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In this edition of her advice column, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains the differences between locked and unlocked phones and helps a reader figure out how to get an unlocked device. Ever since the Librarian of Congress decided not to renew a provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that essentially makes it illegal to unlock your phone without your carrier's permission, there's been intense interest in the issue.
But when it comes to unlocked cell phones, there's also been a lot of confusion. Many people have been looking for ways to unlock their devices. The U. Web site Mobile Unlocked, which sells unlock codes to consumers, says sales of unlock codes are up 71 percent. But others are still trying to figure out what the heck device-locking is all about and how and if their own smartphones can be unlocked. There's no question millions of consumers are still confused about cell phone unlocking.
Aside from the legal issues, there are technical issues that may even make cell phone unlocking impossible for some consumers.
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In this edition of Ask Maggie, I re-examine this issue and offer some basic information about what a cell phone lock is. I explain on which wireless networks cell phones can be unlocked. And I caution consumers to investigate before they buy a device they think is unlocked. I also explain to another reader why he can't bring just any phone to his prepaid Virgin Mobile service. Could you please explain the concept of carrier locks on cell phones? It is a tremendously confusing topic. I think I know the basics, but there are always strange technicalities that I keep seeing that just throw me off and make me question whether I really know how the system works.
For context, I'm a Verizon customer with an iPhone 4S. Each summer my family visits Crane Lake, Minn. You are absolutely correct about this being a confusing topic. So let's see if I can explain some of the basics for you. Carrier locks come with just about any cell phone you buy from a wireless operator.
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Even if you aren't buying the device directly from a particular operator but are buying it from a retailer, such as Amazon or Best Buy, and it's for a specific carrier, then most likely it has a carrier lock on it.
This is regardless of whether you buy the phone with a subsidy and a two-year contract or if you buy the device at full price. Generally, the only devices that do not have carrier locks are ones that specifically say they are "unlocked," such as the Google Android Nexus brand of devices, the unlocked version of the iPhone, which is sold at the Apple store, and some developer edition devices. If you want an unlocked phone, you should research in advance whether the phone you are purchasing is available as unlocked and where you can buy it as an unlocked device.
Remember: Paying full price alone doesn't guarantee that a smartphone is unlocked out of the box. What is a phone lock? The lock is really a software code that's put on the phone by the manufacturer as per the requirement of the carrier that sells the device.
And the lock is meant to ensure that the phone can't be used on any other operator's network until a different software code is entered to unlock the device. This is an issue that's most important for devices that operate on GSM networks.
With an unlocked device, a GSM smartphone can be reprovisioned and used on another network simply by popping out the old SIM card and putting in a new one from the new carrier. The carrier doesn't necessarily need to be notified, and you don't need anyone in the store to reprovision your phone.
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This is not the case with phones developed for CDMA networks. This is the technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.
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It's also used by some carriers in Latin America, Asia, and Canada. The standard is not as widely used as GSM. In general, CDMA carriers don't reprovision devices made for other networks for use on their own networks.
So this means phones made for Verizon, which are using the same basic technology as devices made for Sprint, won't work on Sprint's network.
In other words, you can't reuse a Verizon device on Sprint and vice versa. Almost every GSM device comes "prelocked" to a particular carrier. Certain phones are sold unlocked. And if you have a device that is locked, you can get it unlocked from your wireless carrier if you meet certain criteria, which includes paying the full price of your device or ending your contract and being in good standing with your service provider.
Complicating factors So that's the basic gist of how software locks for smartphones work. But things are getting a bit more complicated because now there's a new network technology that's currently used only for data services but will eventually be used for voice too.
That technology is called LTE. This issue will soon change as chip manufacturers start including multiple radios on their semiconductors.
What does an unlocked gsm phone mean
What's more, wireless operators will also soon be incorporating other slivers of spectrum into their LTE networks, which will overlap with their competitors. When these things all start to converge, we'll likely see more interoperability among devices that include support for the faster-speed LTE services. Remember that in the U. The GSM radio is included in these phones so that subscribers can roam onto networks in Europe and other parts of the world.
Verizon and Sprint subscribers can choose either to sign up for international roaming plans with their U. The reason why is that the spectrum Verizon is using to build its 4G LTE network had restrictions put on it by the Federal Communications Commission, which required the company to allow "open access" to the network.
So as part of this provision, Verizon has decided not to lock those devices. That said, its 3G devices are locked. So what does this mean for the average consumer? Let's take the iPhone 5 as an example. It's a 4G LTE device. A Verizon version of this phone comes unlocked out of the box. There aren't special codes that need to be entered in order to use it on another carrier's network.
The same is true if you take the Verizon iPhone 5 to Europe. And it won't operate on a faster LTE network. And even though the phone is unlocked and uses the same CDMA technology and some of the same radio frequency channels as Sprint, an unlocked iPhone 5 won't operate on Sprint. What are the explicit differences between a locked and unlocked phone?
The difference between a locked and an unlocked phone is that a locked device has a software code on it that prevents you from taking a GSM-based device and using it on another GSM carrier's network.
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An unlocked phone either doesn't have the lock software on it or someone was able to get a code that unlocks the software. Remember that this issue of locked and unlocked phones today is really only relevant when you're talking about devices made for GSM networks.
As I explained above, most carriers use different frequencies and band plans for their LTE networks, so even without a software lock on the device, it still won't operate on these networks. That will soon change, but for now don't expect unlocked LTE devices to perform at top speeds on any other carrier's LTE network.
Why is the iPhone treated differently by carriers relative to other phones? In the past, the iPhone was treated differently than other devices when it came to lock codes.
So to control how and where the device was used, it refused to unlock it. That's changed. Usually, this means the phone is fully paid for and the customers are no longer on a contract. And they have to be customers in "good standing" for a certain period of time.
But if you have an LTE device from Verizon, you don't need an unlock code.
Locked versus unlocked phones: What's it all mean?
The device is already unlocked. So if your device is locked, you must get the appropriate unlock code from your carrier, or if you are getting the code elsewhere, you should specify which carrier network your device is affiliated with. Another way to get an unlocked phone is to buy one that's specifically advertised as unlocked. For instance, Google's Nexus series of smartphones come unlocked. The international unlocked version of the iPhone is also sold without a lock.
And again it can be used on any GSM network. As I said, the iPhone 5 on Verizon is already unlocked out of the box.
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If you want to do this on the cheap, make sure you turn off all the data functions on the iPhone, and you'll just be able to use the voice network. I would call a Verizon customer service agent and tell her you're going out of the country on vacation and you want to use a local SIM card. She'll tell you the requirements for getting your phone unlocked. And if you have met the appropriate criteria, the agent should provide you with the code and instructions for unlocking.
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I hope I answered your questions and helped you better understand the differences between locked and unlocked devices. Virgin Mobile is not offering the Samsung Galaxy S4 yet. I'm sorry to tell you, but the answer to your question is yes. Virgin Mobile is a prepaid brand owned and operated by Sprint.
As I explained as part of my above answer to the question about locked and unlocked phones, CDMA devices don't have the same flexibility in terms of device portability as GSM phones.
Sadly, even if you were able to get your hands on a Sprint Samsung GS4, it still wouldn't work on Virgin's network. This is actually something that as a consumer I find maddening. As I said above, Virgin is owned and operated by Sprint.
It uses Sprint's 3G wireless network that's based on CDMA, so technically there's no reason why a phone made for Sprint shouldn't work on Virgin's network. But because of software locks and how the phones are provisioned for each network, Virgin Mobile customers are restricted from using Sprint devices on a Virgin service.
Sprint launched a new program in March that lets customers use their old Sprint devices on other mobile virtual network operators that use the Sprint network, but the program does not work for Virgin Mobile customers. There is a chance that you may find a tech specialist who may offer to unlock a Sprint so it works on Virgin, but a Sprint spokeswoman cautioned the phone may not function completely on Virgin's network.
Boost is another prepaid brand owned by Sprint.