What Does "Unlocked Phone" Mean?

by Nicole Martinez

Many cellular providers around the world, including popular American carriers, rely on GSM technology for their networks. GSM phones include a slot for a SIM card and, when unlocked, the user can replace the SIM card (that the carrier provides) to use the phone on a different GSM network.


When a consumer purchases a cell phone from a provider, such as T-Mobile or AT&T, instead of from the manufacturer, the phone is locked to the network. Even though the phone may be compatible with other networks, as is the case with GSM cell phones, and the consumer owns the phone, it cannot be used on another network as long as it is locked.


One of the obvious benefits of unlocking a phone is being able to use it on other networks. Therefore, the consumer does not have to purchase a new phone and can take his data (including contacts, photos and other media) with him, even if he switches cell phone companies. Alternatively, consumers who travel and switch between carriers during their travels can use the same phone, instead of purchasing and keeping multiple phones (and accessories). A consumer may also be able to save money by purchasing the phone he desires through a cell carrier, instead of the manufacturer, and paying the unlocking fee compared to purchasing a brand new phone directly from the manufacturer.


When a consumer wishes to unlock a GSM cell phone, the methodology varies depending upon brand and service provider. Typically, the provider will unlock the phone for a fee and this may include changes to internal hardware, connecting the phone to a computer and running software or simply inputting a code into the phone itself. The customer can contact the network provider to determine if unlocking must be performed in person (in the store). Several websites exist that provide unlocking for fees that are typically around the $25 USD.


Unlocking should not be confused with debranding (or flashing). Debranding removes proprietary firmware that the cellular service provider has placed on the phone. Debranding, also known as decustomizing, removes logos, themes, applications and other software that may be taking up hard drive space and using memory on a cell phone. While debranding can remove a lock from a GSM phone, unlocking a phone does not remove branded software and data.

Purchasing Unlocked Phones

Consumers can purchase unlocked phones directly from the manufacturer and use it on compatible carriers. For example, Nokia's GSM phones are compatible with American carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as other carriers worldwide. Consumers will usually pay a higher price, upfront, for unlocked phones. In addition, the phones will not include the branded software that is included with a phone purchased from the carrier itself.

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