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What Is an Unlocked Phone? The Difference Between Locked and Unlocked Phones

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Maybe it’s because you’re about to switch to Mint Mobile (hey there) or maybe it’s because you randomly heard the phrase “unlocked phone” out in the wild. Whatever the reason, you might be wondering what exactly it means to have a phone that’s unlocked. 

Unlocked phones are phones that aren’t tied to a specific carrier’s network. That means an unlocked phone can work with more than just one service provider and it makes it easy for you to switch carriers whenever you want, like when you find out certain carriers have some pretty f*!ing great deals (we said foxing).

But that’s just the beginning. Read on to find out more about unlocked phones (and how to unlock yours from the clutches of Big Wireless), as well as the benefits of having an unlocked phone.

Locked vs. unlocked phone

As you might imagine, since there are unlocked phones, there are also locked phones. Unlocked phones are phones that aren’t tied to a specific carrier and can work with different providers (or let you switch providers whenever you want). On the other hand, locked phones have software that prevents them from being used by different mobile networks, hence they’re locked into a certain network and can only be used with that specific carrier. Even if you didn’t buy your phone from a specific carrier, it can still sometimes be locked by that carrier (sneaky, huh?)

So, you might be asking why carriers sell locked phones. Locked phones are usually discounted, and the contract you sign with the carrier makes up for the financial loss the carrier takes on. Locked phones ensure you can’t switch networks until after a certain time, sell your phone before the contract is over, or skip out on your bill and switch (let’s call it the dial and dash). Some carriers only require you to have a locked phone for a year, while certain Big Wireless companies require a longer lock. Like, up to two or three years long.

Another term you may have heard while discussing locked or unlocked phones is the term jailbreaking. While it sounds like a jailbroken phone is the same as an unlocked phone, that isn’t the case. Jailbreaking a phone only has to do with its software. A jailbroken phone will have media restrictions lifted so that users can run different operating systems on their device, or delete or hide preloaded apps that usually cannot be deleted. However, a jailbroken phone does not mean the phone is unlocked—a phone can be jailbroken, but still tied to a specific carrier. 

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Benefits of unlocked phones

The benefit of having an unlocked phone is the freedom to switch carriers when you want. This way, you can get the best rates and coverage for you (or even use two providers on one phone, if you have both a physical SIM card and eSIM—more on that here). But there are other benefits as well.

If you think you may want to sell your phone one day, you’ll typically get way more money for an unlocked phone, because the person that buys it can use whatever carrier network they want (freedom is always a selling point). Unlocked phones are also good for international travelers, since you can use your unlocked phone with any foreign carrier that works with your phone’s technology. Instead of paying roaming charges, you’ll be able to pay local rates. If you have yet to purchase a phone, another benefit to opting for an unlocked phone is that you can choose different models beyond what your current carrier offers. More choice is always good.

However, one important thing to note is just because a phone is unlocked, doesn’t mean it will work with every single carrier. It also depends on which cellular network your phone model is compatible with: GSM or CDMA. Most new phone models are compatible with both, but older phones may only be compatible with one of those cellular networks. In fact, the network your phone is compatible with may make it harder or easier to unlock your phone. GSM-compatible phones (which are the types of phones that are compatible with Mint) are more straightforward to unlock, while CDMA-compatible phones can be harder to transfer to new carriers, since certain Big Wireless carriers have their own unique databases and networks (they really do make everything more difficult).

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Is my phone unlocked?

There are a few ways to double-check whether your phone is unlocked:

  1. If you’re on a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan, your phone is probably unlocked.

  2. Check through your cellular network settings. For Androids:
    1. Go to Settings.
    2. Go to Connections.
    3. Go to Networks (or Mobile Networks or Cellular Networks)
    4. Select Network Operators. If available networks appear, your phone is probably unlocked. If only one, or no networks, pop up, you most likely have a locked phone.

  3. Check through your cellular network settings. For iPhones: 
    1. Go to Settings.
    2. Tap Cellular.
    3. If you see a Cellular Data option under the Cellular menu, then your iPhone is unlocked.
    4. If you don’t see Cellular Data Network as an option, then it’s still locked.

  4. Call your wireless carrier to ask if your phone is unlocked. If your phone is locked and you want it unlocked, you can ask them to do that for you while checking the status of your phone. You’ll just need to provide your IMEI number, which you can find by dialing #06# on your keypad. Alternatively, you can visit your carrier’s store and ask, or check if they have a website or app where you can check this information.

  5. You can also check if your phone is unlocked by trying to swap out SIM cards, by either borrowing a SIM card from a friend or requesting a new one, like the one that comes from a certain provider’s free trial. Here’s how to test it out using a new SIM card:
    1. Power off your phone and take out the current SIM card. The location of your SIM card will vary by device, but you should be able to remove it by using a SIM ejector tool (or just a common paperclip). Press down on the SIM tray panel and it will open.
    2. Remove your current SIM card and put in the new one, from a different carrier. Turn your phone back on.
    3. If your phone asks for a code to unlock your SIM, your phone is locked to your carrier. If you’re able to use your phone as normal, and calls go through, it’s unlocked. 

How do I unlock my phone?

You might be wondering how to unlock your own device if you’ve just discovered that it’s locked. When you’re ready to unlock your phone, you’ll need to call your current carrier (or visit their store or website) and request for it to be unlocked. Typically, this involves providing your account password and your IMEI number. Some carriers also have apps that can do this for you.

There may also be conditions to unlocking your phone. If you have a prepaid device, those are usually eligible within one year of initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements. If you have a postpaid device, they’re usually eligible to be unlocked after you’ve fulfilled the applicable service contract, completed the device installment plan or paid an early termination fee. In either case, you’ll usually also have to have an account in good standing to unlock your phone, which means no outstanding bills (or illegal usage).

Can I bring my unlocked phone to Mint Mobile?

Oh, fox yeah. Mint requires its users to have an unlocked phone, so we definitely encourage you to bring your own phone when you’re ready to switch (and after it’s been unlocked), especially if you’re still happy with your current device and it’s compatible with our service. Once your phone is unlocked, you can check if it’s also compatible by plugging in the brand and model, or IMEI number, on that same page.

Since you’re wondering if you can bring over your phone to Mint, you might also be wondering if unlocking your phone and bringing it over to our service will mean you need to change your phone number. That’s a big, fat NOPE. You can easily transfer your phone number over—and here’s the guide that will help you do it. That’s right, you won’t miss a single text or message from your S.O. or your parents (even if you might want to).

Ok, so. Do you already have an unlocked phone you want to bring to Mint? Or maybe you just purchased one at our online store? The next step is to check out our plans here to see which one is right for you and your newly-unlocked phone. 

It feels good to break free from Big Wireless, doesn’t it?

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