Press release:

Brits spend over £48 million unlocking mobile phones every year

  • Nearly five million Brits[1] fork out over £48 million every year[2] just to be able to use their mobile phones on other networks
  • More than six in 10 (62%) of those who unlocked their phone had to pay for it[3] –some providers charge up to £19.99 to unlock a handset despite other networks offering it for free[4]
  • Almost one in ten (8%) believe the practice of unlocking mobiles is illegal[5], more than half (58%) have no idea how much it should cost[6]
  • Less than half (45%) turn to their networks to unlock a phone; 23% go to a shopping mall or high street; 12% go to market stalls while just 6% attempt it themselves[7]
  • A third (34%) think unlocking a phone can be done instantly[8], when in reality it can take up to 30 days through a mobile phone network[4]
  • Almost nine in ten (87%) mobile users argue the unlocking process should be free[9], and more than half (56%) say it shouldn’t invalidate the handset warranty[10].

Unlocking mobile phones is costing Brits over £48 million per year[2], according to new research from price comparison and switching service, with some mobile providers charging up to £19.99[4] for a customer to unlock a phone. Even though it’s possible to get your mobile unlocked for free by some networks, or to do it yourself, more than six in ten (62%) of those who have unlocked their phone had to pay for it[3].

The research also reveals that many people believe unlocking a phone is an illegal or shady practice. Almost one in ten (8%) think that unlocking their mobile for use on other networks may be illegal[5].

This might explain why less than half (45%) of UK mobile users go to their networks to unlock their mobile phones. Almost a quarter (23%) go to shopping centres or high street shops instead, while one in ten (12%) use market stalls[7]. Those who go to a shopping mall, the high street or a market stall can expect to pay an average of £13.91 to unlock a handset – 37% above the average charge of £10.13[11].

There is widespread confusion around how long the process takes and how much it should cost, as this varies hugely across the different mobile providers. And it doesn’t help that almost one in five (17%) people don’t know if their phone is locked or unlocked in the first place[12].

Three and giffgaff are the only networks that no longer lock any handsets. Some providers offer either unlocked phones or free unlocking, depending on your tariff. The rules vary greatly from provider to provider and some have only recently come into effect so if you have had your phone for a year or more it may still be locked. The table below shows the networks’ policies on unlocking, including how long it takes, how much it costs, and when it can be done:

Provider Contract type When phone can be unlocked Charges Time required to unlock
EE, Orange, T-Mobile Pay as you go Anytime £8.99 Up to 10 days
Pay monthly After 6 months
O2* Pay as you go After 12 months £15 Up to 7 days
Pay monthly Anytime Free
Tesco Mobile Pay as you go Anytime £10 for first 12 months, free thereafter Up to 28 days
Pay monthly Free
Three** Pay as you go Anytime Free Up to 7 days
Pay monthly
Virgin Mobile*** Pay as you go Anytime £15.32 Up to 30 calendar days
Pay monthly
Vodafone Pay as you go After 30 days £19.99 Up to 10 days


Pay monthly Anytime £19.99 for first 12 months, free thereafter
giffgaff Pay as you go Anytime Free N/A
Pay monthly

Source: correct as of 8th June, 2015[4]

Virgin Mobile customers may have to wait the longest for their mobile to be unlocked, with the network specifying a wait time of up to 30 calendar days, while Three has the shortest waiting time, at seven working days[4]. The research reveals that a third (34%) of mobile customers believe the unlocking process to be instant[8].

Confusion around the process could explain why almost half (48%) of mobile users haven’t unlocked a single phone in the past five years[13]. Almost nine in ten (87%) would like to see unlocking become free of charge across all networks[9], and more than half (56%) feel that it should not invalidate the warranty if they are still the person using it[10].

However, the main reason for unlocking a phone – cited by 46% of mobile users – is to move to a SIM-only deal at the end of a contract[14]. SIM-only deals are becoming increasingly popular and, in some cases, can save consumers around £300 a year on their mobile phone bills[15]. In addition, almost a quarter (23%) of those who’ve unlocked mobiles in the past five years wanted to pass handsets on to family members[14].

Rob Kerr, telecoms expert at, says: “With the SIM-only market growing in popularity, we anticipate more and more people will want to unlock their phones at the end of their contracts, so they can find cheaper deals. At the moment, unlocking a handset is confusing, with the process differing so greatly from network to network.

“The networks need to simplify the process, making it consistent, and with a low charge that is the same across all providers. Even better, why not take the lead from Three and giffgaff, by selling unlocked handsets?

“Switching to a SIM-only deal is an easy way to save money because, from the minute a pay-monthly contract with an inclusive phone has ended, customers are throwing money down the drain by paying for a handset – the cost of which is absorbed into their monthly bills – that they’ve already paid off.

“It’s shocking that so many people think unlocking a phone is illegal, especially when there are so many good reasons to do it. It means you can take advantage of cheap SIM-only deals on any network once your contract has ended, and use local SIM cards in your phone to save money when roaming abroad. It may also add value if you decide to sell an old handset.”

To find out how to unlock a handset, read uSwitch’s full guide to unlocking mobile phones HERE.


For more information visit or call 0800 093 0607

— ends —

Notes to editors

All research was carried out online with the Consumer Opinion Panel in April 2015 amongst a sample of 1,141 GB adults.

  1. When asked ‘How many phones have you had unlocked in the past 5 years?’ 51.2% answered with a value one or above. 93% of the UK adult population has a mobile phone. According to ONS data there are 50,371,000 adults in the UK. Therefore 93% of 50,371,000 = 46,845,030. 51.2% of 46,845,030 = 23,984,655. 23,984,655/5 years = 4,796,931 phones unlocked per year
  2. When asked ‘How much did you pay for this? If you have unlocked your phone more than once then please think about the most recent time.’ The average amount paid, including those who paid nothing was £10.13. 23,984,655 * 10.13 = 242,964,555. 242,964,555/5 = 48,592,911
  3. When asked ‘How much did you pay for this? If you have unlocked your phone more than once then please think about the most recent time.’ 340 people answered with a monetary value, in a previous question 552 people said they had unlocked a phone, therefore: 340/552 = 61.6%
  4. Ofcom table updated with information direct from the providers and their websites EE, O2 and O2 iPhones, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Media, Vodafone, giffgaff. All unlocking times are subject to the manufacturer and are sometimes faster than the times specified. *It takes up to three days to unlock an iPhone on O2, all other phones take up to seven days. **Prior to 1 January 2014 Three sold handsets locked to the network, now all are sold unlocked. ***Virgin Mobile only lock handsets that retail for less than £100 and currently sell all pay-monthly handsets unlocked, however a small number of pay-monthly handsets sold before July 2012 may require unlocking.
  5. When asked ‘Do you think unlocking a phone is legal or illegal?’ 8.0% answered ‘Illegal’.
  6. When asked ‘Do you know how much it costs to unlock your phone?’ 58.4% answered ‘No’ or ‘Don’t know’.
  7. When asked ‘How did you unlock your phone?’ 45.4% answered ‘My network did it’, 5.8% answered ‘A mobile phone retailer, e.g. Carphone Warehouse’, 22.5% answered ‘A shop on the high street/shopping mall’, 8.7% answered ‘An unlocking specialist online’, 11.5% answered ‘A market stall’, 0.6% answered, ‘A friend did it’, 5.6% answered ‘I did it myself’.
  8. When asked ‘Do you know how long it would take to unlock your phone?’ 33.5% answered ‘Instant’.
  9. When asked ‘Do you think all mobile phones should come unlocked as standard?’ 87.1% answered ‘Yes’.
  10. When asked ‘What would you like to see in the future (select all that apply)?’ 56.1% answered ‘Unlocking a phone should not invalidate your warranty provided you’re still the person using the phone’.
  11. When asked ‘How much did you pay for this? If you have unlocked your phone more than once then please think about the most recent time’ the mean was £10.13. Those who had previously answered ‘How did you unlock your phone?’ with either ‘A shop on the high street/shopping mall’ or ‘A market stall’ paid an average of £13.91, sample size of 177.
  12. When asked ‘Do you know if your phone is locked or unlocked?’ 17.3% answered ‘Don’t know’.
  13. When asked ‘How many phones have you had unlocked in the past 5 years?’ 47.8% answered ‘None’.
  14. When asked ‘Thinking about the last phone you had unlocked, tell us why you needed this service’ 45.7% answered ‘I wanted to switch to a SIM-only contract with a different network, but keep my existing phone’, 22.8% answered ‘I wanted to pass a phone I didn’t need onto a family member’.
  15. Vodafone launched the S4 for £42 a month in April 2013, with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts and 2GB of data. EE currently has a SIM Only offering that matches that tariff, at £15.99. £42 – £15.99 = £26.01 a month, or £312.12 a year.

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