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Is Unlocking Your Cell Phone Legal?

This year, two of the most anticipated cell phones were released: the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7. Naturally, some consumers want the newest, greatest phones on the market, which is welcome news for those looking to purchase a gently used iPhone6 or Samsung Galaxy S6. However, it’s hard to find a phone that works with your carrier, limiting the phones you can use. To get around this, there’s the option of purchasing or selling an unlocked phone.

“Locked” cell phones prevent the transfer of a phone from one carrier to another. They feature a software lock that makes it so the phone is only compatible with certain networks. Carriers created this software so that users wouldn’t switch carriers as soon as someone else offered a better deal.

But there are ways around it. You can “unlock” the smartphone so that it’s compatible with other carriers, but is that considered unlawful?

A New Law Makes Unlocked Cell Phones Legal

It’s actually perfectly legal, thanks to a new law change. In August of 2014, President Barack Obama signed the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” into law. This repealed an action from the Library of Congress in 2012 that stated that unlocking a cell phone from a closed carrier was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law contradicted laws that prevent monopolies in the United States, so unlocking phones once again became legal.

This is exciting news for cell phone owners, but there are some limitations. It doesn’t prevent cell phone carriers from locking cell phones, for starters. They will likely still have rules about switching contracts that you can’t break without paying a fee.

Also, you can’t do “bulk unlocking,” which is something that people have tried to do as a business platform. They’ll purchase a variety of carrier-specific cell phones, unlock them, and try to make a profit.

There will also be a very different process for unlocking smartphones. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular are all part of the same industry cell phone unlocking standard, but they usually have small differences in their unlocking processes. For example, most of these major carriers require that you pay off your entire contract before you’re able to unlock the device.

Because the federal and state governments largely stay out of commerce, they probably won’t make a law repealing a carrier’s refusal to unlock cell phones before a contract is paid in full.

How Do You Unlock Your Phones?

As mentioned previously, there are different procedures for unlocking cell phones according to the carrier. In some instances, the carrier will unlock your device for you. You can take it to the store or even have them unlock it remotely over the phone. Either way, you’ll have to take the device to the carrier rather than getting it unlocked from the phone’s manufacturer.

Other times, the phone carrier will have a strict policy that says they won’t unlock cell phone for you, particularly if the phone has not been paid off or the contract hasn’t expired. Oftentimes, they’ll only unlock the device if it’s older. Also, when you present the phone to them, they cannot charge you to unlock it.

If your carrier will not unlock your phone, you can do it yourself by purchasing codes to unlock your phone. This is useful if you’re trying to sell the phone before the contract is up. Again, this is completely legal and may be the easier route.

Once it’s been unlocked, the phone can be used for any carrier by simply changing the SIM card. This makes it a lot easier to sell and transfer, often making it a more valuable item for you.