Even if you don't have any plans to switch operators it's still worthwhile to get your phone unlocked. Unlocked phones have a higher resale value. Plus, if you ever travel internationally, US prepaid SIMs either won't outside of the US or if they do, they will have extremely high international roaming rates like $2/minute for calls, 50¢/SMS and $2/MB of data!
US GSM operators will unlock prepaid phones for users who meet certain requirements. There's no charge for unlocking when its done through your operator.
Unlocking policies have changed. On Feburary 11, 2014, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular together with the CTIA carrier's trade association, signed an agreement to unlock phones for customers and to implement consistent and documented policies for unlocking phones. The operators had until February 11, 2015 to fully implement the new policies.
Although Sprint, Verizon and US Cellular signed the agreement, consumers won't be able to use many phones from one of these three carriers on a different one of the three. That's because these carriers use CDMA radio technology rather than GSM. CDMA phones aren't locked in the usual sense. They don't need to be, because the CDMA networks themselves are tightly locked down. When you activate a CDMA phone, you give the operator the phone's MEID serial number. The activation process will check to see if the MEID is in the operator's database of phones that were made for and sold by that operator. If the phone's MEID is not in the database, activation will fail. Nothing in the CTIA unlocking agreement requires CDMA operators to accept phones from other operators. However the agreement does mean that CDMA operators will have to unlock CDMA/GSM dual-mode dual mode phones like the iPhone 4s and later so that they can be used on international and possibly domestic GSM operators
Here 's a compilation of all the US prepaid operator's unlocking policies that I could find.
AT&T will unlock AT&T prepaid phones provided the phone has been active for at least 6 months, has been paid for in full and hasn't been reported lost or stolen.
Both current customers and former customers who can provide the phone number or account number are eligible for unlocks. Current customers will be allowed up to five unlocks per account, per year. Former customers will be allowed a total of five unlocks per former account.
AT&T will waive the six month waiting period and other restrictions for current customers who are active, deployed members of the military and who provide verification of deployment.
You can request an unlock using this online form. You can also call AT&T customer support at 800-331-0500. I recommend calling, especially if you don't meet the unlock requirements. Some users who had been customers for only a few days, rather than the required six months, have reported successfully getting their phones unlocked by calling support and saying that they were traveling overseas and wanted to be able to use local SIMs.
Boost Mobile Boost Mobile will provide unlocks to customers who meet the following requirements:
- The phone is capable of being unlocked. Most Boost smartphones launched after February 2015 are.
- The phone hasn't been reported as lost or stolen or deemed by Boost Mobile to be ineligible for unlocking
- The phone .has been active on account of the user requesting the unlock for a minimum of 12 months and is currently active on that account.
For other eligible phones Virgin will provide the MSL code which, is only useful for manually programming phones for use on Sprint MVNOs
Source: Boost Mobile
Consumer Cellular will unlock phones after they have been used for six months on Consumer Cellular.
Source: Consumer Cellular
Cricket will their unlock phones for current customers after the phone has six consecutive months of paid service, provided the device was purchased from Cricket. The 6 months paid service requirement does not apply to phones purchased by Cricket Unlimited Plan customers before January 4, 2018.
To request an unlock contact Cricket Support at 800-274-2538 (or 611 from your Cricket phone) or via Chat or visit an Cricket Store.
Source: Cricket Wireless
MetroPCS MetroPCS will unlock phones for active users after 180 consecutive days of service with the phone you are requesting the unlock code for.
Contact MetroPCS customer support at 800-901-6266 to request an unlock.
T-Mobile will unlock their prepaid phones for customers provided the phone has either been active on the T-Mobile network for at least 365 consecutive days or the customer has added more than $25 in refills for basic phones or $100 in refills for smartphones to the account while the phone has been active on it. A separate $100 in refills is required for each phone. The initial activation payment does not count toward the $100. The waiting and minimum payment rules are waived for deployed military personnel.
Unlocks are limited to two per year per account.
To request an unlock call customer care at 877-778-2106 (or 611 from your T-Mobile phone). To quickly reach a human, say "representative" at every prompt (three in all) including the initial one for your phone number.
TracFone, and it's sub-brands Straight Talk, GoSmart, Page Plus, Simple Mobile, Walmart Family Mobile, Net10 and Telcel America, have traditionally refused to unlock phones and have also gone to extraordinary lengths to make them impossible to unlock. Under pressure from the FCC TracFone now has an unlocking policy although it's extremely restrictive. TracFone's official unlocking policy says that it will unlock a customer's phone if:
- The phone is capable of being unlocked. TracFone claims that most of its phones are "not technically capable of being unlocked".
- The phone was launched after February 11, 2014 or activated after February 11, 2015.
- The phone has been active on TracFone for 12 months
- Airtime was added to the phone in 12 different months.
- The customer's TracFone service is currently active or was active 60 days ago or less.
If the customer meets all the requirements but their phone is not capable of being unlocked, TracFone will give the customer a refund of the phone's trade-in value if the customer returns the phone to TracFone. TracFone will pay the return postage. TracFone defines the trade-in value as 20% of the phone's original retail price OR the phone's current value on BuyBackWorld.com, whichever is greater.
Unlocks are limited to one per year per account.
U.S. Cellular U.S. Cellular will unlock prepaid devices for customers 12 months after the device was activated on U.S. Cellular Prepaid.
Only certain devices are unlockable. There's a list of unlockable devices on the U.S. Cellular site. It includes most recent are all CDMA/GSM dual mode phones.
Source: U.S. Cellular
Verizon Prepaid will unlock prepaid phones after 12 months of service or when payments in the amount specified on the back of the phones packaging has been met. The amount of payments required for an unlock carries from $35 to $150 depending on the value of the phone.
Virgin Mobile Virgin will provide unlocks to customers who meet the following requirements:
- The phone is capable of being unlocked.
- The phone hasn't been reported as lost or stolen or deemed by Virgin Mobile to be ineligible for unlocking
- The phone is currently active on Virgin Mobile.
- The phone has been active on account of the user requesting the unlock for a minimum of 12 months.
Source: (1) (2) (3)
Other operators. - as far as I know no other US MVNO will unlock phones. I will update this post if any of the operators changes their unlock policy.
Image: Lock 3 by Andrew Magill
Updated 4/2/18 - MetroPCS now requires 180 days (was 90 days) of service for unlocks.