Imagine getting a high-end iPhone model for cheap, only to find out that it won’t accept your SIM. The phone is SIM-locked to a specific network provider, and unlocking it requires paying a fee to the network provider or an unlocking service.
Now, imagine deciding that you’ll unlock the phone yourself. Piece of cake, right?
Everything can go wrong in disabling a phone’s SIM lock if you barely have any idea what you’re doing. Granted that it’s not the same as ‘rooting’ or ‘jailbreaking,’ but one wrong move can render the phone permanently broken, sending your hard-earned cash down the drain. And as sites such as cultofmac.com report, a new iPhone can be insanely expensive in Europe and Russia.
1. About Free Services
The first step in unlocking a phone is finding the device’s IMEI number. You can find this 15-digit code printed in the packaging, at the back of the device, and under the battery. Alternatively, you can enter ‘*#06#’ via the dial pad. A typical phone has two IMEI numbers and one serial number; unlocking requires only either IMEI number.
It’s only natural for people to seek a solution that won’t cost them a penny. Getting the network provider to unlock it can cost as much as the phone itself, typically in the form of termination fees. Fortunately, a quick Google search for ‘unlock phone free’ will yield countless results.
But how many of them are actually free of charge? Some services may not charge for the unlocking service, but they require customers to buy a different product. On the other hand, paid unlocking services charge to maintain the software and personnel they need, on top of protecting the process from security risks. And yes, hackers can get a phone’s IMEI number and do all sorts of mischief.
2. Blacklisted Devices
Network providers keep a database of lost or stolen devices and those whose owners haven’t been keeping up with payments, known as a blacklist. Unless the owner settles his balance, recovers the unit, or loses it entirely, blacklisted phones will be deactivated. While some phones get reactivated, others end up on the secondhand market for dirt cheap.
Checking a phone if it’s blacklisted requires running a check on its IMEI number since that’s how the list works. Unlocking services like Mobile Unlocked offer a free phone check you can use by entering the device’s IMEI number. No amount of tinkering on your or an unlocking service’s part can reactivate a blacklisted phone, only its original owner.
3. CDMA and GSM
Before wireless networks became LTE-capable more than a decade ago, phones of the generation worked on one of two technologies: code division multiple access (CDMA) and global system for mobiles (GSM). Despite LTE being the standard, most smartphones still need GSM for voice calls, as 4G and 5G rollout have been slow-going.
The good news is that most of the world uses GSM; the bad news is that some phones in the U.S. still use CDMA. Some network providers in the U.S. decided to focus on speeding up 4G and 5G rollout and retiring CDMA instead of migrating to GSM.
Determining whether your phone supports CDMA or GSM is as simple as looking for a SIM slot. Through SIMs, GSM allows people to retain their network no matter what phone they use (as long as the SIM fits into the SIM slot). However, with CDMA, a person’s number is tied to the device itself, giving network providers a free hand at restricting specific networks.
Because of the incompatibility between the two technologies, manufacturers have to make versions of the same model. For example, the iPhone 6 has three versions: A1549 (GSM), A1549 (CDMA), and the CDMA-locked A1586.
There’s no SIM lock to disable on CDMA phones because they don’t use SIMs. Technically, these phones are unlocked from the beginning but locked to one network. Most unlocking services only work on GSM phones, while unlocking CDMA phones requires going to the network provider.
4. Risk of Voiding the Warranty
Here’s another sticky situation you don’t want to get in. Using a third-party program to disable the SIM lock on the phone can be considered a breach of the manufacturer’s terms of service. Consider any warranty on the phone voided after that, forcing you to shell out more money than you would have with an unlocking service. Of course, that all depends on the terms and conditions.
Unlock codes are the primary means of unlocking a phone, with each code only for a specific IMEI number. Because manufacturers design phones to require these codes when attempting to insert an unrecognized SIM, this method is less likely to void any warranty. Unlocking services work with network providers, namely in updating their databases, in providing these codes.
Apple uses software—namely iTunes—to unlock iPhones. But it has nothing to do with SIM locks; it only resets the device’s passcode.
5. Not Instant
Unlocking a phone doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time to generate the unlock code because the unlocking service has to wait for the updates to their databases. The wait can take days or even weeks, sometimes just hours.
The service also needs to confirm if the IMEI number is clean—free from any unpaid dues and not stolen. Sometimes, it would need to check multiple databases around the world, a time-consuming process in itself.
One Final Thought
If unlocking a phone requires you to tinker with the way it works, that’s no longer ‘unlocking’ but ‘jailbreaking.’ Phone manufacturers make their stand clear on the issue, considering it a breach of end-user agreements. They usually don’t go after owners that jailbreak their phones, but rendering their warranties void is fair game.
If you want to be safe in drawing your phone’s full potential, get professional help. After all, you’ll only be paying once to unlock your phone, not as much as replacing the device. After that, it’s free to use any network provider forever.