Aug 10, 2022

What's the Difference Between a Locked and Unlocked Phone?

And does “jailbroken” refer to a cell phone that’s been in the slammer?
What's the Difference Between a Locked and Unlocked Phone?

So many terms, so little time

It’s tough, not to mention confusing, to keep up with all the terms that surround technology today. Terms like “locked,” “unlocked,” and “jailbroken” – what do they even mean and how, for the love of Pete, do they pertain to your smartphone?

Don’t worry. You want to know what's the difference between a locked and unlocked phone, so we're going to tell you! We're going to take the mystery out of locked versus unlocked phones.

Unlocked phone

An unlocked smartphone is a phone that’s not associated with a particular wireless carrier. One of the benefits of this is that you can switch service providers anytime you want – like when you find a plan that gives you all the bells and whistles the pricey wireless companies promise at half the price. (But we’ll get to that in a minute and then you're really going to want to switch carriers!) You simply remove your current sim card, replace it with your new carrier's sim card, and you're good to go. Unlocked phones make life easy.

Locked phone

On the other hand, a locked smartphone is a device that’s tied to a service provider like AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon. These wireless carriers “lock” your cell phone to their cellular network to prevent you from using it on another one.

Jailbroken phones

Woman in a yellow dress, holding a baby, while cooking and talking on a cell phone.

Now what you need to know about a jailbroken phone is that it’s not the same as an unlocked device.

Jailbreaking a phone means messing around with its software and possibly installing a different operating system or tweaking the device so that, for example, apps that come loaded onto your phone that typically cannot be deleted, are deleted or hidden. It might sound like if you jailbreak a phone it would result in unlocking it, but it doesn’t. A jailbroken phone is still connected to its particular carrier. It's still a locked device. Don’t be fooled by someone offering to sell you a jailbroken phone and claiming, “It’s just like an unlocked phone!” It isn’t.

Why would wireless carriers sell locked phones?

Dad and two kids taking a selfie on the sofa.

Excellent question. Locked phones are usually sold by phone companies like T-Mobile at a significant discount. You, or any consumer, sees an iPhone at a really low price at an AT&T or Verizon or T-Mobile store, and think “Wow!  What a deal!” Then you buy it – and pat yourself on the back for saving big time – but you also have to sign a lengthy contract which makes up for the price you paid. These carriers lock phones so you can’t switch carriers, get out of your contract, or sell your phone until they’ve recouped their loss. And lots of them leave you with a locked phone for two to three years. That’s rather extreme.

How can I tell if I have a locked phone or an unlocked phone?

Woman with short hair and a blue scarf pushing a shopping cart through a parking lot while talking on her phone.

If you bought your new phone from, say, AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile, and you have a monthly contract with them, your new phone is most likely locked to their network. If you bought your phone at Best Buy or at an Apple store or on Amazon, or someplace else entirely, it is most likely unlocked and not tied to a particular carrier network. They key phrase there is “most likely.” You can’t be certain until you check.

A few ways to determine if your phone is locked or unlocked

  1. Check your settings: iPhone

One way to tell if your iPhone is unlocked is to go to your home screen and then Settings, then Cellular, then Cellular Data. If the words “Cellular Data Network” appear, it’s most likely – but not definitely – that your phone is unlocked.

  1. Check your settings: Android

One way to tell if your Android phone is unlocked is to go to your home screen and then Settings, then Connections, then Mobile Networks, then Network Operators. While in Network Operators, click on “search now.” If a variety of wireless carriers pop up, it’s most likely – but not definitely – that your phone is unlocked.


Contact your specific carrier

You can call the customer service department for your carrier and ask them if your phone is locked. You can also request that they unlock it. If you’d prefer to talk with someone in person, you can always visit one of your carrier’s stores and do the same thing. For those who are more tech confident, it’s worth checking out your provider’s website to see if it offers information on how to unlock your phone. It’s important to note that, once you’ve requested your phone be unlocked, it can take your carrier 48 to 72 hours to do so. After that time has elapsed, call them to confirm that they have indeed unlocked your phone. You don’t want them conveniently – or inconveniently, for you – forgetting to do so.

Customer Service Numbers for:

AT&T: 1-800-331-0500

Verizon: 1-800-922-0204

T-Mobile: 1-877-453-1304

Cricket Wireless: 1-800-274-2538

Mint Mobile: 1-800-683-7392.

Straight Talk: 1-877-430-2355

Boost Mobile: 1-833-502-6678


Try switching SIM cards

Happy family sitting on the hood of a car and taking a selfie with a cell phone.

Another way to determine if your phone is locked or unlocked is by switching out the SIM card. Simply borrow one from a family member or friend whose service is provided by a carrier different from yours.  Then test it out in this manner:

Shut down your phone.

Remove it from the case, if it’s in one, and then remove your SIM card.

The SIM card will most likely be located on the right or left side of your device. You can pop it out using what’s called a SIM ejector tool or – why give yourself a headache? – a paper clip. Press the clip into the small hole on the SIM tray panel and it will pop open.

Next, remove your SIM card and put in the one you borrowed. Close the SIM tray.

Now, turn your phone back on.

If you get a message requesting a code to unlock the SIM, your phone is locked to Verizon or whomever is your network provider. If you can use your phone like you always do, make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, your phone is unlocked.

My phone is locked. Now what do I do?

Young woman in a white shirt with a man in a gray tee shirt smiling and looking at a cell phone.

If you’d like to unlock your phone – and why wouldn’t you? It’s your phone and you deserve the freedom to make provider and plan choices for yourself – you need to contact your provider. Again, you can visit your carrier’s store or see if there’s assistance on its website, and of course you can call. If you do, be sure to have your account password and IMEI number handy. You can obtain your IMEI number by dialing #06# on your device’s keypad.

It sounds like unlocking my phone is the way to go. But what are all the benefits to it?

  1. If you're thinking of switching carriers for any reason at any time, it’s a whole lot easier – not to mention a whole lot less expensive – to unlock your phone than to go buy a new one. Think about it. Spend a few minutes getting your current device unlocked or plunk down $600 on a new one? Locked phones make life so much more expensive.

  2. If you would like to sell your device there’s no wondering or hoping that the purchaser’s provider is compatible. With unlocked devices, anyone can buy it and start using it immediately. No hassles. Now down time. An unlocked phone makes that transaction nice and easy. Locked phones make life so much more difficult.

  3. When traveling abroad or just making international calls, unlocked phones allow you to use local SIM cards rather than paying the super high prices many providers charge. If you make a lots of international calls on a regular basis, you can save hundreds of dollars each year.

In short, the greatest benefit to unlocking your phone is the ability to change carriers because… you’re not getting great coverage…. or your cell signal is spotty… or because you discovered a plan with such tremendous savings for yourself and your family that it would be crazy not to switch.

Forget the pricey wireless carriers and their locking antics. Discover the freedom of an unlocked phone and FREE wireless service with Life Wireless.

Young woman with two dogs talking on a cell in the middle of a field.

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s 100% real.

Life Wireless offers government subsidized cellular services through the Affordable Connectivity Program to qualifying individuals and families. And, if you’re unemployed or participate in a government benefit program such as SNAP, Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, SSI, or WIC, you already qualify for this Federally funded free cellular service. As a participant, you receive the following, free, each month: Unlimited talk, text and data, and a free – unlocked! – smartphone or you can bring your own.

Even if you’re paying just $20 a month for cell service, wouldn’t you rather have that $240 to spend on groceries, gas, or paying down debts? Of course you would. All it takes is just a few minutes to complete the application. Do so now, and you could be cutting your monthly cell phone bill to nothing in no time.

Plus, if you’re approved for Life Wireless/Lifeline Assistance Program and sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), you get two sources of free talk, text, and unlimited data that you can split between two phones. That means free cell service for you and free cell service for someone you love. If your child has been asking for a cell phone, this is a terrific opportunity to provide him or her with talk, text, unlimited data and the ability to stay in touch with you!

Of course you don’t have to split the service between two phones, you can keep it all on one. But it’s a wonderful option if your spouse, child or relative needs a phone – and who doesn’t? – but has been unable to get one due to the expense.

Whichever option you choose – to keep the data on one phone or split it between two – Life Wireless will make sure you receive the free talk, text, and unlimited data to help you stay connected.

Option 1: Combine Your Data

Activate Lifeline and ACP on the same device and receive unlimited talk, text, and data, plus 5GB of mobile hotspot.

Option 2: Split Your Data
Split your data between two phones or supported devices and you’ll have one device with ACP’s free talk, text, and 6GB of data and a second device with Lifeline’s talk, text, and 4.5GB of data (6GB of data in California).

Don’t wait. Use your unlocked phone for FREE wireless service now!

Posted 1 year ago