Most phones bought from mobile networks are ‘locked’ to that network - meaning it’s the only one they’ll accept SIM cards from. However, it’s totally possible to unlock your phone and free it from its unfair prison. Here’s how.
Why is my mobile locked?
In a nutshell, phones are essentially locked to a network to discourage you from getting a SIM plan from a different provider.
How to find out if your phone is locked
Well, it's only likely to be locked if you got it from certain networks or resellers. Phones purchased SIM-free directly from the manufacturer, or from an independent retailer like Amazon, are already unlocked.
You can find out if yours is locked by…
- Inserting a SIM card from a different network and seeing if it works
- Looking up your network's locking policy - see our table below
- Contacting your network
So how do I get it unlocked?
- By contacting your network. Any network that locks their handsets will have a policy and a system that lets you request an unlock. Best of all, some of them will do so for free.
- At an independent phone shop. They'll charge a fee for this - around £15 or so - but before you take this option, check whether you can get it done for free from your network instead.
- With a little DIY, using a code or the right software. You'll need to know what you're doing for this one, though.
All methods of unlocking a phone are perfectly legal, though it'll probably affect your warranty so watch out for that.
Once you've unlocked your phone, it can take up to 30 days for the process to fully complete - though it's usually done after just a few days.
Unlocking policies by network
|Network||Does it lock phones?||Cost to unlock*|
|EE||Yes||£8.99 if you're within contract; otherwise, free. Can only unlock contract phones if you've had the contract more than six months.|
|O2||Yes||£15 for PAYG customers; free for pay-monthly. Can unlock pay-monthly phones at any time, but PAYG customers must wait 12 months after purchase.|
|Three||No; but phones purchased before 1 January 2014 will be locked||Free|
|Virgin Mobile||Yes - apart from those on pay-monthly plans||£15.32, or free if you're out of contract|
|Vodafone||Yes||Free. Can only unlock when you've had your phone more than 30 days on PAYG, or three months on pay-monthly.|
*Costs correct at time of writing - check with your network for the most accurate price.
To get your phone unlocked, contact customer services for whatever network it's locked to, and they'll set the ball rolling.
Why unlock your phone?
Most people will happily go their phone's whole life without needing to unlock it, but there are a few reasons why you might want to.
For a start, it means you can get a better value SIM-only deal from a different network if you spot one you like, and stick it in your phone straight away. See the best SIM-only deals this month.
It's also a good idea when you want to sell your phone - people are more likely to buy an unlocked mobile than a locked one, and it saves the new owner from the hassle (not to mention the extra expense) of sorting it out themselves. An unlocked phone can also nab you a higher price if you sell it to a mobile recycler.
And finally, owning an unlocked phone is great if you're going abroad for a while and think you'll get better value using a SIM from that country.