How to Unlock a Cell Phone or Smartphone

By: Ed Grabianowski  | 

Is Cell Phone Unlocking Legal?

Traveling in Europe without getting a SIM card from a local phone company can lead to expensive roaming charges.
Traveling in Europe without getting a SIM card from a local phone company can lead to expensive roaming charges.
© iStockphoto/archives

­The last question everyone asks about cell phone unlocking: is it legal? In Europe, the answer is generally yes. Though laws differ from country to country, they tend to favor consumers over companies. In the United States, the answer is also yes. The U.S. Copyright Office issues rulings every three years, and in 2006, they declared that unlocking a cell phone does not infringe on the copyright of the phone manufacturer or service provider, and therefore isn't prohibited [source: Ars Technica].

In the ruling, they suggested that locking phones to accounts only serves to support a particular business model. "The underlying activity sought to be performed by the owner of the handset is to allow the handset to do what it was manufactured to do -- lawfully connect to any carrier. This is a noninfringing activity by the user...the purpose of the software lock appears to be limited to restricting the owner's use of the mobile handset to support a business model, rather than to protect access to a copyrighted work itself." [source: U.S. Copyright Office].


That ruling could be reversed later in 2009, but the justification for the original ruling hasn't changed, so it may stand. However, in 2008, Apple filed an opposition to the ruling, asking that it be overturned in 2009. They want jailbreaking iPhones to be illegal [source: U.S. Copyright Office].

There is one caveat, however. Unlocking a phone might violate the terms of any contract you may have signed with your service provider. If so, you could be subject to whatever penalties are outlined in the contract, or your service may be cut off. It's also unclear if it's legal to offer third-party cell phone unlocking services -- U.S. courts have not yet ruled on this matter.

For more information on unlocking cell phones, check out the links below.

Unlock Cell Phone FAQ

Can I unlock my phone myself?
For some phones, you simply have to enter a numeric code into the phone. Smartphones, however, can be more difficult to unlock by yourself and result in a software crack if you're not careful. If you want to unlock your phone, it's best to start by calling your carrier and asking them if they can do it for you.
Can you put any SIM card into an unlocked phone?
Yes, you can put any SIM card into an unlocked phone and it will then work with whatever phone number and account is linked to that card.
Does an unlocked phone work with any carrier?
Yes, it will work with any carrier that operates on a GSM network, which requires you to have a SIM card. If a carrier uses CDMA, like Verizon and Sprint, you may not be able to use your unlocked phone with them.
How do I know if my iPhone is unlocked?
There are a few ways to check this. Find a friend whose phone you know is unlocked, put their SIM card in your phone, and then call your friend's number from another phone. If your phone rings, your phone is unlocked. If your phone generates an error message, it's locked. Call your provider to ask if your phone is unlocked. They'll be able to tell you either way. You can also check on your phone by going to Settings > Cellular. If you see a "Cellular Data Network" option, your iPhone is unlocked.
Are unlocked cell phones worth buying?
Unlocked cell phones tend to cost more to buy outright, however, there are lots of benefits that make it worth it. You can switch between carriers to get the lowest plan cost, swap out the SIM card for a local one when you travel internationally, and sell your phone privately — often for more money — when you're ready for an upgrade.
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Originally Published: Apr 2, 2009

More Information

More Great Links


  • Anderson, Nate. "Cell phone unlocking legal (for three years)." Ars Technica. Nov. 24, 2006.
  • Apple, Inc. "In the matter of Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies." 2008.
  • Geist, Michael. "Unlocking the locked phone debate." BBC News. Sept. 4, 2007.
  • Kenny, Pauline. "Cell Phones in Europe." Slow Travel. (March 17, 2009.)
  • Peacock, Joe. "CDMA vs. GSM." PC Today. Jan. 2006.
  • Peters, Marybeth. "Recommendation of the Register of Copyrights in RM 2005-11." U.S. Copyright Office. Nov. 17, 2006.
  • Segan, Sascha. "How to Unlock Your Cell Phone." Dec. 8, 2006. (March 24, 2009),2933,235602,00.html
  • The Travel Insider. "GSM Cell Phone Unlocking FAQ." Jan. 29, 2009.