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Unlocking a mobile phone? A guide to unlocking any phone or network

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Unlocking a mobile phone

More and more Britons are getting their phones unlocked. That was born out by a uSwitch survey that revealed we spend an incredible £48 million per year on unlocking our handsets.

It’s not hard to see why the numbers are on the rise.

Not only does an unlocked phone let you take advantage of cheap SIM only deals across the entire range of networks. It also makes it easier to pass on your old phone to a family member or friend.

But although mobile phones have been a huge part of our lives for the best part of 20 years, confusion still surrounds the process of getting them unlocked. And that's where we come in.

On this page, we’ll outline some handy tips around unlocking your phone. We’ll also talk you through the major UK networks’ policies, so you'll know exactly what you've got to do to get your phone unlocked.

And we’ll dispel some persistent myths around the subject. For instance, is it illegal? Should you really be paying to get your handset unlocked? And if so, how much?

Are there risks involved? And what happens to your warranty? Read on and we’ll tell you everything you need to know...

What does it mean when a phone is locked?

unlock your mobile phone

When a handset is locked it means it will only work with the provider from whom you bought it.

If your phone is locked it won’t automatically become unlocked when your contract expires with your provider.

You’ll have to specifically ask your carrier to unlock it. We’ll explain how it works in due course.

Is your phone unlocked? How can you find out?

how to unlock and mobile phone

It’s simple to find out if your phone is locked. Simply insert a SIM card from another carrier (you’ll be able to get one free from a phone shop or by ordering one online) and see if the name of the network appears on your handset.

If it does and you’re able to use your phone, it’s unlocked.

My phone’s locked. What now? Is it legal to unlock it?

how to unlock mobiles

If you want to unlock your phone, you have several options. You can take it to a local, independent phone shop which will usually charge you a fee of around £15 for the service.

Or you can do it yourself by getting hold of a code or using a special data cable and software. However, you do need a fair degree of technical know-how to do so.

Contrary to what many consumers think, it’s not illegal to unlock your phone with either of these methods. However, in both cases you risk invalidating your warranty.

But the safest and smartest way of unlocking mobile phones, and the way we recommend, is to call your carrier and ask them to unlock it.

Whether a charge will apply and how fast and readily they’ll unlock it depends on your carrier’s policy.

Why should I unlock my phone?

uSwitch studies show the the most common reason for unlocking a phone is to take advantage of well priced SIM only deals.

When your phone's unlocked, you're not limited to tariffs offered by the network you bought your phone from. You can take your pick from the whole market.

Just as important is that really good SIM only deals tend to be up for grabs for a limited period only.

Having a SIM only deal gives you the freedom you need to chop and change and snap up the best offers while they're still around.

Many people unlock their phone when they want to sell it. Generally unlocked phones command higher prices and sell faster than those that are still tied to a network.

If you're a frequent traveller and want to save money on roaming charges by using SIMs from overseas networks, you'll need a phone that's unlocked.

Compare SIM only deals here: SIM only deals comparison

Can I unlock my phone for free? How long does it take to unlock my phone?

uSwitch's survey into phone unlocking revealed that the time it takes to unlock a phone and the price you should expect to pay is one of the areas where Britons are most confused.

That was borne out by the finding that almost one-third of consumers think that unlocking a phone will be instant.

In reality, it takes to get your phone unlocked depends on your provider. But you should be mindful that you could be waiting for anything between a few days or up to 30 days for the process to be complete.

To clarify your network’s policy, check out our network-by-network guide, which you'll find further down the page.

Network by network guide to unlocking policy

How easy it is to unlock your phone largely depends on your network's policy. Here we look at each of the UK major carriers in turn, so you can see where you stand.

Three - How to unlock a Three phone

Does Three lock phones?

unlock three phone

If you bought your phone from Three after December 13th 2013, it won’t be locked. That goes for pay as you go phones, as well as those bought on contract from Three.

Phones bought before this point will, however, be locked to Three.

Is there a charge? Does a time-limit apply?

No charge applies. Three will unlock your phone free of charge.

Three does not enforce a time limit. You can unlock your pay monthly phone at any time during your contract.

How long does it take?

Expect a wait of up to seven days.

Virgin Media - How to unlock a Virgin Media phone

unlock virgin phone

Does Virgin Media lock phones?

Virgin Media pay monthly customers phones are unlocked.

Pay as you go customers aren’t so lucky, though, with Virgin Mobile opting to lock certain models to its network.

Is there a charge to unlock a phone? Does a time limit apply?

To unlock a Virgin mobile phone, pay as you go customers will be charged £15.32. No time limit applies.

How long does it take?

If your Virgin Media pay as you go handset is locked, you’re looking at a wait of up to 30 days for the process to be completed.

EE - How to unlock an EE phone

unlock phone ee

Pay monthly and pay as you go EE phones are locked to its network.

How to unlock a phone with EE

To unlock your EE phone you must call 150 and then pay £8.99. Be aware that you can only unlock a pay monthly phone if you've had your contract for 6 months or more but pay as you go or SIM only devices can be unlocked straight away.

EE has confirmed it will scrap the unlocking fee entirely at some stage during summer 2016. Once this comes into force, it will be free to unlock your EE phone at the end of your contract.

Is there a charge to unlock a phone? Does a time limit apply?

EE pay as you go and pay monthly customers are charged £8.99 to unlock their phone.

EE will only unlock pay monthly phones once customers are six months or more into their contract.

Come summer 2016, EE will waive the unlocking fee entirely for pay as you go customers.

How long does it take?

The time it takes to unlock pay monthly and pay as you go phones on EE depends on which brand of handset you’ve got.

An iPhone or iPad has a wait of up to seven days attached.

If you’ve got any other brand of handset or tablet, expect a wait of up to ten days.

O2 - How to unlock an O2 phone

are o2 phones unlocked

Are O2 phones unlocked?

O2 locks most pay monthly phones and pay as you go phones.

How to unlock a phone with O2

There will be a £15 charge for O2 Pay & Go customers wanting to unlock their phone. This can only be done after 12 months. Pay monthly customers can unlock their handset for free at any time. Remember, you will still need to see out your contract with O2 though.

Unlock your phone here: My O2 online.

Is there a charge to unlock a phone? Does a time limit apply?

O2 pay monthly customers are not subject to a time limit and can unlock their phone free of charge at any point in their contract.

However, the sole exceptions is the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which O2 was not unlocking at the time of writing.

O2 pay as you go customers must wait at least 12 months after purchase before they can unlock their handset. A charge of £15 applies, which O2 deducts from customer’s airtime balance.

How long does it take?

O2 unlocks pay monthly phones within 72 hours. Customers unlocking a pay as you go O2 phone will be sent a code to unlock their phone within three days of O2’s receipt of a phone unlocking application form.

Vodafone - How to unlock a Vodafone phone

Does Vodafone lock phones?

unlock phone vodafone

All Vodafone pay monthly and pay as you go handsets bought after July 2013 will be locked to the network.

Is there a charge to unlock a phone? Does a time limit apply?

Vodafone customers on pay as you go must pay £19.99 to unlock their phone.

To be eligible, PAYG customers must have used their phone number with the handset for at least 30 days.

Pay monthly customers who have had their phone less than a year also face a fee of £19.99 to unlock their handset. However, beyond a year no charge applies.

How long does it take?

For pay as you go and pay monthly customers, Vodafone stipulates a wait of up to ten days.

Which network's best for coverage? We weigh them up here: guide to network coverage

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