Many people carry the misconception that it’s illegal to get their cell phones unlocked, but this isn’t the case.
In every country in the world, it’s not only 100% legal to purchase unlock codes or carry out the process yourself, in some, it’s actually illegal for carriers to place a SIM lock on a phone in the first place.
The reason that many people think it’s illegal to have a cell phone unlocked is that they confuse this process with that of IMEI changing. In the UK, a central database is kept which stores the IMEI numbers of lost, stolen or unpaid contract cell phones in an attempt to combat mobile phone theft.
UK residents can also voluntarily register devices and other valuable items on the police-approved site Immobilise, which keeps a record of what belongs to who and if it’s stolen.
This has been effective to a large degree as it’s backed up by the law, which says it’s illegal to change the IMEI to process stolen goods.
However, this has nothing to do with having cell phones unlocked either by an unlock code purchased over the internet or via an independent mobile repair shop.
The reason SIM locks are imposed
SIM locks are placed on a phone in order to keep you tied to one network supplier such as AT&T, Sprint’s Former Network (Owned by T-Mobile US), T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon, Assurance Wireless, Orange, O2 and so on.
These companies will tell you that this is to cover the subsidized handsets that they provide, but these costs are covered quickly and this is really just a cover for their real intentions.
Of course, if you are tied to a contract then it would appear to make little difference, but for PAYG customers it’s totally unnecessary.
Is it legal for carriers to force SIM locks?
In some countries, such as Singapore and Israel, you can only buy unlocked GSM cell phones as SIM locking by mobile phone networks is completely outlawed.
In others, locks can only be imposed for a limited time, such as in Denmark where a cell is only allowed to be SIM locked for 6 months.
In many European countries, a central regulatory ruling deals with the fairness of locks, but the rules vary from country to country.
In the UK, carriers are not obligated to provide codes to consumers wanting to have their cell phones unlocked and there is no law that says they can refuse to provide an unlock code even after the contract has expired.
In the US, it really depends upon the company as to whether they will allow you to get your cell phone unlocked by them.
For example, T-Mobile will unlock devices on active accounts which have been regularly paid, whilst AT&T Mobility will only do so once a contract has expired. However, AT&T refuses to unlock iPhones even after a contract has run its course.
As you can see then, it’s not only completely legal for you, the consumer to have cell phones unlocked without the need to purchase an unlocked GSM cell phone. In fact, if anything, countries around the world are questioning the legality of mobile networks to lock a device in the first place.
In the UK, it’s even legal to unlock a PAYG handset and sell it abroad for a higher price, after all, you didn’t ask the companies to provide subsidized handsets in order to keep your business.