September 19, 2007 10:00 AM PDT

Tackling the cell phone unlock game

Tackling the cell phone unlock game
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I've heard complaints from the savviest of techies that even though their U.S. cell phones now work with networks in the U.K., the rest of Europe and Asia, they're getting burned with some serious roaming and usage charges.

Many have heard that they can switch out their phone's SIM card--the Subscriber Identity Module, or tiny smart card that identifies a phone and its subscriber--for a local one, but they weren't sure what this entailed. A phone that would work on foreign mobile networks and an impending trip to the U.K. made it an ideal time for me to give it a try.

Here's what I found: Using an alternative SIM card for your phone while traveling can be cheap and easy, but there are some tricky negotiations along the way.

Step 1: Getting the mysterious unlock code
Persuading your phone network carrier to give you the unlock code to your cell phone may be the most difficult part of the entire process.

The code is a number entered into U.S. phones to allow a SIM card from a third-party carrier to work with your cell phone. Internet message boards are full of complaints about carriers withholding codes along with offers of software or services for unlocking. But I also found a number of postings from people who said they got the code from their carrier simply by asking.

I called AT&T as a customer and explained my situation: I was going to the U.K. for one week, and would like to avoid high roaming fees by using a local SIM card. I explained that I had no wish to permanently change carriers, as I had a two-year contract and was happy with their service. Could I please have the unlock code for my phone?

I was met with a little reluctance. The first customer service representative told me this would require her to "submit a case" for getting the unlock code and that once approved it could take up to a week for the "unlock code team" to figure out the code for my particular phone. Her supervisor then tried to sell me an international plan that would reduce the usual $1.29 per-minute charge to "only" 99 cents per minute. I promptly declined. He then told me that it could take a week to get the code because it must be sent from the manufacturer.

I had already learned from AT&T's public relations team via another reporter that retrieving the unlock code merely involves looking up the manufacturer's corresponding unlock code for a particular phone's IMEI (serial number). They also said that the process should not take a week.

So, I politely persisted with my plea. After a total of 22 minutes on the phone, we agreed that AT&T would try its best to send the code in time for my trip and would call me the next day to update me on the status of my request.

About five hours later, AT&T sent the unlock code and instructions on how to use it to my personal e-mail account. (I took pains to keep a low profile, but AT&T may have easily figured out I was with CNET by simply Googling my name. I'm interested to hear from others who have made this request of their carrier.)

Step 2: Unlocking your phone, activating the SIM card
I chose Vodafone as my test case and went to its store in Paddington Station upon arriving in London. Gabriel, the Vodafone employee who helped me, was kind enough to let me verify that the unlock code and the Vodafone SIM card worked before he charged me for the SIM card.

Persuading your phone network carrier to give you the unlock code to your cell phone may be the most difficult part of the entire process.

Before doing anything, I confirmed my phone's IMEI by typing in "*#06#" and "send". AT&T had sent the unlock code for the correct IMEI.

Next, I removed my old SIM card, inserted the new prepaid Vodafone SIM card and turned on my phone. I was immediately prompted to enter my eight-digit unlock code and instructed to press "OK". Doing this made the SIM and my phone available for use.

Vodafone's activation process was simple. You activate, get your phone number, set up voice mail, check your balance and add to your balance by punching in a numeric code for each function and pressing send. The company gives you a little book and cheat sheet to remember the codes.

The SIM card kit, which costs $10 (5 pounds) and includes $2 worth of talk time and free weekend calls and texts, remains active as long as you use it at least once every nine months. This means you can reuse the same SIM card and phone number the next time you travel where that network is available.

CONTINUED: How does it work?…
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SIM card, Vodafone Group Plc., phone network, carrier, code


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No problem getting unlock code from T-Mobile
I never had a problem getting an unlock code from T-Mobile
assuming I had had the phone for at least 90 days. I had read
that somewhere, so when I wanted to unlock an old phone of
mine to bring along on a trip overseas, In called them up and
they gave it to me over the phone - right there and then. The
guy even walkled me through it. Very easy.

I also once owned an AT&T Palm phone (I can't remember the
model). While it was sold unlocked in Canada, it was locked to
AT&T here in the U.S. I called them up and asked them to give
the unlock code. Their response: "We do not give out unlock
codes.". Great! Needless to say, I got rid of the phone (this was a
work phone) and I have not been with AT&T since.

One suggestion: Bring two phones when you travel. Keep your
U.S. SIM chip in your primary phone, so that people can reach
you under your U.S. number. Bring a second phone (maybe an
older once that's sitting in a box somewhere) and put the
foreign SIM chip in that phone.
Posted by akuehnemund (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
T-Mobile takes a week
I got two of my phone unlocked in last three years. I didn't have to plead them to send me the unlock code. All they need is that the account has been active for three months.

It took them almost a week to send the code though. I have seen some online code calculators which can generate the same code in 30 seconds, but I am not sure how much I can trust them.
Posted by cary1 (924 comments )
Reply Link Flag
T-Mobile unlocked my Blackberry within a day
I have followed your advice in the past and T-Mobile provided me with an unlock code within a day. There appear to be a few rules - mainly limiting the # of unlocks you can request and that you have to be a subscriber in good standing for a certain period of time.

My customer service rep was more than happy to submit the case as soon as I told him about needing to go overseas and use a prepaid sim card.
Posted by mas90guru (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
T-Mobile Helped me in minutes
When I called to get the unlock code the helped me in minutes. I think they did offer me an oversees package. But when I declined they went right ahead and got me the unlock code. I first got the code almost a year ago for one of my phones and then this February I called again to unlock my Blackberry. They said they would text me the code and in under an hour they had sent me the code I had entered it and my blackberry was now truly free to roam the world.
Posted by tomcat1483 (2 comments )
Link Flag
T-Mobile is better, but not perfect
I once walked into a T-Mobile store and saw a phone I wanted. I didn't want service-- just the phone. I offered to pay full price for the phone if they would give it to me unlocked. They refused.

What is the point of offering the phone for sale with a full MSRP price tag if they are unwilling to sell it to non-subscribers?

In nearly every other country in the world, it is possible to walk into any number of mobile phone stores and buy a really cool phone. But, not the US. Why is that?

Are Americans unwilling to buy phones? Or, is it that the major carriers control the market too tightly?
Posted by paulej (1261 comments )
Link Flag
Cingular gave it too..
I got unlock code from Cingular rather easily too.. At first they were not ready to give a code as my service with them was less than 3 months old but after some talking they agreed... It took them a day to send me an email...
Posted by abhishek_p (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Doesn't the consumer own unlock code?
Not giving unlock code to consumer seems similar to music industry not allowing the CD you bought to be played in more than one CD-player.
Posted by UmeshS (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who owns the unlock code
I live and work in both America and Italy. I decided to have two phones instead of just replacing my SIM. In Italy, all phones are unlocked because they are not subsidized from the phone carriers. However, in America the phones are usually subsidized from the phone carriers, with one or two year contracts.

The other problem I have is that my phone from Italy, from 3 Italia, is a 3G phone that uses a USIM. My AT&T phone uses regular SIM card. Even so, I called Cingular, at the time, and asked for my unlock code when my contract expired and they willingly offered the code within 5 minutes.

Since the companies in America subsidize the phones, I would expect some resistance until the contract expires.
Posted by bpaskin (10 comments )
Link Flag
Phones are subsidized
The difference is that you are not paying full price for the phone, as you are with a CD. On the other hand, you do have to sign a contract with them and agree to pay subscription fees for 2 years, so, yeah, it doesn't quite make sense for them to be so stingy with the unlock code. You will have to pay them, anyway.
Posted by mathmeister (210 comments )
Link Flag
AT&T Blue coughed up UnLock code
I still have an AT&T Blue account (old AT&T) with a Treo 650 (all the store reps say to keep it). Everytime I call Customer Support I get the pitch about having to upgrade to at&t Orange. Of course, they tell me I must buy a new phone as the AT&T branded Treo will not work on the at&t network. I tell them I'm not giving up an expensive phone just for a marketing decision. After a seriously bad dealing with a call rep that almost caused me to leave Cingular, a compassionate rep offered to submit a request for the appropriate unlock code. It showed up about a week later and the phone worked fine in Austrailia using a local SIM. I also made a point of swapping SIMs every other day to pickup VM and text messages.

Having been an adopted customer (started Cellular One, then AT&T, then Cingular, and now at&t) I've always kidded the Cingular call takers about holding out until they become AT&T, who knew...
Posted by RogerD 760 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
AT&T / Cingular gave me mine
I have a RAZR V3 and Cingular (AT&T) give me the unlock code after filing a "case". I put it on a label and stuck it into the battery compartment (where the SIM card is). According to the manager at the Cingular store in San Jose if you've had your phone for more than 2 years (or past the end of your commitment period) they are fine to give you your unlock code. He also mentioned something about a California E-Waste law that was going to require all carriers to provide unlock codes but I couldn't find that from some simple searching. It seemed reasonable since it makes a cell phone much more "recyclable" if you can use it on a different carrier.
Posted by cmcmanis (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Try united-moblie
The only issue with this is that if you're traveling around Europe (or Asia for that matter) you have to get a separate pre-paid SIM for every country.

About three years ago I stumbled across a pan-europe (and now most of the world) prepaid card that I could use when I travel. Used to go by the name of Riiing but now goes by the name of united mobile.

They'll even sign you up and send you the SIM before you take off to Europe so that you know your phone number and can give it to people. Same gig, prepaid that can be refilled over the internet. very useful
Posted by w_jackson (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unlock services
There are also commercial unlock services who will provide you with your unlock code for a fee, if your carrier won't. I've used several of these companies with great success.
Posted by guonbeeman (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I likewise had no issue getting an unlock code from T-Mobile after having it for 3 months (a 2 year contract). It took a week for me to get the email, also, but it worked. I have another phone I will be unlocking soon, same model. I haven't used the unlocked phone yet (I went to Canada, but ended up not needing it).

I have to say though, T-Mobile treats their customers much better than Verizon (who, obviously can't give you unlock codes as your phone is tethered to their network).
Posted by hawkeyeaz1 (569 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Additional comment
I will also add that when I signed up with T-Mobile, I asked about unlocking when I was signing the contract, and the sales rep told me they would gladly do it at the 3 month point, either call customer service or visit the store.
Posted by hawkeyeaz1 (569 comments )
Link Flag
How can a phone company get away with locking phones that you paid for.
It should be illegal for a phone company to lock phones that you paid for.

I bought a couple phones over the past several years and have to travel internationally. I usually stay about three months or six months in another country. I was told that after a period of several months I could get them "unlocked". The phones I bought I couldn't use on my carriers in the other countries. When I tried to call from the other country back to the US to get my codes, they wouldn't give it to me because of not being able to verify the number I was calling from. A real headache and total waste of money buying phones that can't be used internationally.

You paid for your phone. It should be yours to use any way you want to use it, and with any carrier that you choose.

For example, say you bought a television, then the company you bought the television from tells you that you can only use it to watch the channels they provide. It wouldn't be your television. You'd basically be leasing it.

Same idea with the phone. You bought it, but actually if the company locked it, then you don't own the phone, you're leasing it.

There should be a regulations against selling phones that are "locked". I buy phones in Asia often, and they are never locked. I now prefer to buy the latest model phones in Asia, and use them in the US when I come back. when I buy them, they are my phones, not controlled by a phone company.

I'm not really sure how the phone companies can get away with this practice for so long.
Posted by billshook (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
You agreed to it.
You agree to it in your contract. Same thing as buying Photoshop CS3 or a videogame; you don't own it, you're only leasing it permanently from the company, who has the ownership rights.
Not at all fair.
But it's capitalist, and it is business. And it always will be.

If you make a legal, written contract to let someone slap you in the face then they are certainly entitled to slap you in the face.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
Not quite mate...
The reason they are able to do that is so they can entice people to their own service, essentially. In reality, the major companies can provide phones on plans cheaper is because they initially (or sometimes completely) subsidise the cost of the phone, to be recouped in the form of your monthly carrier charges. Therefore, in order to provide a cheaper phone for you and remain financially viable they need to make sure they will get the money in the end.

Think of it this way, at least you can just request it, even if it means that you have to verbally wrestle with customer service a bit. For most of the carriers here in Australia it costs about $80AUD, sometimes dependent on how long you've been on the plan, what sort of plan etc.

Next time, read the fine print... Or buy the phone outright, and be prepared to pay a premium for it.

Posted by SpitfireAu (4 comments )
Link Flag
I agree if you pay the full retail price
If someone paid the full $300-$600 for a cell phone (like they usually do in Europe), I agree completely.

But, if someone buys a phone at a cheaper price, by subscribing to a long-term contract with a particular carrier, the phone should be locked if the carrier wants to.

In essence, I feel the customer is "renting" the phone until the phone's full retail price is paid for. At that point, the phone should be totally unlocked.
Posted by bluemist9999 (1020 comments )
Link Flag
I asked ATT to unlock my phone and they sent me the code. When I asked for help, they unlocked it for me. There wasn't any pressure of any sort. I don't think this possible with a Verizon or Sprint phone, just T-Mobile and ATT.
I will try it on my next trip.
Posted by sonopasquale (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
finally got a code!
They wouldn't give me a code so I got my blackberry unlock code from here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
worked prefect! and I got it the same day.
Hope this helps
Posted by megloman (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Lucky You! IMEI also blocked by ATT
AT&#38;T has not only invalidated the SIM unlock code, but has also invalidated (Locked up?) my IMEI number (I complained to them that my treo 680 has never worked and therefore I have millions on ROLLED-OVER minutes!!!
Is there anyone out there with a solution, other than going to the FCC? I will be going away to asia and australia and can use this phone,; it is a PDA and therefore, it has all my important phone contact numbers and such.
Posted by sophisticated user-suffer (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Got my code with a 10 minute phone call...
I called ATT and told them that I would be traveling overseas a lot and to areas that they did not cover service. I told her that the sales rep in the store told me it wouldn't be a problem to get it unlocked when I purchased the phone (which isn't a totally accurate statement). I would need to use a differnt SIM card so I could continue to use the PDA function. It took the lady a while to fill out the request form (about 8 minutes) because she hadn't done it before.. It took only a few days to receive the email that included the code. It worked... I just had to put in a different company's SIM card... It was just that easy.
Posted by sjschaef (75 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Changing to T-Mobile Prepaid Service
I have an unlocked phone and would like to subscribe for the T-Mobile Prepaid Service. From what I hear, I need a sim card. But when the card runs out, can I refill it and how?
Posted by imdashiznit1234 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

If you want to avoid the time and hassle of trying to persuade your cell company to give you an unlock code,

Check out

Fast, reliable and cheap.

They Unlocked 3 phones for me, a T-Mobile Blackberry 8320, a Nokia n95 8GB(Rogers) and a Nokia 6300 from Fido which no one else was able to unlock.

I was pleased with there service

Hope this helps.

Posted by jamesgeoffory (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
We can unlock ANY motorola phone for ANY wireless provider for $11

Visit our eBay store to see for yourself. We even offer SAME DAY UNLOCKING!

Mention you heard this from and we will take off an additional $2.00 Get your unlock code tonight!
Posted by mobilefiles (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I have used these 2 sites as they were both recommended highly in the cell phone forums.

I got my codes quickly and they worked on the first try.
hope this helps..
Posted by megloman (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I actually unlocked my blackberry very easily and they can also help you unlock other phones as well. It took only 10 minutes to unlock my phone. I got the unlock code very cheap from They sent me my unlock code very quickly and I unlocked my phone within a couple minutes. They provide a solution which permanently unlocked my phone. Hope I helped you guys. They had excellent customer service. Now I have a unlocked blackberry, Yah! Cheers!
Posted by Julie10756 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
ATT won't unlock my black berry, for overseas travel !
I tired twice. First time customer service told me that ATT won't unlock the phone unless I fully pay the fee, even though I am almost near the end of my two years contract !
Second time customer service told me ATT service will get affected later on once I take my phone off the ATT network by unlocking it !! They may try to provide unlock code when my contract is over and I switch over to another service provider but they can't guaranty it !!
Posted by ssr_03 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So, I got an unlock code. Tried it on my AT&T Palm Centro with a cingular card in it. Worked (or so the phone said). Tried a T-mobile sim in it....nothing. Tried re-entering the unlock code, and got a message that the phone was NOT unlocked. Put the cingular card back in. Enter unlock code: Phone is unlocked.. repeat this process about 50 times or more, and you have one frustrated chick! We got an unlock for the other phone (we are traveling and need 2), and that one works fine. Someone mentioned that there are sim card unlocks and network unlocks. Can someone PLEASE shed some light on what I'm doing wrong??? Yes, I did hard reset the phone, as did my spouse.
Posted by JennieJsoprano (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I HAVE BOUGHT A QTV20 DUO phone from MY PHONE in Manilla in the Phillipeens , I need the unlock code for this as well , it seems to be locked into SMART MMS ,SMART GPRS and SMART INTERNET . I would love assistance in unlocking this phone please , Denis.
Posted by denis14 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Ive got many unlock codes from this website, the codes work and quite easy just follow the instructions, easy as typing 123 :)
Posted by andreww3834 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I think there is a bigger question and overall more important than most of the above comments. If codes are for sale online...where are they getting them from...refering to all the online so called FREE unlocking services or for a fee... After trying to get a free unlock code for my purchase of a used cell phone locked to a different carrier, I was amazed at the all the advertising "FREE UNLOCK" codes. NO COST...legit for free. and so on. All I have found were lies...outright. It always cost something. This brings up my question. Why can these "business's" get your code for you and we cannot for ourselves as consumers? How can they get the codes yet we can not? Do they pay the carriers a fee, then pass the codes onto us who paid a higher fee to them??? Do these business's go direct to the phone manufactures and get the codes..for free or for a price? Why should they be allowed to do so( access to codes) and we the public can't? Money? maybe? Who has these answers? Can anyone tell the rest of us these answers? In my best Batman impression(jack Nickleson's)..."Where do they get all those wonderful codes...?" If some idiot who started a business out of his apartment to sell us our unlock codes why can't I get mine from the same source, at his same cost...or for free , if that is how he(they) get them? Food for thought my fellow citizens.
Posted by myblueheavenn (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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