Mobile phone locking and unlocking

22 November 2016

Mobile handsets are sometimes 'locked' to the network from which the handset is purchased. This means the handset will usually only work when used with that particular provider.

If you want to switch to a different provider but keep your existing handset, you may need to get it unlocked.

You may also need to get your handset unlocked if you want to use a local SIM card in your handset when travelling abroad to avoid roaming charges.

Handset locking policies can differ from provider to provider or can depend on the type of device and package being sold to you.

The table below gives you advice on what you can expect if you purchase a handset directly from your mobile provider.

Provider

Customer type

Does the provider lock handsets to its network?

EE, Orange, T-Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Yes

Pay monthly

O2

Pay-as-you-go

Yes

Pay monthly

Usually 1

Tesco Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Usually1

Pay monthly

Certain handsets 2

Three

Pay-as-you-go

No 3

Pay monthly

Virgin Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Usually 4

Pay monthly

No

Vodafone

Pay-as-you-go

Yes 5

Pay monthly

1 A small proportion of smartphones may not be locked.
2 Some smartphones are sold locked, and pay-monthly handsets that are also available on PAYG tariffs are sold locked.
3 All new phones supplied to Three since 1 December 2013 have been sold to consumers unlocked. Prior to this date handsets were sold locked to the network.
4 Certain smartphones are sold unlocked.
5 All handsets have been sold locked since July 2013.

You can find out whether your handset is locked by asking your mobile phone provider, or by trying a different network SIM card in it.

If you get a message that indicates there is a problem and you cannot make calls, it's possible that your phone may be locked.

If your handset is locked you can ask your provider to unlock it for you. Phones reported as lost or stolen will not be unlocked.

Mobile providers have different policies and processes for unlocking phones. For example, some will only unlock your mobile phone after a certain period of time has passed and will charge a fee, while some will unlock your phone at any time for free.

Some handsets can be unlocked relatively quickly, for example most providers unlock iPhones within three days. For other handsets, unlocking may take longer, particularly if your provider has to contact the handset manufacturer to get the unlocking code. This is often the case for older handsets.

You may wish to unlock your handset after you have left your provider. All the providers listed in the table provide this service, as long as the request to unlock is made by the former account holder of the handset.

The table below sets out the current mobile phone unlocking policies of the major mobile providers.

It shows the charges you may have to pay, the maximum time you can expect the unlocking process to take (for some handsets, the time taken to unlock may be considerably less than the estimated maximum) and whether the request to unlock can be made online.


Provider

Customer type

Point at which phone can be unlocked

Charges

Time required to unlock

Unlock code request form available online

EE

Pay-as-you-go

At any time

No charge

Up to 10 calendar days

Yes

Pay monthly

After 6 months in contract

£8.99 if still within minimum contract term. No charge if outside minimum contract term

O2

Pay-as-you-go

12 months after activation1

£15

Up to 10 working days

Yes

Pay monthly

At any time2

No charge

Tesco Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

At any time

£10 if phone activated less than 12 months ago.
No charge if phone activated more than 12 months ago

Up to 7 working days (a small number of devices may take up to 20 calendar days)

No

Pay monthly

No charge

Three 

Pay-as-you-go

Sold unlocked

No charge

n/a

n/a

Pay monthly

Virgin Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

At any time

£15.32 if phone activated less than 12 months ago. No charge if phone activated more than 12 months ago

Up to 30 calendar days

No

Pay monthly

Sold unlocked No charge n/a n/a

Vodafone

Pay-as-you-go

After 30 days of use

No charge

Up to 10 calendar days

Yes

Pay monthly

After 3 monthly payments have been made

No charge

1 May vary in some cases: http://www.o2.co.uk/help/phones-sims-and-devices/unlocking-an-o2-mobile-to-use-on-a-different-network.
2 As above.