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How to unlock your mobile phone

Fiona Leake
Fiona Leake
  | Edited by Tom Church
Updated 4th February 2021

Unlocking your mobile phone gives you the freedom to pick any deal from any provider. Many people don’t know how to unlock a mobile phone or whether mobile phone unlocking is even legal. We’ve cleared up any unlocking confusion in this guide and even show you how to unlock your mobile phone for free!

According to communications regulator, Ofcom, nearly half of mobile phone users find unlocking their handset difficult. More than a third of people are put off switching mobile providers because the process of unlocking their device puts them off. 

We asked Latest Deals members what they thought and more than 20% didn’t know how to unlock their phone, and 30% hadn’t unlocked their phone before.

Unlocking your phone saves you money as it gives you the freedom to shop around for the cheapest deals, from any provider. You aren’t tied to the same network forever. Read our guide to simplify the unlocking process and understand how it works. 

What is mobile phone unlocking?

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Mobile phone unlocking is the method of unlocking your phone from your current network. An unlocked phone can use any network’s SIM card which means you can switch providers for better deals whenever you want. 

An unlocked phone can switch networks without having to buy a new contract phone elsewhere.

What does it mean when a phone is locked?

When a phone is locked it’ll only work with one network provider. For example, if you bought a contract phone with Vodafone, it would be locked to Vodafone, meaning you couldn’t put a SIM card from Three in it. 

If your phone is locked it won’t always automatically unlock once your contract with your current provider ends. You’ll have to specifically ask for it to be unlocked yourself. 

We will explain this process through the guide. 

How can I find out if my phone is locked or unlocked?

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It’s very easy to find out whether your phone is locked. Simply insert a SIM card into your phone from a different network provider. You can borrow a different SIM from friends or family or even order one for free online (try searching Latest Deals for a free SIM). 

After inserting the new SIM, if your phone has a signal and the name of the carrier appears, then your phone is unlocked. If you can’t get a signal and you’re prompted to insert a SIM card then your phone is locked. You could also try making a call with the new SIM card, if you’re unable to do so, it’s likely your phone is locked. 

Why is my mobile locked?

Providers lock phones to their network to discourage you from switching to another provider. It’s working as more than a third of people put off switching due to the hassle of having to unlock their phone. 

Will my phone be locked when I buy it?

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Some network providers including BT, EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone still sell mobile phones that are locked to their network. This means you’ll have to unlock your phone to use it with other providers.

However, the rules are changing. Ofcom has recently announced that starting from December 2021, companies will be banned from selling locked phones. This means you’ll be able to switch providers as soon as your contract ends, hassle-free as all phones will be sold unlocked.

O2, Sky, Three and Virgin Mobile already only sell unlocked handsets.

Why should I unlock my phone?

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The reason most people unlock their phone is to take advantage of the best SIM only deals. With an unlocked phone, you can switch networks meaning that every cheap deal is available to you. 

Unlocking your phone allows you to shop around for the cheapest SIM deals with more data, minutes and texts than you might be getting with your current provider.

Pros of unlocking your phone

  • Get a cheaper deal - if you’ve reached the end of your contract with your current provider and you’re happy with your phone, you’re free to shop around and find the best SIM only deal with other networks. 
  • Network-specific deals - you’re free to benefit from network exclusives. For example, O2 Priority or Vodafone’s VeryMe Rewards.
  • Add value to your phone - unlocked phones sell for more due to the flexibility to choose any network. 
  • Free to roam when travelling - if you’re a frequent traveller, you could buy a foreign SIM card which would work in an unlocked phone. This will avoid expensive roaming costs while you’re abroad.

Cons of unlocking your phone 

  • Invalid warranty - if you unlock your phone, the original warranty could no longer be valid. Consider taking out mobile phone insurance if this is the case. 
  • Cost - sometimes you’ll be charged to unlock your phone.
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You may have heard that it’s illegal to unlock your mobile phone. This isn’t the case and mobile phone unlocking is completely legal. 

However, if you go about unlocking your phone the wrong way, you could invalidate your warranty which isn’t ideal if you ever have a problem with your device.

The best way to go about unlocking your phone is to ask your network to do it for you. 

Can I unlock a second-hand phone?

Second-hand phones are harder to unlock but it’s not impossible. You’ll have to contact the network it’s locked to and you’ll likely be charged. 

The network provider will also probably run a check to see whether the phone has been reported as lost or stolen as you aren’t the original owner.

Latest Deals member, Xtrashot, shares their experience unlocking a refurbished phone:

“I have purchased network locked refurbished phones. I was unable to find any free way to unlock them as I was not the original owner of the phone. I looked everywhere to find an inexpensive way to unlock them. Surprisingly to me, I found the answer on eBay. If you input the phone make and model with 'unlock' (unlock Nokia 950 eg) several 'sellers' appear. Some reviews seemed a little dubious but for the cost of £2 or £3, I thought I would risk it. And it worked 90% of the time within 24/48hrs. For the 10% that it didn't work for I was quickly refunded (even though there were negative reviews regarding refunds). On each occasion, I was contacted on the status of the unlocking process regularly.”

Are SIM only and Pay As You Go phones unlocked?

You can buy SIM free phones that will come unlocked. SIM free phones won’t come with a SIM card or a monthly allowance of calls, texts and data. You’ll simply get the handset that you’ve bought outright.

You’re then free to sign up to a SIM only or pay as you go deal with any network. You can buy new and secondhand SIM free phones online.

How much does it cost to unlock a mobile phone?

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Some networks don’t charge to unlock phones but others can charge up to £20. On average, it costs around £15 to unlock your mobile phone. Thankfully, only a handful of networks are still selling locked handsets. This is changing in December 2021 and soon you won’t have to pay anything as all devices will be unlocked.

Can I unlock my phone for free? 

If your contract with your current provider has finished, the network should agree to unlock your phone for free. 

You can also unlock your phone yourself for free but you’ll need to be very tech-savvy and have your own software.

How long does it take to unlock my phone?

It depends on your provider. Usually, it takes anything from a few days to 30 days to unlock a mobile phone.

How do I unlock my mobile phone?

There are four different ways you can unlock your mobile phone. The easiest way is to simply call your provider and ask, they might even do it for free depending on the policies! Here’s how to do it: 

Method #1 - Ask your network provider

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The easiest and potentially safest way to unlock your phone is to contact your provider and ask for a Network Unlock Code (NUC). If you’re still in contract with your provider you could be charged a fee up to around £20 for the unlock. Ofcom states that mobile providers can’t charge more than £30 to unlock phones. If you’re out of contract your provider should do it for free. 

You’ll need to provide the following information to receive the unlock code: 

  • Your mobile number.
  • Manufacturer and model number (found on the outer case of your phone).
  • IMEI number (a serial number which can be found by typing *#06# into your phone).

It usually takes around 72 hours for you to receive the unlock code but it could take longer. 

Once you’ve received the code, you can insert a SIM card from another network. You’ll be prompted to then type in the unlock code. Once you’ve done this, your phone is unlocked!

Method #2 - Ask your high street repair shop

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You could take your phone to your local mobile repair shop and ask them to unlock it. You’ll be charged a fee of around £15 and might have to wait a few days to get your phone back. 

Usually, the repair shop will either unlock your phone with a code or do it manually by using computer software. 

Latest Deals member, Leeann, found this process very easy:

“I got my dad's phone unlocked and was charged £15 from my nearest mobile phone shop.”

However, be warned that some mobile repair shops can overcharge for such a simple process. Latest Deals Facebook member, Telle, was quoted a very high price - “£75 I was quoted at a local phone shop.”

Method #3 - Use online unlocking codes 

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Some websites provide phone unlocking codes but always make sure that you read reviews and research how trustworthy they are before handing over any money. 

You can even find some free unlocking codes online depending on your phone’s make and model. Giffgaff’s unlockapedia is a database that allows you to search for unlock codes and compare prices and timeframes. Some of these codes are even free!

eBay has also proved an effective way to find unlock codes. Latest Deals member, TheChimp, shares his experience:

“I always unlocked my mobiles using codes off eBay. They were only a couple of quid and were easy to use.”

Always check reviews before buying unlock codes on eBay as sometimes they might be unreliable.

Method #4 - Do it yourself!

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If you’re extremely tech-savvy, you can even unlock your phone yourself! You’ll need specialist software to do so and it isn’t easy. We would only recommend this method if you know what you’re doing. 

Network by network guide to unlocking policy

Each network has a slightly different policy, method, cost and timeframe to mobile phone unlocking. Let’s breakdown the process for each network:

How to unlock a phone on Three

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Three haven't been locking phones since December 13th 2013. So, if you bought your phone since then, it won’t be locked and you’re good to go! 

If you bought your Three phone before December 2013, then Three will unlock it for free. All you need to do is fill in this form.

You can unlock your Three phone at any point during the contract. Your phone should be unlocked within seven days.

How to unlock a phone on EE

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EE  still locks the phones it sells but this will stop from December 2021. EE will only agree to unlock phones that you’ve had for six months.

If you’re still in contract, EE will charge £8.99 to unlock your phone. If you’re out of contract it’ll be free.

EE unlocks pay as you go phones immediately for free if you bought it from them. If not, you’ll be charged £8.99.

Whatever the case, you can fill in this form to unlock your phone with EE.

Expect to wait seven to ten days for your device to be unlocked from EE. 

Thankfully, unlocking with EE is easy as Latest Deals Facebook member Hannah found:

“I was with ee. They sent me a code and unlocked it for me so I could change providers. It was surprisingly easy.”

How to unlock a phone on O2

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All phones sold by O2 since February 2019 are unlocked. All Apple phones on O2 were unlocked since August 2018. 

If you bought an O2 handset before those dates, you can get it unlocked for free. You can do this by calling O2 on 202 from your O2 phone, by logging in to your My O2 account, via live chat, or using a device unlocking form.

How to unlock a phone on Vodafone

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Vodafone hasn’t sold any locked phones since 2013. So, if you’ve bought a phone from Vodafone after 2013, it’ll be unlocked.

If you do need to unlock your Vodafone phone, you can get it done for free by filling in this form

Latest Deals Facebook member Mark found it very easy:

“I just emailed Vodafone at the end of my contract. They sent the code in an hour - very good service.”

How to unlock a phone on BT Mobile

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BT Mobile only locks certain handsets including the Samsung Galaxy S10 and iPhone XS. BT lists all locked phones here.

BT will only unlock devices once you’re six months into your contract. You’ll have to pay £8.99 to unlock if you’re less than 24 months into your contract.

You can ask BT Mobile to unlock your phone by calling 150 from your BT phone or 0800 800 150 from any other phone.

How to unlock a phone on iD Mobile

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iD Mobile only locks Apple devices. Any other smartphone will come unlocked when you purchase it from iD Mobile.

The provider will unlock your iPhone for free once you’re six months into the contract. To do so, call 7777 from your iD Mobile phone or on 0333 003 7777 from any other phone.

How to unlock a phone on Giffgaff

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Giffgaff has never sold any locked phones so you can rest assured that your phone is unlocked if you bought it from Giffgaff.

How to unlock a phone on Voxi

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Phones bought from Voxi are all locked to Vodafone. Once you’ve had your phone for 30 days you can ask Voxi to unlock it. You’ll have to contact them online to do so.

How to unlock a phone on Sky Mobile

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Sky Mobile has never sold any locked phones so you can rest assured that your phone is unlocked if you bought it from Sky.

How to unlock a phone on Tesco Mobile

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Tesco Mobile does still lock its handsets. However, you can get it unlocked for free by filling in this online form. You’ll have to wait until your phone is 12 months old and then the unlock request takes around seven days.

Latest Deals Facebook member Jean found unlocking with Tesco very easy:

“We contacted Tesco, they sent us a code - all we had to do was put a sim in from a different network (we got one in Asda for 50p) and put the code in and that was it unlocked, easy peasy!”

How to unlock a phone on Virgin Mobile

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Virgin Mobile doesn’t lock its pay monthly contract phones. However, pay as you go customers aren’t as lucky as these phones will be locked to Virgin Mobile. 

If you’re a pay as you go customer with Virgin Mobile and you’ve had the device for 12 months, you can get it unlocked for free. Anytime before 12 months and you’ll have to pay £15.32 for the unlock. 

You can call 789 from your Virgin handset or 0345 6000 789 from any other phone to get it unlocked.

What next?

Now that you’ve unlocked your phone, it’s got its freedom! The next step is to read our guide on cutting mobile phone bills for some haggling tips. Once you’ve decided to switch to a better deal, check out our guide on switching mobile phone providers for some advice.
Struggling to find a better deal? Have a read of the best SIM only deals to find out who to switch to next.

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