Unlock a phone: Everything you need to know

Unlock a phone: Everything you need to know

Many networks will lock the phones that they provide in their contracts so that they’ll only work with a SIM card from that same network.

It’s a sneaky trick but sadly not uncommon across the UK mobile providers.

If you try and use a different SIM with a locked phone, you’ll usually be unable to make any calls or access any of the device’s features.

If you’re still in the minimum-term of your phone’s contract (e.g. 12 months, or 24) owning a locked handset isn’t going to cause you many problems, but if you want to keep using the same phone once you’re out of your contract you won’t be able to switch to any SIM Only deal from another network.

A SIM Only deal gives the most value if you’re happy to keep the handset you have, so being restricted to a single network can be severely limiting.

Fortunately, you can unlock any smartphone and make them compatible with SIM cards from any network.

With an unlocked phone you have:

  • The flexibility to switch to any SIM Only deal from any provider, so you can always get the best deal possible.
  • The option to avoid roaming charges by using foreign SIM cards when travelling abroad.
  • A much higher resale value for your handset, which can help with costs when you do decide to upgrade your smartphone.

Even better, is that officially unlocking your phone with your network doesn’t affect your device’s warranty at all.

Unlocking your phone is a very simple process, so don’t be put off – the benefits of having an unlocked device, especially if you’re near the end of your contract, are more than worth it.

How do I know if my phone is locked?

The first step in unlocking a phone is to find out if it is actually locked. Check the list below of some of the most popular UK networks to see which of them lock their handsets:

EE – Locked
O2 – Locked
Three – Unlocked
Vodafone – Locked
Tesco Mobile – Locked
Giffgaff – Unlocked
Virgin Mobile – Unlocked (pay monthly only)

If your phone was provided by a different network, or if you want to know for sure, you’ll need to test your phone.

The best way to test a phone’s locked status is to try inserting a different SIM card into it. You could borrow a SIM from a friend or try using a free pay-as-you-go SIM, which you can order from most major networks or pick up in your local phone shop.

You can use any kind of SIM, as long as it fits in your phone and it is from a different network to the one you’re currently using.

Once you’ve got your hands on a SIM to test with, insert it into your phone and power it on.

Many devices won’t even make it to the lock screen before telling you that an invalid SIM has been inserted. If you manage to get into your phone, try making a call. If the call cannot connect it means that your phone is locked to your network.

How do I unlock my phone?

By far the easiest and most reliable way to unlock your phone is by contacting your network operator. Many networks will unlock a phone for free, although it could cost you up to £19.99. Even if it does cost some money, you shouldn’t be put off because switching to a SIM Only deal on average saves customers £20.00 each month – so you’ll be profiting in no time.

Before you ask your network to unlock your handset, you’ll need to find your device’s IMEI number. An IMEI is a unique code that is used to identify your device and you’ll have to give it to your network to confirm precisely which phone you’re trying to unlock.

An IMEI number is 15 digits long and you can find it in your phone’s Settings menu or by going to the telephone keypad and entering *#06#.

Make a note of your device’s IMEI number and then call your network to ask them to unlock your phone. All you’ll have to do is give them the correct IMEI and then they will take care of the rest. It can take up to 10 days for the unlock to be completed.

Your network will probably notify you by SMS when the phone is unlocked, and you’ll be free to use SIM cards from any network on your phone without any restriction. Unlocks are permanent, so you don’t need to worry about the device getting locked onto another network again.

Our advice? Don’t botch it

There are also third-party services that can unlock phones for a fee and you could even unlock it yourself with software and hardware adjustments.

A botched unlock can completely break a smartphone and make one entirely worthless, so these methods are not recommended unless you seriously trust what you’re doing.

Unlocking a phone through the IMEI method poses absolutely no risk to your device because all the changes to your phone’s locked status are being made on the network’s side of things.

Using the official channels won’t risk turning your phone into a very expensive brick. Making any changes to your device yourself will also void the warranty, so it’s really not worth taking the chance.


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.
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