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It will soon be a lot easier to unlock a phone from America's top carriers — here's what you need to know

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

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

17 Comments
  • It's about time. I only buy unlocked phones so I'm not really affected by this, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
  • This is good news for the USA, but caution ... this has been the case in Canada for a while now and that "reasonable cost?" Basically at least $50 plus taxes and fees etc. like all the other scams these companies perpetrate. They also charge *everyone*, so the law is nice, but be prepared to pay through the nose for the privilege of gaining access to a device you have already paid for and actually already own.
  • I must say that Canada is the only country I could think that has it worse than the U.S. I think it'll be a bit better over here.
  • So this is great news, but I heard that Sprint will not be unlocking any device released prior to February 2015. Can anyone verify this information? I have an iPhone 6 on Sprint and would like to know if it's worth it for me to pay off my current device or just buy an unlocked one and switch carriers.
  • The broader question is, if unlocked will my Sprint-purchased iPhone work with other carriers? My Sprint guy said it will not, as if the iPhone 6+ that I bought from them does not have the capability to work with other services, as if only CDMA can be used on that specific iPhone and never GSM regardless of unlocking. That implies that the hardware of my specific iPhone 6+ is not capable of using any service. I don't know if that is true.
  • With The iPhone that's not true. Each iPhone has the hardware to work globally and is locked through software. Assuming Sprint and their horrid policies allows you to unlock you'd be good to go for anyone else.
  • My 6+ on Sprint is paid off. This says it will automatically be unlocked presumably after February 11th. How will I be able to tell if it is unlocked? Sent from the iMore App
  • Probably should just contact Sprint.
  • 19th Sent from the iMore App
  • Ask a friend to borrow their SIM for two minutes. If their phone displays their own carriers network then congrats, your phone is unlocked.
  • Aren't iPhones already unlocked as well as any major flagship? Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • iPhones are unlock-ready hardware-wise but you would still need Sprint's go-ahead to do so.
  • This will only really help with GSM activations. Most CDMA carriers won't activate a phone whose ESN/MEID isn't already in their database, so, even though you may get Sprint to unlock your phone, Verizon won't activate it on their network. Sent from the iMore App
  • Verizon's network doesn't fucntion like a CDMA network anymore though. PPP a SIM card in and assuming the bands are correct, you're off and running.
  • Aren't Verizon LTE phones already unlocked? No one seems to mention that. Sent from the iMore App
  • That's my understanding that Verizon phones are unlocked.
  • Clearly, based on these comments, there is a great deal of confusion on the topic of unlocked phones. Perhaps iMore will do a follow up article on the topic soon? Sent from the iMore App