Nick | Edited by Steve N
Updated 26 Apr 2016
Unlocking your phone means you can use any network's Sim card, giving you the freedom to switch providers, lower costs and pass on your phone to others.
This is a step-by-step guide to freeing your mobile from its digital shackle, covering all the methods available.
In this guide...
Why unlock your phone?
When you buy a new phone, chances are it'll be locked to the network you bought it on - and if you try to put another network's Sim card in, it simply won't work. Unlocking it means you can use the phone with any compatible Sim card, on any network. This has several benefits:
Bag a cheaper tariff
If you're happy with your phone handset, but don't have a good deal, unlocking it allows you to keep the phone but switch to a cheap Sim-only deal on another network. See Cheap Mobiles for more info on switching.
Grab promotional deals
Often networks give away free Sim cards, which can come with free texts or calls. Yet if your phone isn't unlocked, you can't put them in and take advantage. Any decent free Sim offers are included in the free weekly MoneySaving email.
Added handset value
Unlocked phones tend to sell for more on websites such as eBay, because they have much wider appeal to users on other networks and in other countries. Check our eBay selling tricks guide for more information.
Freedom to roam
Unlocking means you can use foreign Sim cards to cut phone costs while you're abroad. See Cheap Roaming for more.
In short, unlocking gives your mobile independence from the network you got it from - and it's usually simple to do. Many older handsets can be unlocked using codes generated free on the web, and if that doesn't work, you can do it for a reasonable fee, either through your network, or high street phone unlockers.
Even if you have to pay your network to unlock the handset, unless you're on a particularly good tariff already, the savings should quickly outweigh the outlay.
Mobile companies say their phones are already heavily subsidised to entice you to buy them, and they need to make up this shortfall. Yet the reality, as ever, comes down to cold hard cash. For the firms, it wouldn't make sense to sell you the phone at reduced cost, and then let you take your cash to another network provider.
However, it's not all doom and gloom and some providers, such as Three, have started selling unlocked phones - both to those on pay-as-you-go and pay-monthly contracts.
It's a common misconception that unlocking your phone is illegal. Unsurprisingly, mobile phone companies aren't keen to dispel this myth. The confusion arises because unlocking and unblocking are often mixed up. They mean different things. In a nutshell:
It just means making the phone work with any Sim card.
Unblocking is illegal
This is the practice of making a phone work again after it's been blocked by the networks, usually as a result of its being reported lost or stolen. It's thoroughly illegal and should not be attempted.
While it's not illegal, unlocking your phone WILL invalidate its warranty in most cases. So make sure you think twice if you're still in the warranty period and have a super-expensive handset. While it's possible to 're-lock' some phones, you shouldn't rely on this.
Is there any way around it?
It's possible to get a Sim unlocking attachment. It's a little device roughly the same size and shape as a Sim card, which goes in the handset's card slot alongside the Sim itself.
Effectively, the device unlocks your Sim to make it work with the handset, rather than the other way around, so your phone warranty remains intact when you use one - though obviously you can't sell the phone as 'unlocked', because it isn't.
Whilst these claim to unlock most handsets, feedback has been patchy so far. If you've used one, please report your experiences in the Mobile Unlocking discussion.
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Before trying to unlock your phone, make sure it's necessary.
To check if you REALLY need to unlock your phone, try inserting another network's Sim – if it's locked, it should say on the screen.
If you're sure you need to unlock your mobile, there are three different methods:
Remotely. Some modern smartphones – most notably iPhones – can be unlocked by the network remotely.
Using a code. This is known as a 'Network Unlock Code' (NUC) – you'll need to get one and enter it into your phone. This is by far the most common method.
Using a clip and cable. This involves unlocking the phone using a specific data cable and software, and applies to a limited number of handsets. Most people will send their phone off to a dedicated unlocker for this service. It's possible to do it yourself if you've the technical nous, but this can be time-consuming and complex.
Step 1. Check your network's unlock policy
Different networks employ different unlocking policies, with some charging, others doing it for free. Whether you're on contract or pay-as-you-go may also make a difference and affect how long you have to wait to get it unlocked.
If you bought your phone second-hand, it might be slightly trickier to unlock. Some networks will still do it for you – EE will for example, you just have to take it into a store. However others, such as Vodafone, may require that the unlock request is made by the (former) account holder. If this isn't possible, consider trying a third-party unlocker.
|Network||Cost to unlock||Unlock requirements||How to unlock||Unlock wait time|
|Pay monthly||Pay-as-you-go||Pay monthly||Pay-as-you-go|
|EE (1)||£8.99||£8.99||Min 6 mths since purchase||N/A||Online form||Up to 10 calendar days|
|O2||Free||£15 (2)||N/A||Min 12 mths since purchase||Via My O2||Up to 10 working days (72hrs for iPhones)|
|Tesco Mobile||Free||Free if purchased 12+ mths ago, £10 otherwise||N/A||N/A||Call 0345 300 6660||Usually 7 workings days, can take up to 28 days|
|Three||Free||Free||N/A||N/A||iPhones: restore in iTunes. Other phones: online form||Up to 7 calendar days|
Min 3 mths since purchase
|N/A||Call 0345 6000 789||Up to 30 calendar days|
|Vodafone||Free if purchased 12+ mths ago, £19.99 otherwise||£19.99 (2)||Been with Vodafone for 3+ mths with all bills paid.||Min 30 days' use of PAYG Sim||Online form||Up to 10 calendar days|
|Table correct as of 26 Apr 2016. (1) Includes Orange and T-Mobile. (2) Deducted from credit.|
Important note: If your network can't quote you a price for an unlock code, then it may mean your phone isn't unlockable by code. If that's the case, don't bother looking trying to buy a code elsewhere – they may charge you just to tell you it isn't possible. Go straight to unlocking via a cable instead.
Step 2. Once approved, finalise the unlock
Once your network has confirmed that your phone unlock has been processed, you may or may not need to enter a code to finalise it.
This depends on your handset and you should receive specific instructions from the network, but generally speaking iPhones don't need any further steps to unlock – you'll just need to follow the on-screen instructions for setting up the new Sim once you've inserted it.
Is your iPhone jailbroken? In order for the official unlock to work, you must remove the jailbreak and all associated applications from your iPhone first. If you don't, you won't be able to unlock it through this means.
It's unlikely you'll be able to find a third-party retailer to unlock your phone for less than what the network will do it for (though there's no harm in checking), but if it won't because you've got a second-hand phone or you're not yet far enough through your contract, then it's worth looking elsewhere.
The web's probably not the best place to look due to the amount of dodgy operators promising quick fixes – you're probably better off trying the high street. Check phone shops, markets and even some newsagents and key-cutters – they might be cheaper.
The added advantage of these is that if they can't do the job you won't be charged (always check though), whereas on the web you may pay regardless.
If you're looking online, be sure you know exactly what you're getting before you pay. Read the terms and conditions to make sure they won't fob you off with something other than the code you need. Also, always check the site's legitimacy, as sadly there are some unscrupulous firms out there.
Do note, while some are much quicker and can send the code in fifteen minutes, some report it can take several weeks for your code to come through, depending on the network. Once it arrives, follow the instructions in method 1 to put it into the handset.
Used online unlocking services?
Please report good/bad feedback in the discussion: Mobile Unlocking
Several sites simply list codes for a range of older phones without charge. Many people believe the practice of locking phones is anti-competitive, and so there's a lot of info to help consumers fight back against it. If you've a newer phone, it's likely there won't be a free code available - yet there's still no harm in checking before you move on to paid options.
This method works best for older phones. Giffgaff's useful Unlockapedia notes that while this method works for many old Nokias, LGs, Panasonic and Siemens phones, it's unlikely to work for most others. It's still worth quickly trying to see if you can find a code for your phone just in case, though after trying that, go to Method 3.
Step 1. Get your facts right
To find a working unlocking code for your handset, you need three pieces of info: its brand/model number, the network, and the IMEI code. Here's how to find them.
Brand and model number
The chances are you already know this, as it's likely to be written on the handset, its box, and any documentation you got when you bought it, so we'll move on.
This is simply the network the phone's currently locked to, not the one you want to get on.
The International Mobile Equipment Identity is a unique number given to all mobile phones, which gets marked as invalid when phones are reported lost or stolen. To find your IMEI, simply type *#06# into your handset, and note down the number that appears.
Step 2. Find an unlocking code
There are a raft of websites dedicated to phone unlocking. Which you should use depends on your handset brand.
The easiest way to unlock older Nokias is via codes found on sites like Unlock NokiaFree.
Try Giffgaff's handy Unlockapedia - just pop in your handset type to get more info. You'll find a full discussion of other phones in the Unlocking non-Nokia phones discussion in the Mobile Phone Forum. If you can't unlock your phone with a free code, go to Method 3.
Step 3. Use it!
The sites above will generate a code based on the info you provided, so double-check it's right first. The code will look something like this. #pw+2746763089+1# (Nokia phones), or *2767*637# (other makes).
To unlock the handset, take the Sim card out of the phone and put in a different network's Sim. Now you can put the code in.
How to enter the code
This can be fiddly - for some phones, rather than using the regular text keys you need to use the * key if you want to produce letters as opposed to numbers. For example, to produce a ‘p', press the * button three times within two seconds; to produce a ‘w', press the * button four times within two seconds; to produce a ‘+', press the * button twice within two seconds.
You should now get a message saying ‘phone restriction off' (or words to that effect). You generally only have five attempts to enter the correct code so be extremely careful. If none are successful, the phone will still work, but you'll have to go to the network or a retailer to get it unlocked instead.
If all else fails, your phone may only be unlockable by using a cable attachment. You can either pay to have it unlocked this way, or, if you've a keen head for technology, do it yourself.
Use a high street or market unlocking service
Since you're going to have to post your phone to any online unlocking service for them to be able to unlock it via cable (a process which can in itself be costly and cause headaches) the local unlockers have the upper hand.
It's worth asking for a few quotes and playing the sellers against each other. With these sorts of services, you may be surprised at how far a bit of haggling can go.
Or, do it yourself
If you fancy yourself as a tech-nerd, you can also buy a cable on eBay or via cheap accessory websites, and download free software which should do the trick.
An important warning: this can get complicated, so be sure to research it thoroughly online before parting with cash for the unlocking 'clip'. Be very careful, as this method is only for the technologically experienced who can work through all issues.
There are different clips for each brand, and often for different handsets within that brand, so make sure you get the right one for your needs. If you only want to unlock one handset, then the most economical option may be to buy the clip, unlock the phone, and then re-sell it on eBay to recoup your costs.
Now it's unlocked, go & save cash!
If you've tried everything above to no avail and you're left with a handset you don't want and can't unlock, why not recycle it to earn some cash? To help, use the MobileValuer tool to instantly find the top payer for your phone.