US carriers will soon start unlocking phones the easy way

The top five carriers in the United States will on Feb. 11 implement new unlocking procedures for smartphones, tablets, and other cellular devices sold on their networks. The new unlocking standards were set forth by the CTIA in late 2013 and, though a voluntary commitment by the carriers, define the conditions under which carriers must unlock your devices — and it's all looking good for the consumer. Once you've paid off your phone, you'll probably be able to get it unlocked, and it'll be even easier with future smartphones.

Here are the broad strokes of what you need to know:

  • AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon will all adopt these standards starting February 11, 2015.
  • Post-paid devices will qualify for unlocking as soon as the device is paid off or the service contract ends (depending on your specific plan, naturally).
  • Prepaid devices will qualify for unlocking no later than one year after activation.
  • Military personnel can have their phones unlocked upon presentation of deployment orders, regardless of payment status.
  • Unlocking for current customers will be performed at no cost, and at "a reasonable cost" for non-customers and former customers.

There are, naturally, some restrictions on all of this. Owners of both postpaid and prepaid devices will need to ensure that their devices have been fully paid off and that their account is in good standing with the carrier. Devices must also not have been flagged as stolen, lost, or associated with fraudulent activity. Additionally, there are two different kinds of devices that we're looking at here, Master Subsidy Lock (MSL) and Domestic SIM Unlock-capable (DSU), and that will affect how the unlocking process happens:

  • MSL devices have been manufactured and/or launched prior to February 2015. They will require an MSL code from the carrier to override the restrictions keeping that device locked to the carrier's network.
  • DSU devices will launch starting in February 2015 and will be capable of receiving an over-the-air unlock command from the carrier. Very few (apparently only one) devices have been manufacturer before now with DSU capability.

The last two generations of iPhone, including the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus will be receiving DSU capability on February 19, 2015.

Either way, MSL or DSU devices that are unlocked will have their SIM card slots unshackled and free to take a SIM card from whatever carrier you so choose. Of course, the device still needs to actually support the frequencies used by your carrier of choice, though thankfully most modern flagship smartphones and tablets support a wide range of frequencies for easy interoperability. Older phones and mid-to-low-tier devices won't necessarily have support for your carrier of choice, but it won't hurt to unlock if you're eligible.

We don't have exact details on how all of these carriers will implement these new standards, but we can tell you a bit about what Sprint has planned. Sprint will include a message on the appropriate month's bill for MSL devices when they're eligible for unlocking. DSU-capable devices on Sprint will be automatically unlocked over-the-air once they've become eligible.

There's a brave new world on the horizon for unlocked devices in the United States. Soon it will be easier and clearer than ever to get your smartphone, your tablet, your hotspot, or even your laptop unlocked from the carrier. And that's a very good thing indeed.

Thanks to anonymous for all the details