AH Primetime: How To Unlock Your Cell Phone on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint

With all this hubbub surrounding the unlocking of your smartphone from one of the United States' larger carriers, namely the Big Four (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile), you might be thinking it could be a rather difficult process that takes a while, and you could be right.  You might also be thinking that it is simple and you aren't the top priority since you are essentially asking the carrier to 'set your device free' from them.  But either way, the bill for unlocking your device after your contract is up is almost into legal circulation, so here's how to go about utilizing the new bill and unlocking process, broken down by carrier.  First, the requites and warnings, though.

When you go to get your phone unlocked by your carrier, you need to have a few things on hand and in mind.  First, remember that your business there is Not the top priority, since you are essentially saying to them 'let me use my phone elsewhere, and I'll probably do just that.  After all, you're legally obliged', and they are.  It doesn't say however, that it has to be done quickly, so be prepared to spend some time for the process whether in the carrier's brick-and-mortar store or on the phone with various service and help people.  The process can take anywhere from two hours to two days, so be prepared, especially if travelling overseas, and give the process a week just in case.  What you should have with you when you go through the process it the account information (number and holder's name), the password to the account (or the last four digits of the holder's social security number), the phone number of the device to be unlocked, the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) of the device, which can be found either buried in the settings menu of the phone, or under the battery and battery door on the back of a device (if the back and battery are removable, of course), and (if you're using the phone overseas for/with the military, and your contract isn't up) your deployment paperwork.  Obviously, you need to have your two-year (or however long your carrier's is) contract over and done with to let this process go through.  Once all your prerequisites are sorted and handled, you can get down to the real business part of the process.


Verizon Wireless

Let's begin with Big Red, better known as Verizon Wireless, and how to handle the unlocking process with them.  First, you need to make sure your phone is actually capable of being unlocked at all.  Here's a link to a list of the unlockable devices on Verizon's network, so if you don't have one of those, sorry friend.  Looks like you may get to go purchase a fresh new device to use elsewhere.  If you happen to have one of those, you can proceed with the process.  The devices that are capable of being unlocked also have a drawback.  Verizon uses CDMA bands for its services, while other carriers you may want to use the device on (T-Mobile and AT&T, for example) use GSM technology.  When you use your unlocked Verizon phone on one of these GSM carriers, you might not be able to make or receive calls or send/receive texts on their network, unless your device has compatible radios for their frequency bands.  Many of Verizon's more recent phones will work on U.S. GSM networks though.  The official word from Verizon can be read here for each of the various types of payment options the carrier offers.  The best number to call is 1-800-711-8300, and be sure to ask for a SIM unlock.  LTE compatibility off Verizon's network varies by device, so keep that in mind as well.



Next, we travel to the big name in changing the carrier business up, namely abandoning the title, and being the uncarrier.  T-Mobile has been the smallest of the Big Four for a long time, but its recent growth is making T-Mobile a popular force to be reckoned with.  To get through their unlock process, you'll need to meet a couple of requirements and remember a few limitations.  If your device is a T-Mobile device, that hasn't been reported stolen or lost, linked to an account in good standing (specifically with payments made), but you have a limit of two unlock requests per year.  Also, if you have a device on T-Mobile's device payment plan (where you pay off a portion of the device's total price each month along with your bill), you'll need to have the process done, so no more payments are owed for the device.  The holes in the plan lie in the Jump and prepaid plans.  For prepaid, you need to have at least $50 in refills in the account, and for the Jump program you'll have to pay for the remainder of the device's price to eliminate any remaining cost on it.  If you want, you can use T-Mobile's on-device service (by calling 611 on a T-Mobile phone, or 1-877-746-0909 from any non-T-mobile phone), but you also have the option of video chatting with T-Mobile to help the process go through, instead of relying on a dialpad and non-visual feedback and information.  You can read the official paperwork here to get a better idea of the specifics and jargon from T-Mobile itself.  T-Mobile devices contain radios to be compatible with all U.S. GSM networks and carriers, so you can move on over to AT&T if you want.



Speaking of AT&T, here's how you go about the process with them.  AT&T is the U.S.'s second largest network, and largest GSM network, so you might be with them for very good reasons.  Say you want to keep your device but not move from the carrier though.  First, you need to make sure that the device to be unlocked is a current or past AT&T customer's device and that'll require a phone number or account number to prove it.  Next, you need to make sure that the device is paid for in full and isn't marked as lost or stolen by the carrier.  As an AT&T customer, you can unlock five devices on each account in a year.  AT&T's unlock program is wholly and exclusively handled online, and the unlock code you're sent is through email (so be sure to look carefully through Spam as well, in case your email provider is trying to keep you safe).  To check if your phone is eligible for unlock, and is in the clear, check your IMEI online.  The number, if you wish to call, is 1-888-226-7212, but you can (and probably should, for sake of simplicity) also go through the process online through AT&T's unlock portal.  Again, if you are one of those folks that want to read everything from the carrier to get it right from the hand of the master, you can check here.  Note, your GSM device as with T-Mobile's, can be used almost without a doubt on any U.S. GSM network.



Last, we have the yellow one of the Big Four, Sprint.  Sprint has had it rough for a while, losing customers to Verizon's network, AT&T plans, and now T-Mobile's everything it seems.  To get Sprint to free your device, you'll need to meet similar requirements to AT&T and T-Mobile, with a device associated with a good-standing account, as well as all numbers and information (account and phone number), and the device can't be reported stolen or lost.  Sprint, unlike some carriers, does offer temporary unlocks for overseas trips and also does the military unlock, but still requires a good-standing account as well as deployment papers/proof.  The hole in Sprint is the iPhone which cannot, physically cannot, be unlocked and used on other carriers.  If you have one and want to switch, go ahead.  It'll probably be better than a truly locked iPhone on Sprint.  Regardless, you can go through the process online using Sprint's online chat with customer help folks, or call them.  Use 1-888—211-4727 to call Sprint, or *2 from your Sprint device.  Also, the specific and from-Sprint paperwork is right here for you.

Note though, folks, that even if you unlock your device you don't always have to go the carrier (or uncarrier) route.  Each carrier has associated and supported pre-paid services (with various different names) that may offer better deals or more freedom than the mother carrier itself.  So, if you want to leave your carrier for another, or leave carriers altogether, then jump on that freedom and hopefully this will have helped you out.

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About the Author

Phil Bourget

Staff Writer
Using Android since 2012 and the Galaxy S III, I'm now running a Nexus 5 paired to a Moto 360 to keep updated on the Internet of stuff. Usually found on Google+ or in class.