Years ago, unlocking GSM phones was popular here in the US because Europe got all the coolest Nokia N and E series phones, leaving us with boring flip phones. The web-based unlocking service I used went out of business (probably due to Nokia's huge drop in marketshare), and in the meantime our US carriers started offering cool smartphones at the same time as those released overseas. So why unlock your phone nowadays? If you're travelling abroad and want to use a cheaper pre-paid SIM from that country, or maybe you're buying a used smartphone and want to unlock it for use on your carrier. Or your contract has expired and you want to use your existing phone on your new carrier. This article is geared towards the US and our set of carriers and rules.
Unlocking applies only to GSM phones. In the US that means T-Mobile and AT&T among major carriers, and smaller MVNO or regional GSM carriers. This does not apply to CDMA phones, which means Verizon and Sprint in the US, and smaller subsidiaries like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. CDMA uses a different kind of cell radio technology, so you're out of luck here. If you're a Verizon customer with a recent Verizon smartphone, the GSM portion (if present) is likely already unlocked due to an agreement Verizon Wireless has with the US government. To see a list of carriers and the type of network they use, check the Wiki here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_mobile_virtual_network_operators.
Your Carrier Might Provide an Unlock Code for Free
If you're a customer in good standing, which usually means you've had service for at least three months and paid your cell phone bills during that time, you can call you're carrier's customer service and request an unlock code. Unlock codes aren't always available for phones that are carrier exclusive (not available on other carriers in the US) and you might have to wait a few months before codes for some new, hot phones are available. If you're not a customer of the carrier the phone is locked to, it's unlikely that they'll help you. If you closed out your account with that carrier months or years ago, it's unlikely that they'll help you, so request your unlock code before you cancel service or port your number to a new carrier.
Where to Buy Unlock Codes
This is a sticky mess. There are lots of sites that claim to sell unlock codes, and some of them are scams, particularly the hoards of supposed iPhone unlock sites. Now, that doesn't mean they're all out to rip you off, but do a Google search for reviews of their service, and read those user reviews to see if they look genuine since some services pay folks to write bogus user reviews. Scarier than eBay, huh? Speaking of eBay, you'll see unlock codes for as little as $1.99. Some are legitimate and others aren't. I don't like handing my phone's IMEI (serial number) to someone unless I trust them, so read their eBay feedback closely. Unlock services need your phone's IMEI to generate its unique unlock code. But some shady types collect legitimate IMEI numbers so they can clone those numbers onto stolen phones with blacklisted IMEIs. Not that US carriers bother blacklisting stolen GSM phones all that often, but overseas it's more common. For our video, we used an unlock code from www.cellunlocker.net that cost $35 (iPhone unlock codes are more expensive). They're not cheap, but they're reputable. Note there's a site with a similar name, cellunlock.net, and though I haven't tested their service, they seem to be legitimate too. When evaluating an unlocking service's site, check the content since that will provide indications of how legit they are: if it has bland and not very specific info about phones, be wary. If it has detailed info about unlocking different phone brands, instructions on how to find your IMEI and unlock your phone and even other related info like region locking, it's more likely legit. For example, cellunlocker.net has this kind of informative content while some others simply say "unlocking your phone is great. Many people do it. Buy from us!"
One more thing, some sites claim to do it for free. Don't believe it. What they mean is you'll have to pay using some sort of trial pay, which means signing up for trial subscriptions to periodicals, Hulu Plus or the steak of the month club. These services depend on the fact you've given them your credit card and will probably forget to cancel all these services. No fun. And sometimes the trial pay intermediary doesn't successfully count your sign ups, so it doesn't work in the end.
How to Unlock Your Cell Phone Video
Make Sure it will Work on Your Carrier
This is perhaps the most confusing part: does the phone have the proper bands to work well on the carrier? If you're unlocking a phone, make sure it has the bands for 3G/4G HSPA and 4G LTE before you bother unlocking it to use on your carrier. This applies to those who are switching carriers and are bringing a phone with them, or are buying used to use on a US carrier. If you're buying it for overseas use, just as in the US, with any recent phone, it will at least work on GSM to make calls and have 2G EDGE (old, slow data). Often times you'll also get 3G since many phones are pentaband (they have 5 different 3G bands). But LTE 4G? You'll find few have bands to work on several different carriers. The latest iPhones are pentaband for 3G and LTE, which is pretty rare (Apple did this so they didn't have to make so many different models).
Many phones have APN settings (the settings that tell the phone how to connect to 3G and 4G services) for a variety of carriers built in. But some don't, like my T-Mobile US Samsung Galaxy S5 that I unlocked in our video. It had only basic settings for EDGE 2G and I had to create a new APN with appropriate settings to get HSPA+ 3G (some carriers still call this 4G) working. If you need to create APN settings, you'll look for data or network settings in the phone's settings area. Here's a very good listing of APN settings for carriers around the world, including US carriers: www.unlockit.co.nz/mobilesettings/.
Samsung has been region locking their phones recently. The Galaxy S4, Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 3 are region locked phones, which means you can only use them in the region of the world they were intended for. You must first put in the intended carrier's SIM card and boot up the phone so it can register that SIM before you can use that phone in another part of the world. So if you buy a smartphone in Germany and want to use it in the US, you'll have to use the appropriate German carrier's SIM card once. If you can't do that, then the phone won't be of much use to you in the US.
Should You Buy an Unlocked Phone Instead?
A few years back, buying unlocked smartphones from importers online was a trend with phone geeks. There's no lock in the first place and often no carrier bloatware. That's still a valid option today, but make sure the phone supports your carrier's bands for 3G and LTE before you buy. Unlocked phones tend to cost even more than phones purchased outright from carriers ($500-$750 for top brands and models), so this is an option for those who have plenty of cash in hand.
Alternatively, there are a host of no-name, mostly Chinese knock-off phones. They're a lot cheaper and generally are more cheaply made with lower specs. But if you just need a phone for a week overseas here and there, it's a valid option. And there are a few up and coming brands like Oppo and Blu that sell decent mid-range (for Blu) to fairly high end (Oppo) Android phones for $250 to $500. Lastly, for Android folks, there are Google Play Edition and Nexus phones that are sold unlocked by Google. And of course, Apple sells an unlocked iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, but these are quite expensive.