media logos

Unlock your cell phone today!

If there’s one aspect of the cell phone industry that is universally hated by consumers, it is the locking of handsets. If you don’t know what this means — and this is something you need to know as a cell phone user — is that when you buy a phone through a service provider, the phone can only be used with that provider. So if you want to switch providers, you’ll have to purchase a brand new handset. How is that fair? You already own a handset, so if it’s compatible with a new service you should be able to just use it. Or at least that’s our line of thinking.

This issue has been brought to court before, but with unsuccessful results. So what are you, the consumer, supposed to do now? You’re always laying down for the man, so why not take a stand on this one? We have a suggestion:

Unlock your phone today!

This is an unconditional suggestion; it doesn’t matter if you plan to switch providers tomorrow or never plan to for as long as you live. As long as phones are locked, the service providers have a distinct and unfair advantage. Negate that advantage by unlocking your phone.

Please note that unlocking your phone is legal. The phone is your property, and so long as you don’t create interference with other electronics devices, you’re free and clear to do what you will with it. However, this may void your warranty on the phone, and it will likely cause customer service to give you a hard time. This should not affect your decision, though, unless you have an uber-expensive phone still under warranty.

A note about CDMA subscribers

The only catch to this is that if you’re subscribed to Sprint or Verizon — or any MVNO thereof — you’re pretty much stuck. We’ll discuss the unlocking of CDMA phones in a bit, but the long and short of it is that it’s unreliable and can be costly. As much as we hate saying it, you might be better off keeping the phone locked.

We say this because 1) CDMA isn’t as universal as GSM, so even if you end up unlocking the phone, you’re limited on where you can use it, and 2) we’ve heard reports of unlocked CDMA phones not working as intended when unlocked. This, of course, could be a ploy of Qualcomm, the company that has a patent on CDMA technology. It could also be the carrier itself; Sprint has a strict policy of not activating any phone with a non-Sprint electronic serial number (ESN).

Surely, this will change over the next decade or so, because as far as we understand, CDMA is a superior technology. As it becomes more integrated, we expect it to be more hackable. There is already a SIM equivalent for CDMA used in parts of the world: the R-UIM, which is compatible with both CDMA and GSM networks. Once this is more widely used — and when Qualcomm’s patent expires on CDMA technology — we expect these phones to be more easily hackable.

Which providers are on the GSM network?

If your phone has a SIM card — that is, a tiny computer chip inserted into it — then you’re on a GSM network. The major carriers of GSM in the US are AT&T and T-Mobile. Then you have your regional carriers and MVNOs. Of those we have reviewed, the following are GSM-based: Tracfone (though that depends on your region), Net10 (ditto), XE Mobile, and Locus. As you can see, most US carriers are on a CDMA network.

Still, AT&T and T-Mobile comprise a large number of US cellular users — over 100 million, and that’s before you factor in the MVNOs and regional networks. So this still applies to plenty of people. Those with Verizon, Sprint, or an MVNO thereof, you’re kinda out of luck here. But, as we said, we will touch on this in just a minute.

Why unlocking is great for prepaid

We had a friend who signed up for Cingular’s GoPhone service. He liked their rates, and the coverage map was pretty good, at least in his area. So, thinking that he’d be keeping this account for a while, he dropped $180 on a phone. “I mean, if I was going to switch providers, I might go cheaper,” he said. “But I like this Cingular thing, so I might as well get myself a nice phone.”

You can probably see where this story is headed. Yeah, his coverage was good, and in theory his rates were competitive. But he had a huge problem with billing. They kept overcharging him for minutes. And when we say overcharging, we mean there were times when he was paying roaming rates while driving down his own street.

Some of his calls to customer service yielded him favorable results. Others, though, left him frustrated. He was either on hold for 30 minutes or more, or they were unable to solve the problem. Basically, he was getting the opposite of what he expected: poor coverage and higher than normal rates. Plus, he was now stuck with this relatively expensive phone.

Stories like this happen all the time in the cellular arena — particularly in prepaid. Some companies simply have bad customer service models and shoddy billing practices, while others (i.e., major carriers) don’t value prepaid subscribers as highly as their contract clientele. Even if customer service is poor towards contract subscribers, they have two things holding them in place: the contract and the phone. Prepaid subscribers only have the latter, and even that can now be remedied.

How to unlock your GSM phone

First thing to remember: T-Mobile and AT&T will unlock your phone for you, granted you meet certain requirements. With T-Mobile, it’s ownership of the phone for 90 days. For Cingular, it’s when your contract expires. Yeah, those aren’t ideal time frames, but it’s a quick and easy way to get it done. You might catch some flak from customer service, but keep asking for supervisors and you’ll get the job done.

If you don’t meet those qualifications, however, there are alternatives. For owners of older Nokia phones, there is the Nokia unlock calculator. Just punch in the required information from your phone, and it will generate your unlock code. Only problem: not many people still have these phones. They do exist, so this is a still a useful tool.

Unlocking more recent phones, however, may prove a bit more daunting. It’s going to require a bit of geekiness if you want to do it yourself: you’re going to need to buy some software and a particular cable. This will allow you to tap into an unlock database, which will send the code to your phone. You can get some basic information on this at Cell Phone Hacks, a forum dedicated to unlocking, among other phone hacks (if you look hard enough, you can find a way to hack the insufferable universal Verizon program — we freakin’ hate it).

You can find further information on unlocking at the following sites:
GSM Liberty
UCABLES
Mobile 2 Mobile

Just mail it out

One of the more popular strategies for unlocking phones is to send it to a specialist. This is relatively cheap — $25 on average plus shipping — and is the most reliable unlocking method. If you’re not familiar with the hardware of a cell phone and try to perform a hardware unlock yourself, you run a high risk of permanently damaging the phone. Sending away mitigates that risk.

There’s not really much else to it. We suggest checking out relevant forums before you send your phone to a stranger. Here are a couple we found:
iUnlock.com
Mobyrepairs

Or, buy an unlocked phone

If you’re looking for a new phone anyway, why not buy it already unlocked? That way you’ll save yourself the hassle of getting your phone unlocked later. There is really no reason not to do this if you’re with AT&T, T-Mobile, or any other GSM provider.

Okay, so maybe we’re fibbing a bit. There is a catch to buying an unlocked phone: you’re going to pay full price and probably then some. And boy, can those phones get expensive. Now, many phones on prepaid plans are not subsidized like they are on contract plans, but there are often rebates and free airtime incentives that help offset the cost of the phone.

Still, it can be a worthy investment if you’re not the type that likes to switch your phone every year. That way, you’ll always have the freedom to switch providers without changing your phone. You could easily break even if you changed providers just once.

Of course, we’ve also compiled a list of where you can buy unlocked phones on the ‘net:
Pure Mobile
Cellular Blowout
Cell Hut
UStronics
GSM Liberty
Simon Cells

The note about CDMA users

As we said, if you’re with Verizon, Sprint, one of their many MVNOs, or a CDMA regional provider (like MetroPCS or Cricket), unlocking your phone is impractical and, really, not a great idea. You might run into a Sprint MVNO, which won’t activate your phone if it doesn’t have a Sprint ESN. Or you might run into Verizon or an MVNO thereof, and the service will be crappy with your unlocked phone.

All this considered, we certainly advocate waiting for the R-UIM cards to start surfacing in the US. Hackers will likely go bonkers when this happens, and unlock services will appear just like they did for GSM.

However, it appears that we found one site that will unlock and reprogram your CDMA phone. What this does is takes your, say, Sprint phone and unlocks it for, say, Verizon. We cannot verify if this actually works, since we have not used it ourselves. But browsing through the support forums, we did find a few problems from unsatisfied customers. The owners of the site were normally quick to respond and very helpful, though. You can check this site out: Unlock to Talk. Once again, they may not be able to provide service depending on your phone and carrier. Make sure you call them to check availability if you plan to use this.

So what are you waiting for?

Don’t let the cell phone carriers get the better of you. Free yourself from their unfairly imposed bounds and get your phone unlocked. If nothing else, this is a symbolic stand against cell phone carrier oppression. You own the phone, and you should be able to do what you will with it. Anything less is simply un-American.

Article references:
How to Unlock Your Phone [PC Magazine]