can be unlocked and then used on other services. I'll keep you posted on what happens with that.

In the meantime, if you haven't been dissuaded from trying to unlock your phone, here's a primer on how you might go about it.

Has anyone tried to unlock a phone? Give me the gory details.

By Annys Shin |  December 15, 2006; 9:45 AM ET Consumer News
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Unlocking a phone. I have never had to do this, however this would save consumers tons of money if phones could be transfered from service to service at will.

But because of the different technologies that are used between services, it's going to end up costing the consumer more because companies have to build devices that attach to older phones to convert them to the new service. Either way the consumer is going to pay.

Maybe if some regulation requiring service transfer capabilities were to be adopted for new phones, this could elevate some of the cost to consumers.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 15, 2006 10:10 AM

I bought a phone on eBay for which the seller provided the unlock code - it's very easy, at least for Samsung phones. Basically it just involves putting a series of numbers in the phone, and following directions. Since unlocked GSM phones are widely available on the internet, I've since bought new and haven't had to unlock another one. My husband and I now each have a phone we can use domestically and internationally with whatever sim card we choose, and we can change phones whenever.

Posted by: jcg | December 15, 2006 10:25 AM

NB: since US GSM carriers, in their infinite wisdom, chose to use a different frequency than the rest of the world, domestic and international use requires a phone with 850/1900 for US and 900/1800 for the rest of the world, but that's another issue entirely...

Posted by: jcg | December 15, 2006 10:31 AM

I've tried to unlock a phone that my parents purchased in Italy. I have the same model and have used it for years and love it - for being 5 years old it still looks more advanced than most phones in the US. It's a great little phone, but the provider did something to it and it will not work. Unfortunately I have no idea what network they were with in Italy, and probably wouldn't be able to call and sort it out anyway. In the meantime, the $200 plus phone sits in my drawer unused. I'm glad about the ruling, but don't see any way it will help me. I've tried the primers online, to no avail, and I refuse to pay someone else to unlock it. I'm afraid of getting scammed.

Posted by: Easy schmeezy | December 15, 2006 10:33 AM

Did you really mean the Patent and Trademark Office made this ruling? That doesn't sound right.

Posted by: Whitney Wilson | December 15, 2006 10:35 AM

Last month I made a request with Cingular Wireless to unlock my cell phone as well as that of my wife. We travel frequently and we thought it was easier for us to use other SIM cards other than the Cingular one while abroad. Things weren't that easy and after several phone calls and emails we finally got our unlocking codes, but it took us more than a month to get that service.Normally unlocking service takes no more than five business days but in our case it was really a painful procedure especially if you are calling your phone company while abroad!

Posted by: Hannibal | December 15, 2006 10:42 AM

This can also benefit the landfills as they won't be full of perfectly good phones.

Posted by: KB Silver Spring | December 15, 2006 10:43 AM

It wasn't the USPTO, it was from the Copyright Office as part of the triennial DMCA rulemaking proceedings.

Posted by: WashDC | December 15, 2006 11:12 AM

A couple years ago, I asked T-Mobile to unlock a Samsung phone and eventually they sent me the instructions in one week. Since then, I requested the unlock code for a couple Motorola phones I've bought through them but they never sent me the codes.

T-Mobile also said you can only submit an unlock request once every three months.

I might as well just pay the twenty dollars to get it done through someone else instead of waiting for codes they may never send.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 15, 2006 11:15 AM

I bought an unlocked RAZR V3i off of eBay back in June but wanted to use my old phone in places where it might get dinged or stolen. After a great deal of research, I went with, a site that sells a piece of software which will unlock your Motorola phone for $25. After downloading the software, hooking my Motorola V220 up to my computer, and following all of their directions I let the software do its thing. It connected with their server, downloaded the correct unlocking code, unlocked the phone, then rebooted it. The whole process took me about 20 minutes and worked flawlessly. And after perusing their support forums, it seems that almost everyone who has used their software has had no problems with it. If you're somewhat computer savvy (can install drivers, hook up a phone over USB, etc.) and are looking to unlock a Motorola phone this is a really good way to go.

Posted by: PK | December 15, 2006 11:27 AM

I unlocked my new Samsung phone last week, went very smoothly. I emailed T-Mobile customer service with my phone's IMEI number (sort of a serial number) along with my other details. 24 hours later they emailed me instructions and the unlock code. 2 minutes after I got the email, my phone was unlocked. I'm leaving tonight for Europe and I'm able to switch sim cards and use a local chip there.

Posted by: Alex | December 15, 2006 11:33 AM

I have unlocked phones before, for myself and for friends. Sometimes its easy, sometimes not. You can find sites on the web that provide unlock codes and instructions for a fee. I have 3 GSM phones, all unlocked. 2 are Nokia and one a RAZR. Do some searches and check out the sites available. Nokia posts unlock codes for older phones for free. Also, I have spent some time in England and the cell phone "booths" or vendors in London will unlock phones for about $10-$20 a shot. I can see the reason for locking phones for the first 6 months or so if the subscriber has gotten a deal on the phone. But once the 6 months are over, the phone should be unlocked as a matter of fair play. But when have phone companies ever played fair? I understand that some land-line carriers are still charge unknowing customers rent for dial-type phones from the '60s. True that about the CDMA and GSM incompatibility. I would never recommend CDMA to a friend. GSM phones can be unlocked and used in Europe, Asia and Canada. You can even get a SIM before you go on vacation in any country in Europe from The SIM will come with minutes on it and you can pop it in the phone as you land and have a local phone number. They ship it to your house in the US. Check it out and quit buying CDMA phones! :-) (To see a graphic of changing numbers on a GSM phone, check out the 2nd to last episode of "The Wire" Season 3 where Stringer Bell changes the SIM on his Motorola phone.)

Posted by: Ed, Silver Spring, USA | December 15, 2006 11:44 AM

I'm not sure how unlocking this will actually lower costs for consumers. The cell cos. offer a lot of cheap or free phones as part of the contract. And even if you bring your own (unlocked) phone to a new company, you're going to be paying for subsidized phone, whether you take it or not. And you're still going to have a contract that locks you in for one or two years.

Posted by: ah | December 15, 2006 12:34 PM

I have a t-mobile phone and wanted to use while abroad. I simply called t-mobile customer service and told them I wanted to unlock the phone. They said they had to get an unlock code from the manufacturer and emailed it to me within 24 hours. I followed a couple simple directions and my phone was unlocked. When I got to australia, I simply bought a new SIM card and put it in my phone. This was great because it enabled me to pay local service charges as opposed to the 10 dollars per minute my carrier would have charged me to use the phone abroad.

Posted by: Sylvia | December 15, 2006 12:52 PM

I purchased a pay as you go Nokia from O2 in the UK which I later wanted to use in the US on t-mobile.

When O2 emailed me back about unlocking for it @ 15gbp - which they would do only after 12 months of service, I was left with no easy choice but to locate an unlocking service.

After a bit of reading, and internet searching I found it was quite painless to use to obtain a unlock code, this was less expensive than O2 wanted to boot (approx $9).

Back in the US, t-mobile required me to get a phone to initiate service, so I picked up their cheapest Nokia and just use the sim card out of that in my O2 Nokia.

Posted by: Richard | December 15, 2006 1:34 PM

I unlocked a Nokia phone that was tied to AT&T Wireless. I used a free website, did not have to wait and it was easy! I plan to buy Nokia phones sp that I can unlock my phone myself.

Posted by: no problems | December 15, 2006 2:24 PM

nokia rocks. I once dropped a nokia in the snow where it sat for almost a month until the snow melted and I found it. I dried it off, let it sit inside for a couple of days, plugged it in and it worked. I also like the GSM phones--when I dropped my cell in a watery grave (and couldn't get it out) I just paid 20 bucks for a new sim card and put it in an older phone that I had. We don't get rid of our old phones (we actually only have a few, as we lose them more often than we upgrade them!).

Posted by: why verizon? | December 15, 2006 3:28 PM

T-Mobile has a very liberal unlock policy. It's pretty easy to get them to unlock your phone. I think there is a limit of one phone per year or something though.

As for your comments on CDMA, while is correct that Verizon, the largest CDMA carrier in the US burns the info to the phone, that is not the case with CDMA carriers in some other places, such as China. While in Hong Kong, I passed a number of CDMA Sim Card Vending machines where you could buy a pay as you go CDMA Sim Card like you were buying a stick of gum.

Verizon, who also cripples the functionality of some phones, has their own reasons for doing it their way....

Here's a CDMA Sim〈=eng

Posted by: Andrew | December 15, 2006 4:14 PM

Here is Toronto it's easy to find someone to unlock your phone: Kiosks in shopping malls, strip mall phone stores, guys on Craigslist, etc. Everybody does it. The cost is about CDN$10-20. Also, if you want the latest cool model not available in North America, no problem. We're awash in exotic unlocked phones from Asia and Europe. We still have the GSM vs. CDMA problem though, and we won't have portable phone numbers until early 2007.

Posted by: Platypus | December 15, 2006 4:25 PM

Just want to clarify a couple of points. First, Nextel/Boost do NOT use GSM phones, or CDMA phones for that matter. They use an entirely different technology called iDEN, so their phones cannot be used on any GSM or CDMA carrier's network.

Second, JCG said that "US GSM carriers, in their infinite wisdom, chose to use a different frequency than the rest of the world." It's true that they do use a different frequency than the rest of the world, but this was not the US carriers' choice. The spectrum they're using is what was allocated to them by the US government, so they had no choice. (By the way, US CDMA carriers use the same frequencies, but no one complains because there aren't any CDMA carriers in Europe anyway).

Posted by: Doc | December 15, 2006 5:00 PM

Once you go through the trouble of unlocking your phone there is a local Washington DC area company that sells SIM cards that provide rates for a fraction of the roaming rates from Cingular and Tmobile. Their website is

I particularly liked their Smartfree SIM which works in most countries and offers free incoming calls all over Europe and calls locally and to the USA were only 39 eurocents per minute.

My phone wasn't unlocked, but they were nice enough to tell me exactly which web site to go to get my phone unlocked.

Posted by: Debbie Moore | December 15, 2006 5:26 PM

Technically, the Librarian of Congress promulgated the rule at the recommendation of the Library's Copyright Office (U.S. Register of Copyrights).

Posted by: Matt Raymond | December 15, 2006 5:50 PM

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Bush administration preparing to boost US troop strength in Iraq

By Joe Kay
15 December 2006

During the past week, the Bush administration has given clear signs that it is preparing to increase the number of US troops in Iraq, as part of a bloody offensive against the Iraqi resistance. Such a move would be taken in direct opposition to the overwhelming and growing popular sentiment in the US against the Iraq war.

The political establishment, while uniformly supportive of continuing the Iraq occupation, is deeply divided over what actions are required to extricate itself from the current military and political debacle. The Iraq Study Group report, released last week, expressed the widespread view within US ruling circles that salvaging Washington's position in Iraq and throughout the Middle East requires negotiations with Iran and Syria, together with a plan to reduce the presence of American combat troops in Iraq by 2008.

Political initiative in Washington, however, has clearly shifted to those who are advocating a significant increase of US troops, accompanied by a violent assault on the Iraqi population.

The drive toward increasing the number of occupation forces was highlighted by an article in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday ("Pentagon's Plan: More US Troops in Iraq," by Julian Barnes). The Times reported that within the military there is "strong support" for a plan to "double down" in Iraq, which would include "a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr," the leader of a Shia militia associated with opposition to the American occupation.

On Thursday, Senator John McCain reiterated his calls for bolstering the occupation forces with 15,000 to 30,000 more troops. McCain made his remarks in Baghdad during a visit with several other Congressmen, including Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has supported McCain's position.

According to the Times, the proposals being floated in the Pentagon also include a plan for permanently increasing the size of the US Army and Marine Corps. One of the main hurdles the military has faced to increasing the size of the occupation forces is that the military is already severely strained. A planned increase in the military's overall permanent troop strength, a move that has been long advocated by the Democratic Party leadership, would be intended to address this problem.

"Military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army," the Times reported.

An article in the Washington Post on Wednesday ("Army, Marine Corps To Ask for More Troops" by Scott Tyson) confirmed that the Army and Marine Corps are preparing to ask incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates to support permanent increases in personnel by several thousand troops, along with fewer restriction on the use of reserve troops.

The article in the Times was clearly the product of deliberate leaks orchestrated by the White House as part of its push for a new military assault in Iraq. John King, chief national correspondent for CNN, reported in an interview on CNN's "Situation Room" Tuesday that, according to senior administration officials and others involved in White House negotiations, "the president is planning to do something big." Citing one of the sources he spoke with, Bush "is very seriously considering . . . increasing US troop levels in the short term and also resisting the recommendations of the Iraq Survey Group."

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Posted by: che | December 16, 2006 7:19 AM

Nextel does not use GSM. This is a careless mistake. It is a mistake that could make somebody buy a wrong phone. Please be more professional, and check your facts.

Posted by: Dana | December 18, 2006 12:43 AM

I live in Europe and have a Sony Ericsson phone. I've switched providers and all it takes is buying a new SIM chip and popping it in. Couldn't be easier. I buy minutes for the chip at my local coffee shop. I'm not looking forward to having a calling plan when I get back to the US. Verizon Wireless took 4 months and 5 extra bills to cancel my service when I left the US. It was a major pain in the neck.

Posted by: luckyduck | December 18, 2006 10:32 AM

I think a big difference in how difficult unlocking is depends on whether or not you recently bought your phone. I've had four GSM phones. Three were subsidized by either Pacific Bell or T-Mobile and I've unlocked two of them easily after my contract was over. One I bought unlocked from a retailer and that was way too expensive but the phone was cooler than everyone else's, nevermind the Turkish manual. I just bought a new subsidized phone for cheap, but I love GSM and like T-Mobile, so I don't mind the contract. BTW, the one time I didn't swap SIM cards out, my caller ID even worked in the middle of Athens. Expensive call for me, but cheap for Dad.

Posted by: Justin | December 18, 2006 5:34 PM

you sucks and geeks squad cheap information, no good no good !!!!

Posted by: Mr.Woodpipe | December 19, 2006 1:10 PM

What if you buy a Motorola phone already unlocked)but have Nextel as a provider? Nextel has a SIM card. Would it work?

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Posted by: Ashley | December 31, 2006 8:49 AM

"US GSM carriers, in their infinite wisdom, chose to use a different frequency than the rest of the world."

This is completely untrue. All of North America from Canada through at least Costa Rica use the 850/1900 band... Europe and Asia are NOT the rest of the world. In fact, in Japan and Korea, which have the most advanced cell phone systems (light years beyond Europe's) they have never even used GSM.

The whole issue is moot anyhow as the newest UMTS/HSPDA phones (which are 3G evolution of GSM and are in fact CDMA... in other words the U.S. technology has won out even in Europe and Asia) are quad band (850/900/1800/1900) so they work anywhere.

Even older phones were tri band with both of the domestic bands and one foreign band (i.e.. 850/1800/1900 for North America and 900/1800/1900 for Europe and Asia) so that they would work (though not be able to take advantage of the entire spectrum available) in regions other than the region of purchase. I have used my old GSM phones in Europe, Hong Kong and Mexico with no problems.

Posted by: AR | January 9, 2007 10:29 AM

T-Mobile told me that they will do it for free over the phone, 01/21/2007

Posted by: Maria | January 21, 2007 7:12 PM

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