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 the 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, are planning to buy 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. Not to mention the amount of confusing acronyms and outdated information that can make your head spin.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.

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What are unlocked phones?

An unlocked phone is one that can be used on any wireless network. Locked phones, on the other hand, 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 into 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 by keeping you from wandering away to another provider.

These locks are increasingly 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 can unlock your phone for free as of 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 to tell if your phone is unlocked?

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, it will show you an error message on the screen.

How do I get an unlocked phone?

You can buy an unlocked phone directly from Apple or buy an unlocked Apple phone 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’ve 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.

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