You can unlock your mobile for free. Do so and it'll accept any network's Sim card, giving you access to promotional offers, cheaper texts, lower roaming costs and the ability to pass on your phone to others. This is a step-by-step guide to freeing mobiles from their digital shackles, covering all the available methods.
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 function.
Unlocking your mobile enables the phone to be used with any compatible Sim card on any network, which gives you these benefits:
Promotional deals. Often networks give away free Sim cards, these can come with free texts or calls. Yet if your phone isn't unlocked you can't put the Sims in your phone and take advantage. Any decent free Sim offers are included in the free weekly MoneySaving email.
A cheaper tariff. If you like your phone but don't have a good deal, unlocking it allows you to keep the phone but switch to another network. And the fact you don't need a new phone should enable you to get a better tariff. See Cheap Mobiles for more info.
Added value. Unlocked phones sell for more on eBay, because they have much wider appeal to users on other networks and in other countries.
Freedom to roam. Unlocking extends to many foreign Sim cards too, so you can totally eschew the UK networks' expensive overseas rates by getting a local Sim card everywhere you go. See Cheap Roaming for more.
In short, unlocking gives your mobile independence from the network you got it from. And what's more, it's usually simple to do. Many, especially slightly older, handsets can be unlocked using codes generated for free on the web, and if that doesn't work, you can do it for a reasonable fee, either through your network or high st. phone unlockers.
Even if you have to pay your network to unlock the handset, unless you're on a particularly good tariff, the savings should quickly outweigh the outlay.
Why do mobile phone companies lock phones?
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; it makes no sense to sell you the phone at reduced cost and then let you take your money to another network provider.
Isn't it illegal?
Nope, this is a common misconception, and one the mobile phone companies (unsurprisingly) aren't keen to dispel. The confusion arises because unlocking and unblocking are often mixed up, yet mean different things.
Unlocking is totally legal. 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. Unsurprisingly, It is thoroughly illegal and should not be attempted.
But what about my warranty?
While it's not illegal, unlocking your phone WILL invalidate its warranty in most cases. Thus do 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, this shouldn't be relied upon.
Is there any way around it?
It's possible to get a 'Sim unlocking attachment', which is 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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How to unlock
Before getting down to it, have you tried putting a different Sim in your phone to see if it works? You have and it doesn't? Okay then; there are two distinct ways to unlock mobiles:
Using a code. This is known as 'remote unlocking' and involves getting and entering a special code into your phone, which gets rid of all the restrictions as if by magic, and 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 to a dedicated unlocker for this service, but it's possible to do it yourself if you've the technical nouse.
Method 1. Unlock your phone for free
There are many websites which simply list codes for your phone without charge. Many people believe the practice of locking phones is anti-competitive and thus there's a lot of information to help consumers fight back against this.
Who is this for?
The free method works best for older Nokia phones and some other older handsets. Yet its worth everyone quickly trying to see if you can find a code for your phone, though after trying that, go to Method 2.
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. Chances are you already know this, as it's likely to be written on the handset, it's box, and any documentation you got when you bought it, so I'll move on.
The network. This is simply the network the phone's currently locked to, not the one you want to get on.
The IMEI. 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 head for first depends on your handset brand.
Other brands. Trycktill lists a few codes for other brands, though no where near as many as for Nokias. Some handsets by other manufacturers are not unlockable by freely-available codes, but it's still worth running a quick Google search to see if yours is one of the few that is (though do check it's a legitimate source). Also you'll find a full discussion of other phone in the Unlocking non-Nokia phones discussion in the Mobile Phone Forum.
If it transpires that you can't unlock your phone with a free code go to Method 2.
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, 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.
Rather than using the regular text keys you need to use the * key if you want to produce letters as opposed to numbers. 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 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.
Method 2. Buy a code
If you haven't found a free code, it may be possible to buy one. Obviously the aim here is to find the code as cheaply as possible and it's only worth doing if the reason you're going to unlock your phone will save you more than the cost.
Who is this for?
This applies to most modern handsets, so it's always worth trying, but if it doesn't work then there's still a chance using Method 3.
First, get a quote from your network.
Phone your current network and ask it how much it'll charge for an unlock code. Unfortunately, networks tend to play fast and loose with their unlocking fees, to the extent it often seems they're making them up as they go along. You may be quoted anything between £20 and £120, depending on your handset, network, and it seems, which way the wind is blowing that day.
Vodafone is the only exceptions from all this cloak-and-dagger pricing; its contract customers can get phone unlock codes for free regardless of how far into the contract they are, and so can Pay As You Go customers provided they've been with the network for at least 12 months. If not, a reasonable flat-rate £19.99 is payable.
Important note: If your network cannot quote you a price for an unlock code, then the chances are your phone isn't unlockable by code (they should tell you this if asked). If that's the case, don't bother looking at other sites that sell codes, they may charge you just to tell you it isn't possible. Go straight to method 3 instead.
Then, try the dedicated unlockers.
Having got a benchmark unlocking price from your network, you can hit the web and the high st. to see if they'll beat it. If 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 legitimacy of sites; there are some dodgy operators working in this business.
Whilst the web's probably not the best place to look, it's likely there are businesses offering mobile unlocking on your local 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, whereas on the web you may pay regardless.
Used online unlocking services? Please report good/bad feedback in the discussion.
Method 3. Unlock via a cable
If all else fails, your phone may only be unlockable by the physical use of a cable attachments. You can either pay to have it unlocked, or, if you've a head for technology, do it yourself.
Use a high street/market unlocking service
Since you're going to have to post your phone to any online unlocking service, a process which can in itself be costly and cause headaches, the local unlockers have the upper hand here. 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 too.
Do it yourself.
If you fancy yourself as tech-savvy, you can also buy a cable on eBay or cheaper accessory websites and download free software which should do the trick. This can get complicated, so be sure to research it thoroughly online before parting with your cash for the unlocking 'clip'. Be very careful though; this 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 be sure to 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, save some cash!
Now your handset's unlocked, the mobile world's your oyster! Read the Cheap Mobiles article for info on getting a good deal, and the Cheap Roaming article for top deals on calling from abroad. Also, check out the Orange 2for1 Cinema article.
If you've tried everything above to no avail, and you're left with a handset you don't want, why not recycle it and earn a little cash (use the MobileValuer tool to find the top payer for your phone).