An unlocked smartphone can be used on any available network, without restrictions. Here’s how to check if your phone is locked to a specific provider or not.
If you bought your handset SIM-free, be it from an online retailer like Amazon or a store like Carphone Warehouse, chances are very good that it’s unlocked, meaning there’s no restrictions on which provider you can use with the phone. A SIM card from Vodafone, Three, EE or any of the other networks will work just fine.
However, if you got your phone as part of a contract deal, then you may well find that it’s locked to your chosen provider. For the duration of your contract that’s no problem, unless you wanted to stick a second SIM in from another network or switch to an alternative SIM when you head abroad.
But when your contract’s finished, a locked phone means you can’t simply swap to another provider if you see a better deal. At least not without unlocking your handset or buying a whole new phone.
Also, if you’re planning on selling your mobile or passing it onto a friend or relative, you should check first to make sure it’s unlocked. Otherwise the recipient may not be able to use it with their SIM.
Thankfully locked smartphones are becoming increasingly rare, and many providers now offer only unlocked devices to contract and Pay As You Go (PAYG) customers.
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How do I check if my iPhone or Android phone is unlocked?
With either an iPhone or Android smartphone, the best way to confirm if your handset is unlocked is simply by trying two SIM cards from different networks.
You’ll presumably already be using your own SIM with the phone, so you just need to find a buddy or relative who’s using an alternative provider. For instance, if you’re with EE, try finding someone who’s on Three or Vodafone or one of the other options. You’ll need to borrow their SIM card for a few minutes, so be sure to lay on the charm and be super polite.
What you’ll need now is a SIM tool, those pointy needle-like contraptions that come bundled inside of a smartphone box. Use this to open the SIM drawer on both your handset and your friend’s, and then replace your own card with theirs. Close up the drawer and you should see the reception bar ping into life again (if this doesn’t happen, try resetting the phone).
Now try making a call with your mate’s SIM. This doesn’t even need to be answered – if your phone can successfully dial another number with a different network’s SIM inside, then it’s 100% unlocked.
Related: Where’s the best place to sell your old iPhone?
How else can I check if my phone is unlocked?
Alternatively, if the SIM test is not an option, you could try calling your mobile provider (assuming you got the phone from them in the first place). Have the IMEI number handy just in case – this is essentially your phone’s unique identifier.
On iPhone, head to the settings menu and then go to General, followed by About. The IMEI can be found in there.
On Android, go to the settings menu and then head to System, followed by About Phone. The IMEI is right there.
How do I unlock my phone?
If you’ve found that your phone is indeed locked, don’t fret. Unlocking a smartphone is perfectly possible and often more simple than you’d expect. If you got the phone direct from a provider, your first step should be contacting them and asking them to unlock the handset. Most networks will oblige, although if you’re still locked into that original contract, you may have to wait until it expires.
The unlocking process can take anything from a few hours to a week or so. You may also be charged a small admin fee depending on the circumstances and provider, although this is becoming increasingly rare.
If you’re having no joy from your network, or you bought the phone from the likes of eBay, then you’re best off trying a third party unlocking service instead. One of the more popular services is Doctor SIM. For a small cost they’ll deal with your problem and offer follow-up advice if you have any issues.
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