Unlocking Your Phone is Now Illegal and Why That’s Ridiculous

Apparently, as of today, unlocking your phone for use on another carrier is now illegal under the DMCA’s rules. Here’s why that is ridiculous.

Firstly, this is only referring to the unlocking of a phone to use it on another carrier. An example of this would be taking an iPhone on AT&T and SIM unlocking it so you could use it on T-Mobile. What this does not pertain to, is jailbreaking and rooting. That is still completely legal based on a decision that the FCC made a while back. For a bit more information on the difference between jailbreaking, rooting, and unlocking, head here.

For those who have asked, what we do here at TheUnlockr.com is not illegal. We don’t unlock phones, despite our name being TheUnlockr.com (confusing, I understand.), we simply show you how to jailbreak/root your device so you can unlock it’s true potential. So don’t worry, we aren’t going anywhere :)

Now with that distinction out of the way, let’s discuss why unlocking being illegal is absolutely ludicrous.

1. Unlocking doesn’t get you out of a contract.

Just because a customer unlocks their device, doesn’t end the contract they’ve signed with their carrier. When you sign up for a contract with a phone carrier, you do so in order to get a discount on a phone. An example of this would be when purchasing an iPhone 5.  A 16GB iPhone 5 is $199 with a 2 year contract but it’s $649 without a contract. Signing a contract with a carrier and saying that you agree to pay your monthly phone bill with them for 2 years allows them to subsidize the cost of the device so you can pay less for it when you sign up. For more info on how cell phone contracts work, read this.

Now, let’s say you buy that iPhone on a contract with AT&T and pay the $199. You then unlock the iPhone so you can use it on T-Mobile or another GSM carrier around the world. You still signed a contract with AT&T and have to continue to have service with them for the next 2 years and pay your bill during that time. If you want to stop paying your AT&T bill, you would have to pay a cancellation fee (which covers AT&T, or any carrier, from the difference in cost of the phone you purchased, again read this for more info).

So unlocking your device didn’t get rid of the contract, you still have to pay the bill or a hefty cancellation fee. If you were unhappy with your carrier’s service or just wanted to switch carriers, you would have ended it regardless of whether you had unlocked the device or not and still had to pay the carrier their fees for breaking the contract. Made no difference if the phone was unlocked or not.

2. Unlocking doesn’t make the phone automatically work on all carriers.

In the US we use CDMA and GSM network where as the majority of the world just uses GSM networks. The main difference between the two that you’d need to understand here is that CDMA doesn’t use SIM cards and GSM does. When a carrier uses SIM cards, the user’s phone number and info are all attached to the SIM card, not the actual phone. This means if you took out the SIM card and put it in any other phone, that is the phone that would ring when you are called. You can do this as many times as you want and no matter what phone you put it in, the phone with your SIM card is the one that will ring when you are called.

When you unlock a GSM device, you can then put any other carrier’s SIM card in it so it’ll work on another GSM network. CDMA doesn’t use these same SIM cards so even if you unlocked a GSM phone, it would never work on a CDMA carrier. Period.

An example of this situation would be if you unlocked your AT&T iPhone 5 and wanted to use it on Sprint. You could SIM unlock your AT&T iPhone, but Sprint doesn’t use GSM SIM cards so when you brought it to Sprint to get service they wouldn’t have a way to give you service on that phone even though you’ve unlocked it. Sprint would force you to buy a Sprint iPhone since it runs on CDMA and is compatible on their network.

For more information on the differences between CDMA and GSM carriers, head here.

Another issue with this in the States, is that our carriers all use different frequencies for their 3G and LTE. This means that even if you took your AT&T iPhone and unlocked it for use on T-Mobile (you could do this since they are both GSM carriers), the 3G frequencies that T-Mobile uses are not the same as AT&T’s and LTE doesn’t even exist. What would happen is that you’d get the phone and texting to work the same, but the internet speeds would be MUCH slower on T-Mobile using that device. In my opinion, so slow in comparison, that it’s not worth using. Same would happen bringing a T-Mobile phone to AT&T, etc.

3. Unlock codes can be bought from the manufacturers of the devices you are unlocking.

When you put an invalid SIM card in a SIM locked device it asks you for the unlock code. Normally, you could get this code by asking your carrier for it and so long as you’ve had the device registered on their network for more than 90 days, they’d be happy to hand it over (probably because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned above). If you weren’t in that period, you could always just purchase an unlock code from an unlock code supplier.

These suppliers, for the most part, are authorized dealers of unlock codes and have registered with the manufacturers of the devices or the carriers that the device is locked to. The manufacturer’s and carriers have databases filled with unlock codes, each one specific to the IMEI of the device. They give access to these databases to the authorized resellers for a price. When you purchase the code from the supplier it dips into the database and within a day or so gets you your specific unlock code. You input it and you’re all set.

In these situations, you are buying the unlock codes from the manufacturer/carrier through an authorized channel. So again, why is it illegal if the people that have locked the phone are the ones helping us unlock it?

4. There can be a very valid reason for unlocking your phone: traveling.

If you’ve ever travelled overseas, you’re aware of what happens if you try to use your mobile phone you purchased from the States. That’s right, a huge bill. This is because roaming while using your US phone service is quite expensive. The way to avoid these charges is to unlock your device and use a SIM card from the country you are visiting. Put it in, get a prepaid plan, and use it within that country and then put your original SIM card back in when you return back to the States. Simple.

Now, did that hurt the US carrier you are normally using? No. Did you switch carriers and run away with their device now that it was unlocked? No. Did it effect the manufacturer or carrier negatively in any way? No.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, unlocking doesn’t do any harm to anyone. If you are going to leave your carrier, you’re going to leave regardless of being able to take your device with you or not. Frankly, in my opinion, phones should never have been locked in the first place. I buy whatever laptop I want and then I can choose whatever internet provider I want to use it on in my house, right? Why does the mobile phone industry have to be any different? Let the manufacturers sell me the device and the carrier sell me the service. This way I can choose the phone I want based on which I believe is the superior product and then choose the carrier I want based on which I believe has the superior service. Isn’t that how it should work in this country? This way the carriers are on a truly level competitive field and are forced to provide better service to us in order to compete with one another instead of just clamoring for mobile device exclusivity contracts.


  • davidwal

    True that I think it is wrong too. I hope this law get taken away.

    • http://TheUnlockr.com David Cogen

      Seriously. Dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of…

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  • sola

    Very stupid.. People will still do it anyway

  • Rodski

    Great article,”I buy whatever laptop I want and then I can choose whatever internet provider I want to use it on in my house, right? (YOU are absolutely RIGHT)…Why does the mobile phone industry have to be any different? wondering if this law applicable worldwide..no offense but the date you wrote this was incorrect..