Smartphone Unlocking by Mobile Carriers Is Now the Law in the U.S.

In the past, consumers often had a tough time unlocking their mobile phones to move their service to another carrier. It should be easier now under new rules that went into effect Feb. 11.

smartphone unlocking

Mobile phone users who want to move their phone to a different carrier than the one they started with will now have an easier time of the process, thanks to new phone "unlocking" rules that went into effect on Feb. 11.

The law which now allows cellphone unlocking, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, was signed by President Barack Obama last August, and included provisions for mobile phone carriers to have time to gear up for the changes through early in 2015.

What this all means for U.S. consumers is that they now can ask their mobile carriers to unlock their devices from their original carrier's proprietary networks so they can use their device with another carrier, if the device is compatible with the new network. The unlocking can be done when it involves a postpaid device that the consumer has paid for in full and after their original contract is completed, under the rules.

That means that if you bought an iPhone from Verizon Wireless under a two-year contract and if it is paid off and the contract is over, you can ask Verizon to unlock it so you can move it to T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T or another major carrier. Customers from the other mobile carriers have the same rights to ask that their devices be unlocked by their carriers as well.

The new unlocking rules were added to a Consumer Code for Wireless Service that was created by the CTIA, a trade group for mobile carriers, to outline the protections available to consumers under the new rules. The unlocking rules also affect tablets that consumers want to switch to new carriers.

The Consumer Code now states that each wireless carrier will post clear, concise, and readily accessible policies on their Websites about how consumers can request that their devices be unlocked, and then make all needed information available to consumers once their devices are paid for and contracts completed.

In addition, carriers must now "clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee," according to the Code.

Carriers will have up to two business days after receiving a request to unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request to the maker of the device to unlock the eligible device, the Code states. If unlocking can't be completed within that time, then carriers must "provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request."

Carriers do have the right to decline an unlock request if they have a reasonable basis to believe the request is fraudulent or the device is stolen, the Code states.

Not all devices will be able to be moved to any carrier, however, due to differences in frequencies and other technologies used by individual carriers, according to the new rules.

The "unlocking" refers to disabling software that would prevent a consumer from moving the phone to another carrier. "Additionally, unlocking a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all (e.g., an unlocked device may support voice services but not data services when activated on a different network)," according to the Code.

The CTIA and the nation's five largest cellular carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless, had previously committed to voluntary principles on device unlocking back in December 2013, according to earlier eWEEK reports. The law signed by Obama last year made the unlocking provisions much stronger.

Scott Bergmann, the vice president of regulatory affairs for the CTIA, told eWEEK in an emailed response that his group's members did what they needed to do to comply with the new law and its provisions.

"We are pleased the FCC acknowledged the participating wireless carriers met the deadlines to unlock their customers' devices per the Consumer Code for Wireless Service," said Bergmann. "We also remind consumers that an unlocked device does not necessarily mean an interoperable one since different carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands."

Consumers should contact their wireless carriers to find out about specific procedures they need to follow to request device unlocking for their phones and tablets.