HOWTO: Unlock Your Phone

Now that your phone is your own, you can unlock it. Depending on the type of phone it is, unlocking can be as simple as getting a code from your phone company, or as difficult as “drilling into a shield over the main circuit board to tap into the right contacts and kicking the phone into a special diagnostic mode to get at the unlocking code.” Uh, yeah. Thankfully there are smart people at PC Magazine who can give us the lowdown on the formerly shady practice of unlocking a cell phone.Yay!

First of all, according to PC Magazine, “if you’ve had a T-Mobile phone for 90 days, or you’ve run out of time on a Cingular contract, you can get an unlocking code just by calling your carrier. Tell your carrier’s customer service representative that you’re traveling abroad and want to use a foreign carrier’s SIM card. If they don’t give you the code, stick by your guns and ask for a manager.” This is awesome, but if it doesn’t apply to you, and you’d still like to unlock your phone, things can get trickier. The neat part about all of this is: You can transform some prepaid phones into regular cell phones.

More inside.

If you have an old Nokia phone, check out the “unlock code calculator.”

After that it starts to get tricky. You’re most likely going to have to buy something: A cable, some software, or even pay for a service. Some phones need hardware mods or are not unlockable at all, and some cell phone shops do “postal unlocking”, where you send away a phone, the shop unlocks it and sends it back to you, charging around $25 for the service. As long as you can locate a reputable dealer, this seems like a good deal—especially for newer fancier phones that might require you to purchase equipment. Cell phone unlocking tools can cost more than the phone is worth.

Unfortunately, all this phone unlocking fun is only for T-Mobile, Nextel, Boost and Cingular phones. Other carriers use CDMA phones, which have more “security” and can’t be unlocked. “Representatives of Sprint and Alltel said that banning other carriers’ phones protects the user-experience on their networks. “We think it’s important to optimize the customer experience by making sure all of the handsets on our network are optimized for it,” said Sprint spokesman Travis Sowders.” Losers. The rest of you can check out the linked article for more specific advice on your type of phone, then free your phone from its chains. —MEGHANN MARCO

How to Unlock Your Phone [PC Magazine]

Photo by Geektronica


Edit Your Comment

  1. FLConsumer says:

    Hmm… odd… I’ve never had a problem getting Alltel to use any CDMA phone I had access to. Granted, I’m calling in to the 800# and asking for an “ESN Change” and am strictly business on the call, but I often swap cell phones, sometimes just because the batteries are dead and I’m far from charger.

  2. Joe Clark says:

    “How to,” even when capitalized, is two words. You aren’t Cory fucking Doctorow.

  3. Trai_Dep says:

    Geez, Joe, that’s beyond Grammer Police – it’s Grammer Nazi!

    (better uniforms, but really bad retirement plan)

  4. hiphopnerd says:

    OK, they’re not CDMA. But they aren’t GSM either, so unlocking them won’t do you any good in other parts of the world.

  5. spanky says:

    Those CDMA providers are being disingenuous. If you want to be nitpicky about it, it’s true that they don’t ‘unlock’ the way GSM phones do, but you can reprogram a CDMA phone to work with a different provider.

    I guess if the CDMA providers actually BAN you from using a phone they didn’t sell you, that would create a problem, but I’ll bet they’re lying about that. They use the phones as an incentive to subscribe to the service, not the other way around.

    Anyway, to modify your CDMA phone, you need the Master Subsidy Lock code. Once you have that, you can reprogram it.

    It can be tricky, as I understand it, to get that MSL code, but once you have it, you absolutely can reprogram your phone.

    This guy has some tips:

  6. hiphopnerd says:

    My second comment makes no sense if the first one isn’t showing up…I initially said that Boost & Nextel were CDMA and thus not unlockable.

  7. aestheticity says:

    trai_dep said: (better uniforms, but really bad retirement plan)


  8. MonsieurBon says:

    trai_dep: It’s spelled grammar.

  9. spanky says:

    Oh, wait. I was WRONG in my first comment. I didn’t even see page two of the article at first.

    Apparently, the major CDMA providers don’t let you use rogue phones on their networks. Man, that’s stupid.

  10. Joe: You can’t blame Cory fucking Doctorow on the use of HOWTO since it was a standard nomenclature for linux HOWTO documents long before BoingBoing was a popular blog.

  11. TPIRman says:

    Yes, the term existed prior to BoingBoing, but Doctorow and his BB compatriots went a long way toward popularizing the obnoxious buzzword. How I yearn for the days when, as exemplified by the classic NY Times Mag How-To Issue, we could receive instruction without having the first two words QUICKLYSCREAMEDATUS.

  12. pestie says:

    BoingBoing… That’s the banner-ad site with the occasional sliver of text thrown in, right? Heh…

  13. Charles Star says:

    Who cares about unlocking a phone when the telco contract will probably outlast the phone anyway?

  14. non-meat-stick says:

    Charles hits the nail on the head. Carriers have the advantage and the life of phones ain’t what it used to be because we all use our phones a lot more than we used to. And Nextel phones are iDen. Sprint/Nextell phones are CDMA. CDMA providers usually have more intensive data settings, so bringing a phone to another provider may cause a loss of Data services. Not all CDMA carriers have access to master files like Sprint and Verizon, so don’t bag on them for not being able to unlock or reprogram your phone. I’d like to see consumers do a bit more research before they buy. And Boing Boing is a spectacular site, as are the Gawker sites, which have had great influence from BB.

  15. natems says:

    I’ve had good luck with Cingular unlocking phones even with a brand new (less than a month) contract. I just called and told them I was going to an area of Indonesia where their map indicated no partner service (true, although it turned out there was partner service there). It took a followup call, but I was unlocked a week later.