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Locked vs. Unlocked Cell Phones

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Last month, the voluntary unlocking policies for all of the main carriers, and several of the smaller carriers went into effect. While not an official law, this agreement between the carriers and the FCC stated that wireless companies allow consumers to ‘unlock’ their devices and take them to any carrier that phone is compatible with.

Before this law, as you probably know, carriers didn’t have to do any such thing. If you bought a phone from AT&T, that phone could ONLY be used on AT&T, even if the device itself was designed to also be compatible with Verizon bandwith. The phone was ‘locked’ to AT&T. You could (and still can) purchase devices that come factory-unlocked, meaning that you can take them to any carrier you wish, but with the new unlocking policies in place, why would it even matter? We’ll look at some of the issues of locked vs unlocked phones.

Why You Should Buy an Unlocked Phone

  • Unlocked Phones = Freedom – This is definitely the #1 argument for spending the extra cash on a pre-unlocked phone. Right out of the box, you don’t have to worry about contracts or paying off a device or anything stupid like that, especially if you stick with a prepaid plan. Monthly plan too high? Switch carriers. Don’t like the service? Find a better one. Don’t like the way your customer service rep talked to you? Change companies. Don’t like the colors of the homepage? No biggie. Switch carriers. Or, ya know, don’t be so picky.
  • Unlocking Policies Still Kind of Suck – There’s no way around it: unlocking policies are still not the greatest, especially if you’re a Sprint customer. While it’s a huge step in the right direction that we even have unlocking options, the carriers didn’t actually do all that great of a job of holding up their end of the bargain. Most of the unlocking policies, especially for the smaller prepaid companies, require that you have the device activated for anywhere from six months to a year before they’ll even think  about unlocking it. So, if you think you’ll want to jump ship, buying something that’s already unlocked might just be worth it to avoid the hassle.
  • Unlocked Phones are Worth More – If you’re one of those people who upgrades fairly frequently and resells the old device, then unlocked phones might be worth the time, as they hold their value a little better and generally sell for more.

Why You Should Buy a Locked Phone

  • Locked phones are cheaper – Like I mentioned above, due to the convenience of having a phone that is already unlocked and, out of the box, compatible with the largest amount of wireless companies, unlocked phones are generally worth more and therefore cost more. So, it stands to reason that if you are sure that you’re going to stay with your carrier for a while, buying an unlocked phone shouldn’t really matter all that much.
  • You Like Your Wireless Company – If you love the company that you’re with, and you know you aren’t going to change, then going through all the trouble of finding an unlocked phone isn’t going to be worth the time. If nothing else, when you upgrade, unlock your old device (which is likely eligible if you’ve been with the company for a while) and then you’ll have an unlocked backup, just in case.
  • Unlocked Phones Aren’t As Simple As They Sound – So, you want to take your phone to a new carrier? Well, the layman will tell you to unlock your phone, jump ship and rejoice. And, while sometimes it really IS that simple, a lot of the time that just isn’t the case. Not only are there are multiple kinds of networks (GSM and CDMA) which are not compatible, but each company has different bands within that network. Your phone has to work with all of them, in the exact right way in order to function properly. And not all phones will do that. So, depending on the situation, you might be better off to just sell it and buy a different phone rather than unlocking it.