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Imagine if every time you wanted to switch to a new cable provider or streaming service you had to make sure it would work with your TV. Or whether a new internet provider would work with your computer.

Switching providers every couple of years (or more frequently) is usually a simple way to save money. But when it comes to switching phone service, it suddenly isn’t.

We’re often pushed toward buying a new device. It may not be clear if using our current phone is even an option, or whether we can sell it.

It can feel like we’re locked in with our current carrier — and sometimes we sort of are. “Unlocking” your phone is what they call a process that’s often needed before you can transfer to a new network. Here’s how it works.

What is a locked phone?

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A locked phone is one that only works with its current network and can’t be used elsewhere without first unlocking it. You won’t be able to make calls or use data on a different network, although the device can still connect to Wi-Fi for internet.

“Unlocking” a phone is not the same thing as “jailbreaking” one, another term you might have heard. Both processes are legal and involve removing software restrictions on the device.

You can jailbreak a device (generally, an iPhone) on your own in order to install apps and make customizations the manufacturer didn’t necessarily want you to, although it’s a technically involved process. In other words, it’s about adding features the phone doesn’t have.

Unlocking a device requires the assistance of your carrier and is done to switch networks. It’s about keeping the features you have but paying someone else for service.

In general, you can expect a phone you haven’t paid off or one under contract to be locked, and as the FCC points out, carriers can refuse to unlock those devices for customers.

Not everyone needs to unlock their phone

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Phones don’t always come locked. It’s possible to buy an unlocked model, and most places that sell phones have them. If you’re buying a phone outright or a used device, it may be unlocked already. If you’ve been on Verizon for more than a couple of months, it should be unlocked too.

If you’re not sure whether your phone is locked, there are a couple of ways to check. On an iPhone, go into “General” settings and then “About” and look for a line called “Carrier Lock.” If it says “No SIM restrictions,” that means it’s unlocked. On an Android device, the location may vary, but you may find it in a similar “About” settings screen or under something like “Mobile Networks.” Another option is to ask your carrier — they know for sure.

Check compatibility first

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Unlocking your phone doesn’t guarantee it will work on another network or that it will work as well. Your phone might not be compatible with 5G networks, and older devices are more likely to be limited to certain carriers.

You can check compatibility with your future carrier. Most have a way to check your phone’s unique IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number — think of it like a car’s VIN — on their website to see if it’s compatible. They may also have a list of compatible devices.

For both Apple and Android devices, you should find the IMEI in the “About” settings page.

You’ll also want this IMEI for the next step.

How to unlock your phone

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Ready to get this show on the road? Gather up your IMEI and account information and head to your current carrier’s website, or one of their stores if you need help. The unlocking process is free (notwithstanding any account balances or contractual early termination fees) and usually quick. Here is information on unlocking at the major carriers:

Brandon Ballenger

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