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FAQs about Unlocked Cell Phones

by Paul Sanders
Published August 31, 2010 | Updated August 4, 2015

It used to be that if you bought a new cell phone, you were locked into a contract with a carrier like Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, or T-Mobile. Well, times have changed and you no longer need to enter a contract with a specific carrier if you don't want to. If you think you'd like the flexibility of changing carriers without changing your phone, an unlocked cell phone may be a good choice for you. Here are some frequently asked questions people have about unlocked cell phones and the terminology that goes along with them.

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  • What's the difference between a locked and an unlocked cell phone?

    When a cell phone is "locked," it can only be used on the cellular carrier that sold you the phone. If you entered into a contract with a wireless carrier and got a phone from them in the process, chances are it's a locked phone. Check with your carrier to find out for sure what type of phone you currently have. Locked phones can typically be bought at lower prices because they are subsidized by the carrier selling them.

    An unlocked cell phone can be used on any network that is compatible with the phone's wireless technology, including both GSM and CDMA networks. In some countries, cellular providers are required to unlock your cell phone after your contract expires. Another benefit is that unlocked phones can be used internationally, with a few minor adjustments. Of course, you can buy an unlocked phone to begin with and then activate it with the wireless carrier of your choice. Be aware, though, that you typically will have to pay a little more up front for the flexibility and convenience of an unlocked phone.

  • What's the difference between CDMA and GSM cell phones?

    CDMA and GSM are competing network technologies. Most cellular carriers use one or the other. CDMA stands for "code division multiple aceess" while GSM stands for "global system for mobile communications." GSM phones use interchangeable subscriber identity module (SIM) cards that identify each phone with a specific user or phone number. If you want to change phones, you can simply install your SIM card in a new phone. GSM phones will accept SIM cards from other carriers. They can even be used internationally by replacing the SIM card.

    It used to be easy to tell CDMA and GSM apart because GSM phones used SIM cards, while CDMA phones did not. However, some CDMA phones now use SIM cards for access to 4G LTE networks. It's best to ask your carrier about your phone to avoid confusion. An unlocked CDMA cell phone has to be programmed to work with each carrier you use.

  • Can I unlock a cell phone myself?

    It is possible, but not recommended. An improperly unlocked cell phone could become unusable. It is usually safest to buy an unlocked cell phone outright or wait for your contract to expire and have your wireless carrier do it for you. Thanks to new rules governing U.S. wireless carriers, providers are required to unlock your phone at request, free of charge. Some carriers ask you first fulfill your contract or pay off your phone in full, but this new measure makes it much easier to take your phone with you to another wireless provider.

  • How do I know if my unlocked cell phone will work?

    Before you decide on an unlocked cell phone, you may want to decide which network you want to use with it. Then you can check the phone requirements for that carrier and whether the models you're considering are compatible.