The PhoneBoy Blog


Simplifying Telecom, Mobile Phones, Gadgets, and More!

Unlocking Mobile Phones

For the life of me, I do not understand why mobile phone carriers insist on locking their handsets to their service. For the uneducated consumer, it means being unable to use a perfectly good phone on a different provider when the consumer wants to change providers. There are other reasons one might have to buy a new phone, e.g. one carrier uses CDMA, the other GSM. But if both the old and new carriers support the same technology, why should a consumer have to buy a new phone when the one they have will work just fine?

The reason carriers justify this behaviour: they subsidize the cost of the phones quite heavily to entice you to buy. Many places will give you a phone for free if you sign up for new service. The providers do not want you to go buy a “cheap phone” from them and go use it somewhere else. The providers make up for losing money on the handset by locking you into a 1 or 2 year contract and charging you up to a $200 early termination fee if you break it. While I understand the reasoning, the fact is: once you’ve fulfilled your contract, you should be able to walk away and take your phone somewhere else if you so desire.

CDMA and TDMA handsets are the worst. They tend to be manufactured for a specific provider only and, at least theoretically, will only operate with the provider they were manufacturered for. The reality is, the phones support the same basic protocols so, maybe with a software update, they should work with any provider that uses the same protocol. The providers seem to have an agreement amongst themselves to not allow consumers to “unlock” a phone from a different carrier under any circumstances and will not allow you to register your service with a phone that has a serial number that isn’t “in their system.” This was why I never used Verizon Wireless, even though I considered them at one time: they refused to allow me to use a perfectly good Nokia 6185 from Sprint and I did not want to buy another phone.

GSM handsets are a bit of a different story. GSM handsets are also locked to a specific provider’s SIM card (e.g. an AT&T Wireless locked GSM phone won’t accept a SIM from, say T-Mobile), and they may include customized firmware to block or add certain functions. The difference is, most GSM phones can be unlocked fairly easily to accept any SIM. Providers don’t really care what actual GSM handset you’re using, what matters to them is the SIM in the handset since that determines who you are. Some GSM handsets require special hardware to be unlocked, but just about every Nokia phone manufactured over the past several years can be unlocked by means of a simple code. A few other manufacturers handsets can be unlocked with codes as well, but Nokias are by far the most common.

Unlocking Nokia GSM phones is such a common thing, aside from people selling hardware and software that allows people to unlock their phones, there are several places that allow you do it for free, either on their servers or using software you can download. Two sites I am aware of that do it for free are: http://www.unlockme.co.uk/dct4free.html and http://www.uniquephones.com (this site also allows you to unlock a couple of other manufacturers phones).

With GSM phones being so easy to unlock, do providers themselves provide unlock codes? Depends on the provider. Most GSM providers in the UK at least, and probably other places, are compelled by regulation to provide unlock codes at the end of a contract. No such regulations exist in the US. T-Mobile and Cingular have reportedly provided unlock codes to their handsets for customers after a period of time, AT&T Wireless has never provided unlock codes.

If you want a phone you can take to another provider, get a GSM phone. If you want a GSM phone that’s easy to unlock, get a Nokia.


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