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What are unlocked phones? Meaning, benefits, and how to get them

What you hear that a mobile/wirelesscarrier sells unlocked phones, what does that mean? In simple terms, an unlocked phone is a mobile device that is not tied or locked to one specific carrier.

Many years ago in the United States of America, cell phones were sold strictly carrier locked. You go to your cell phone company and pick from whatever phones they had available. Yes; you were able to get the phones on a payment plan, but it was limiting. It still is.

Which is why, if you want the freedom to pick and use a smartphone of your choice, the way to go is to buy your cell phone unlocked.

unlocked phones

What is a carrier phone?

A carrier phone (or locked phone) is sold through cell phone carriers, or through 3rd parties like Best Buy and Walmart. Carrier locked phones are purchased from a mobile carrier and are locked to that specific carrier. If you want to use such a phone on another carrier, you need to pay the balance on your contract and then have it unlocked.

Carrier phones come with a SIM card and/or line, as well as require a service signup. As a matter of fact, in many cases, you cannot switch your number from one phone to another without the involvement of your carrier and a service charge.

Carrier phones sold through 3rd party partners are called Universal or SIM Out devices. Unlike locked phones, they are initially unlocked and you can use them on any carrier of your choice, BUT they immediatly become locked to that first carrier. To use them on another carrier or network, you need to have them unlocked too.

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Unlocking a smartphone can be tedious and frustrating, depending on the carrier’s terms and conditions.

What is a carrier locked phone?

A carrier locked phone (or simply a locked phone) is one that is purchased from a mobile carrier and is “locked” to that carrier, such that it cannot be used on another carrier. For example, if a smartphone is locked to Verizon, it cannot be used on T-Mobile or other carriers.

To use a locked phone on another carrier, it has to be freed up by a process called “unlocking”. Now, let’s explore what unlocked phones are and how they work.

USA phone numbers and cell phone carriers - four national Mobile Carriers Verizon att sprint tmobile

What are unlocked phones?

Factory unlocked cell phones are devices that are not purchased from any carrier or 3rd party partner and are also not locked to any carrier, regardless of what carrier you use them on first. They come with no SIM card and no signup requirements.

When you buy an unlocked smartphone, you can freely use it with SIM cards from any compatible carrier without worry.

Are prepaid phones unlocked?

Not necessarily. You can buy a prepaid phone unlocked or locked, depending on whether you source it from a carrier or an independent retailer. For example, you can buy a prepaid cell phone from a 3rd party partner, put a SIM card from a carrier into it, and it becomes automatically locked to that carrier.

However, carriers are required to unlock your within 12 months after initial activation. Sometimes, you can get it unlocked within a much shorter time.

Benefits of buying a carrier phone

When you buy a carrier locked phone, you get to pay the total cost of the device in monthly instalments. Also, many times, carriers offer these phones at discounted prices for the trade-off of being locked in with them. So you will liley get both lower cost and convenience with payment if you opt to buy a smartphone from your carrier.

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Lastly, you are sure that the phone in question works with your carrier, because such phones have been tested and configured by the carrier before making them available to the public.

lg zone 4 prepaid phone verizon

Benefits of factory unlocked cell phones

The number one benfit is freedom – the freedom to use SIM cards from any other compatible carrier in your phone. The freedom to switch your number whenever you want. The freedom to use your smartphone and number how you want without any restrictions from a carrier.

Also, because carrier phones often come with pre-installed apps from the carrier, embracing unlocked phones means you have less bloatware on your smartphones.

Note that, sometimes, carrier phones are more expensive than unlocked ones, because often, carriers hide certain costs in the total bill. So, buying an unlocked phone could also mean paying less in some instances.

How to buy an unlocked cell phone

If you want to purchase an unlocked phone, your best bet is to buy from the manufacturer. Walk into a physical store e.g. Apple Store or Samsung Store to buy your phone. Alternatively, you can also buy one directly from the manufacturer’s website. There are also independent 3rd party stores and e-commerce sites that sell factory unlocked cell phones.

If you want an unlocked device, do not go to a carrier store or a 3rd party partner store. Don’t forget that you are paying the full cost of the phone upfront too.


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