Unlocked Phones: Everything You Need To Know

You don’t need to be an expert in all things mobile to get a working iPhone in Canada. But if you should understand one thing about smartphones, you should understand whole deal with unlocked phones. It affects almost anything you’d want to do with a smartphone outside of day-to-day use. Unlocking matters if you’re switching carriers, buying a used phone, going travelling, and so on.

The good news? It’s not horribly complicated. The bad news: good information on unlocked phones can be kind of hard to come by. A lot of stuff out there only applies to the US and not Canada. And not to mention the amount of confusing acronyms and outdated information can make your head spin. To clear all of that up, here is your definitive guide to unlocked phones:

Quick facts about unlocked phones

  • Unlocked phones can be used on almost any wireless carrier. Instead; locked phones can only be used with one carrier.
  • Making sure you don’t switch carriers is basically the whole point of phone locks. A locked phone can switch owners, phone numbers, specific plans, but not carriers.
  • Unless you specifically sought out to get an unlocked phone, your phone is probably locked. Locked phones are the default in Canada (Note: thanks to recent legislation, all new phones will be sold unlocked starting in December of 2017… until then, assume you’ve got a locked phone.)
  • If you have a locked phone, the only way to get it unlocked is through your wireless carrier.
  • The best way to test your phone’s lock status is by popping in a SIM card from another carrier— you’ll see an error message if your phone is locked.

What are unlocked phones?

An unlocked phone is one that can be used on any wireless network, where locked phones can just be used on one. For example, if I had an unlocked phone, I could choose a plan with Rogers, Koodo, Bell, or most other carriers out there. But if I had a phone locked to Rogers, I wouldn’t be able to get the phone to work using a Bell SIM card (without unlocking the phone first, that is).

Wondering about the tech behind this? Well, the whole unlocked/locked thing comes down to software. A lock is a capability built a phone’s software by the manufacturer. This lock is installed at the request of wireless carriers, who use this lock to restrict the use of the phone to their own networks. So, an unlocked phone is just one without a carrier-specific lock built in or one that has had this software lock uninstalled.

Why do carriers lock their phones?

The reason that your service provider locks their mobile phones is to keep you from switching to another carrier. Talk about the ol’ ball and chain, cell phone locks ensure that carriers keep your business until you buy a new phone from a different carrier.

When made to defend this practice, the carriers basically argued that locks help protect their property. You see, when you buy a phone on a contract, you’re actually not getting a phone for free or at a discount. Instead, you actually pay off the remaining cost of the device over the course of your two-year contract. So carriers say that locking that phone helps ensure that you fully repay them for the phone you bought by keeping you from wandering away to another service provider.

These locks are more and more important to carriers as new competition enters into the Canadian marketplace who might offer better deals to cell phone users. As a result, locked phones are becoming a point of tension between service providers and users. Thankfully, Canada just banned locked phones as of December 2017, which means you’ll be able to unlock your phone for free starting then.

Why would I want to unlock my phone?

The biggest reason you’d want to unlock your phone is to increase the number of carriers you can use. This has two big pay-offs.

First, if you’re the jet-setting type, you can switch to another available wireless service provider to avoid roaming fees when you’re traveling. Just buy a SIM card from a local carrier, this way you can have a local phone number and pay local rates for calls and messages.

Second, unlocked phones do not come with long-term carrier contracts. That means you can switch carriers when you see an opportunity for better rates or service. If you dread calling customer service or can’t handle any more dropped calls, this should make you jump for joy.

Because of the freedom unlocking provides, buyers of used phones are willing to pay more for an unlocked device. The resale value of an unlocked phone is up to 30% higher than for a locked unit.

How can I tell if I have an unlocked phone or not?

You’ll have an unlocked phone if you bought it from Apple directly and paid full price (i.e. no 2-year carrier contract or $300 special offers). Of course, you can also buy an unlocked phone from sites like ours! If you bought your phone from your carrier, it is probably locked. You can get your carrier to unlock your phone, but it’s important to note that that doesn’t happen automatically after the end of your contract. You’ll need to specifically call and ask them to unlock it.

An unlocked phone will look identical to a locked phone, however. Nothing in the phone’s settings or elsewhere will tell you if your phone is locked. For example, the Carrier section of your phone’s settings only tells you which carrier’s SIM was last in the phone, you’ll never see this say “Unlocked”. If you’re not sure about the lock status of your phone, you can do a quick test by popping in a SIM card from another carrier. If the phone is locked, you’ll see an error message pop up on the screen.

How do I get an unlocked phone?

You can buy an unlocked phone directly from Apple or buy one used from us. If you already own a phone, you can get your cell phone unlocked after 90 days of using it with your carrier, or immediately if you have already paid for the device in full. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket for the service. For example, Bell charges $70, Rogers charges $50, and Freedom charges $30. A quick search of your carrier’s website should tell you the details.

Note: things are changing! The CRTC just announced that as of December 1st, 2017, unlocking your phone will be free and any new phones sold will have to be sold as unlocked. Until then, it’s business as usual.

Should I use an unlocking service for my phone?

You might get tempted by unlocking services done at a mall kiosk or cell phone repair shop. Our advice? Don’t! Instead, call your carrier.

The only way to unlock your phone is through your carrier. Period. Unlocking works by the carrier contacting Apple, Apple verifying the unlock, and then the carrier officially recording the phone as no longer locked to their network.

All websites or stores that offer unlocking are “Grey Market” services. They use “suppliers” that are able to slip your phone’s info into a carrier’s list of phones to unlock, so that when the carrier contacts Apple, they unknowingly also unlock your phone.

The problem is that carriers are unhappy with this grey-market and occasionally audit their list of recently unlocked phones. If they find that an phone was illegitimately unlocked, they will flag it with Apple and have the phone relocked.

What does that mean for you? All of a sudden, after updating your phone’s software, it will be relocked and only usable with the carrier that it is locked to. This is what makes grey-market unlocking so unreliable and potentially a huge waste of money.

Have questions? Contact us for more details.

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13 comments

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  • Victoria Ohashi 25 August, 2015   Reply →

    i am interested in buying a phone from you but my carrier is TbayTel . I want to know if I buy an unlocked phone does that mean I will NOT have any issues using it with my plan? Also, the reason I am looking for a new phone is that my phone fell in the lake!! How does that happen anyway? I never thought my phone would ever fall in the lake! It have no luck getting it to work. Would you be able to restore it? Should I sentence it to you or is it worthless?

    • Orchard 3 September, 2015   Reply →

      Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for reaching out about our phones!

      To answer your first question, yes, unlocked phones are compatible with any carrier in Canada and abroad so you probably won’t have any issues setting it up with TbayTel.
      In the event you would experience some difficulties, just let us know and we would be more than happy to provide you with troubleshooting solutions or a replacement phone.
      I’m sorry to hear that your phone fell in the lake…! Definitely not a good experience for phones or owners…
      We unfortunately won’t be able to restore it 100% but if you’re interested, we could take it for the parts and offer you a compensation between $15 to $25.

      Hope this helps and I would be happy to answer any other questions you might have 🙂

  • Paul 9 April, 2016   Reply →

    Do you guys unlock iPhones for a fee? I remember seeing it on your site last year I think, but can’t find it now. I have a Rogers iPhone 5 I want unlocked

    • Orchard 12 April, 2016   Reply →

      Hi Paul! We don’t unlock phones anymore. After taking a peek behind the curtain of the unlocking process, we realized that there is no way for us to offer reliable unlocking. Unlocks can only be done by the carrier the phone is locked to, which in your case is Rogers.

      All websites offering permanent unlocking services are conducting what is known as “Grey Market Unlocking”. These sites have “suppliers” that are able to submit your phone’s IMEI into a carrier’s list of phones to unlock, so that when they contact Apple, they unknowingly also unlock your phone.

      The problem is that carriers are unhappy with this grey-market and occasionally audit their recently unlocked IMEIs. If they find that an phone was illegitimately unlocked, they will flag it with Apple and have the phone relocked.

      What does that mean for you? All of a sudden, after updating your phone’s software, it will be relocked and only usable with the carrier that it is locked to. This is what makes grey-market unlocking so unreliable.

  • Shirley 3 September, 2016   Reply →

    Forgive me as I am the ultimate novice. I am interested in purchasing an iPhone. Have an Alcatel phone at present but my computer is an Apple so why not. My concern is if I buy one and take it to my carrier (telus) that there will be all sorts of charges thus negating any savings. I also understand there are instructions to transferring my phones information to the iPhone? Is this really easy? Remember . . . novice . . .

  • sam tulk 13 June, 2017   Reply →

    Just purchased an unlocked IPhone5s. Orchard met all their commitments and my expectations.

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