An unlocked phone is tossed in the air while a bubble of digital information glows beneath it.
  • Unlocking your cell phone lets you switch carriers without buying a new device.
  • All carriers are required to let you do this, as long as you've paid off the phone.
  • Many smartphones can work with any U.S. carrier. You can check your phone's compatibility online.

If you’re looking to save money, shopping for a new cell-phone plan is a great way to do it. As I discovered not long ago, it can trim $1,000 a year from your budget.

But before you sign up for a new service, you may have to unlock your phone from your current carrier's network.

That’s not hard to do, but it helps to have a little guidance, because the process varies from phone to phone and carrier to carrier.

If you didn’t specifically request an unlocked model when you purchased your phone, odds are good that it’s tied to your current network.

“When you buy a locked phone, it will work only on that carrier’s service,” explains Richard Fisco, who oversees electronics testing at Consumer Reports.

More on cell-phone plans and services

According to the Federal Communications Commission, however, the carrier must unlock your phone after the applicable service contract has expired and you’ve fully paid off the device (or forked over an early termination fee).

The process can take up to two business days, but once it's done, you’re free to take the phone to another carrier.

If you'd rather not handle the breakup yourself, you can pay for a service to unlock the phone, but be careful: Federal agents recently arrested two former T-Mobile employees accused of running a fraudulent unlocking scheme. “Do your research,” Fisco says.

If you're willing to unlock the phone on your own, here's what you need to know.

There are a variety of methods for unlocking a phone. iPhones, by default, will unlock after a software update is pushed out by the carrier—all you need to do is insert the new carrier’s SIM card and you’re good to go. By contrast, many Android phones require you to enter an unlock code before you can install a new SIM card. And carriers such as T-Mobile offer apps that unlock phones.

Before you unlock your phone, though, make sure it's compatible with the new carrier's network. Verizon and Sprint use a standard called CDMA, and AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM.

In recent years, flagship phones—think Samsung Galaxy S8 or iPhone 8 and beyond—are “dual-band,” which means they can operate on either a GSM or a CDMA network. (Note: Certain models from the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 series do, too.) But older, less expensive phones may be confined to one standard or the other.

The quickest way to confirm that your phone is compatible with a new network is to type the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number, a unique identifier for every mobile phone manufactured, into an online tool on the carrier's website.

Nearly every carrier, whether one of the Big Four or a smaller carrier, will have a section on its website where you can confirm via your IMEI that your phone is compatible.  

To find the IMEI on an iPhone, go to Settings > General > About > then scroll down to find the number near the bottom of the page. 

On Android phones, the steps will vary, depending on the make of the phone and the version of Android you use. But it's relatively easy to find the instructions specific to your model with a Google search. You can also dial *#06#.

That number works for Apple phones, too (though not those on Verizon's network).

Next, head to the new carrier’s website and insert the IMEI number into the tool. Here are the appropriate pages for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Making the Move

Once you've paid off the phone and confirmed that it will work on the new network, get ready to unlock the phone. Just to be clear, that doesn't mean you lose service; only that you can move the phone to the new network by swapping out the SIM card.

Be sure to keep the IMEI number handy, because you're likely to need it again.

Before reaching out to your current carrier (using the info below), take a moment to gather some account information. The list includes the account number, account holder’s name, Social Security number, and PIN or password, plus the phone number attached to the device you want to unlock.

If you’re in the military and about to be deployed overseas, the carriers will expedite the unlocking process, but you'll need to provide proof, so gather up your deployment papers, too.

Ready to go? Choose your carrier and complete the final steps.

AT&T: Go to and select “Unlock your device.” You’ll need to read and agree that you meet the eligibility requirements, then submit the form. After that, you’ll get a confirmation email with the unlock request number. Click the link in the email within 24 hours to confirm the unlock request. If you wait too long, the request will be canceled.

AT&T will respond within two business days to confirm that your phone is unlocked.

Sprint: If you own an iPhone 5 purchased through Sprint or certain Android models sold before 2015, you won’t be able to unlock your phone, due to the vagaries of cellular technology. Sprint says only that they're "SIM unlockable."

For most other phones, call Sprint’s customer service line at 888-211-4727. If you bought a prepaid phone through the Sprint Forward program, call 855-639-4644 instead. The carrier will unlock your phone if your account is in good standing and you’ve been a customer for at least 50 days.

T-Mobile: This carrier restricts how many devices you can unlock in a 12-month period, which creates problems for those on a family plan. If you ask to have more than two T-Mobile phones unlocked in a given year, the company will deny your request.

To unlock a T-Mobile device, you have to call 877-746-0909 or go to T-Mobile’s unlock page (and sign in with your T-Mobile account). From there, you can schedule a callback time or message T-Mobile to request an unlock. If 40 days have passed since you bought your phone through the carrier and your account is in good standing, T-Mobile will unlock your phone.

Certain Android phones purchased through T-Mobile come with the T-Mobile Device Unlock app, which allows you to apply for the process and complete it without calling customer service. If the app is not preinstalled on your phone, though, you can’t download it from the Play store. There’s also no iOS version.

Verizon: This carrier automatically locks any phone bought through Verizon for 60 days. However, after that 60-day period, your phone is unlocked—with no extra steps needed. To confirm your phone is indeed unlocked, you can dial *611 from the device or call Verizon’s customer service at 800-922-0204.

The one exception to the 60-day rule is Verizon prepaid smartphones, which are locked to the carrier's service for 12 months. After that, you can call and request an unlock at 800-922-0204.