Why You Don't Need Congress to Unlock Your Cellphone
You own a smartphone, and you want to unlock it so you can take it to a different carrier or use an international SIM card. Yet unlocking your phone yourself, legal for several years, is now against the law.
So you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore. But before you grab your pitchfork and head to your local AT&T Wireless store, you should know that the phone-unlocking debate is largely a false one.
You can unlock your phone today, illegally, and feel confident you won't end up in jail. If you prefer to do it legally, you can just ask your wireless carrier.
AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon Wireless will all unlock your phone under certain conditions.
Generally, all you have make sure of is that you've been a customer for at least three months and that your account is in good standing — i.e., you've paid your monthly bills.
(Bear in mind that only phones with SIM cards can be unlocked. That excludes many older Sprint and Verizon Wireless phones which use the CDMA wireless standard.)
Specifics vary by carrier, which we'll get into below.
The phone-unlocking debate took a new turn earlier this month when the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 (PDF) bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill, which has received bipartisan support, would make it legal to unlock your cellphone.
The issue came to head in January when the Librarian of Congress failed to include unlocking in an updated list of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (The Librarian had twice previously exempted phone unlocking.)
Technically, it's now illegal to unlock a phone. But this past March, the Obama administration said that consumers should have the right to unlock their phone and switch carriers.
"Neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation," wrote R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy.
So you're probably safe if you want to use the tools and services available online to unlock your phone yourself.
But you can always turn to your wireless carrier if you want to keep things on the up-and-up. [See also: No-Contract Cellphones: What You Need To Know]
Each wireless carrier says that if you pay full price for your phone, and forgo the roughly $20 subsidy on your monthly bill that reduces the phone's initial price, the carrier will unlock your phone any time.
If you have not paid for your phone upfront, here is each carrier's simplified policy.
AT&T Wireless says it will unlock a phone after the first 60 days of a wireless service contract as long as the account is in good standings.
Sprint unlocks its GSM-capable handsets — mostly 4G devices and iPhones — after 90 days of service.
T-Mobile makes new customers with good credit wait 90 days before they can have their phone unlocked.
Verizon Wireless says its 4G phones aren't locked to begin with, and can be used outside of the country with a different SIM card. It added that 3G handsets can also be unlocked as long as the customer's account is more than six months old and in good standing.
Locking your phone keeps subscribers handcuffed to a specific wireless carrier, said Derek Khanna, a copyright activist who lobbied for the Unlocking Technology Act.
Khanna admits the risk of legal action is slim to none. But his point is well-taken.
"The legal ambiguity of unlocking laws are unacceptable," Khanna said. "No system should have laws that are enforceable at the digression of authority. Would it comfort you to know that a judge could technically throw the book at you or your kid?"
Regardless of which route you take, check with your provider to learn about its specific unlocking policy. And just because you can unlock your phone doesn't mean it can be used on all carrier networks.
Also consider that you could unlock your phone, but violating the terms of your wireless contract could lead to stiff penalties.