Android 101: Rooting, Jailbreaking, and Unlocking

On this site I get a ton of questions (most of which couldn’t be answered unless I was literally standing over you while you were doing a procedure, like, “What did I do wrong?”). But occasionally I get some questions that I can answer, like, “What is rooting?” and “What are the benefits of rooting?” So today, I decided to put together a sort of FAQ on just that subject.

If there is anything else you would like to add please feel free to send me an email.

I. What is the Difference Between Rooting and Jailbreaking?

First off, let’s explain that rooting and jailbreaking are essentially the same thing. The only difference is what device you are referring to and which term is generally associated with that device. Jailbreaking is generally used to describe Apple products like the iPhone, while rooting is used to describe most other Linux based devices like Android.

*My guess for the difference, besides just having those terms coined with their respective operating systems, is that rooting/jailbreaking an Apple product is a much harder process. Only reason really is that Apple is the only phone manufacturer so opposed to jailbreaking that they have devoted resources to resolve jailbreaking exploits whenever they arise. Because of this it might seem more “liberating” when rooting an iPhone and as such deserve a more suitable name perhaps.

II. What is Rooting/Jailbreaking?

Now that you know the difference between jailbreaking and rooting (or lack thereof), we’ll answer the next obvious question; what is rooting?

In a nutshell, when we root a phone we are actually trying to gain root access (you’ll sometimes here people say Superuser access, which is essentially the same thing). You can basically think of it in the same terms you think of a tree’s roots. The roots of a tree are the very bottom of the tree just as root access is giving us access to the very bottom or most basic files, systems, and commands on our phone. In Linux/Android, the root user is the user with all permissions to change and alter any files on the system/phone.

Why would we want access to these most basic folders and systems on our phone? Well, because these are where things like our phone’s operating systems files are contained and once we have access to them, we can change them to our liking (or we can have someone with some developing experience change them to our liking by flashing a ROM, but we’ll get to that in a sec).

Besides changing our phone’s operating system files, we can also load apps that need root access to run, by that I mean they need access to some of those most basic files and systems to do what they do. A popular example of this, would be the WiFi tethering app, which can turn the phone into a WiFi hotspot so that you can share your 3G/4G connection with other devices in the area. This app needs to access certain features in the phone that are normally not accessible unless we root the phone and then tell it that WiFi tethering has permission to use that root access (yes, even though we have root access, there are measures in place for us to determine what apps can use that privilege and what apps cannot).

III. Benefits of Rooting

An app asking for root permissions (often called superuser permissions)

So now that you know the basic gist of what rooting is, I’m sure you want to know; what are the benefits?

  • Ability to use apps that require root access like:
    Wifi Tethering – turns your phone into a WiFi hotspot without you having to pay extra to your carrier for that feature
    Nandroid and other backup apps –  allows you to make backups that can literally put your phone back to the exact state it was when you backed up
    File Managers – some root required file managers allow you to access system files like icons etc and change them
    Overclocking apps – these apps allow you to overclock your phone’s processor, taking a 600mhz processor to 1ghz for example.
  • Ability to change your phone’s icons, status bar, and overall look through themes/ROMs
  • Ability to increase performance through optimizations (usually through flashing ROMs)
  • Ability to upgrade your operating system version without having to wait for an OTA (like going from Android 1.6 to Android 2.2)
  • Ability to add Flash support and JIT compiler (which makes your phone faster) through going to Android 2.2
  • Ability to flash ROMs (and easily get all of the benefits above in one shot)

IV. What is a Recovery Image?

What a custom recovery image may look like on your phone.

A recovery image is basically a part that is built in to Android that can be booted into without having to load the actual operating system (this allows you to get into it even if something has gone wrong with your phone, hence “recovery” image).

Now, normally, the recovery image on your phone has two main functions; factory reseting the phone if you can’t get into the operating system, and flashing an update to either fix any issues the phone is having or upgrade it to a new version of software. In addition to these functions there are locks and limitations set by the manufacturer in the recovery image like the fact that even though it can flash new versions of software, that software must be digitally signed by the manufacturer or the phone won’t flash the software (this is important later).

Now, since we have root access we can generally flash our own custom recovery image on to the phone. Why? Well, a custom recovery image has same added features including:

  • Ability to use Nandroid backup (and save the entire memory of the phone to the sdcard so you can restore the phone with ease if anything goes wrong)
  • Ability to use certain tools like partitioning the memory card (used for saving apps to the sdcard, adding more virtual swap memory to phones that are low on RAM, etc).
  • Ability to flash updates that are not digitally signed by the manufacturer.

The last one is probably the most beneficial. Once we have a custom recovery image that allows us to flash updates that are not digitally signed that means we can load custom ROMs.

V. What are Custom ROMs?

Some custom ROM screenshots.

So if you are looking into rooting your phone, you have probably seen the term ROM somewhere and are curious as to what is all the fuss about ROMs.

ROM literally stands for Read Only Memory and in a nutshell it is the portion of the phone’s memory that contains the operating system, apps, and software that come preloaded on the phone. This memory can (normally) not be altered and is what the manufacturer or carrier wants you to have on your device when you first turn it on. If you factory reset your phone it would simply erase all of the changes you made and reload the ROM to get you back to how the phone was when you first opened it.

Now, when we talk about loading or flashing ROMs onto our phones, we are referring to custom ROMs that developers in the Android community have made either for themselves and decided to share, or made with the intention of sharing for others’ enjoyment.

Basically, these developers created their own ROM with their own operating system (say Android 2.2 vs Android 1.6), their own preloaded apps that they think should be included (including ones that replace the original apps on the phone, like the dialer, camera app, gallery, etc)., and their own performance or appearance tweaks.

For most people rooting their phone, flashing a custom ROM is the ultimate goal. It is the easiest way for them to get all the benefits of rooting mentioned above on to their phone without having to alter the code in their phone manually.

V. Cons of Rooting

Average person reaction when speaking about rooting/jailbreaking.

Now, with all those benefits, I’m sure you’re saying, “What’s the catch?”

1. Rooting and flashing ROMs technically voids your warranty – This is kind of the big issue with it all. Manufacturer’s have a pretty strict stance on rooting your phone (some more so than others) and they will generally not honor the warranty on any phones that come back to them with root access enabled. Now, this isn’t the manufacturers just being evil (in most cases) and there is some reasoning behind this concept. For example, let’s say that you flashed a ROM that didn’t have Bluetooth support working properly (the developer just hasn’t gotten it to work right yet) and then you try to send it in for warranty claiming that Bluetooth doesn’t work and you want a new phone. Well, that wouldn’t make much sense, right? Why should the manufacturer honor the warranty when the fact that you changing the software on the phone is what caused the issue?

Now, where manufacturers go wrong here is that they sometimes won’t honor the warranty when a rooted phone comes in for something that has nothing to do with the software. An example of this would be say the trackball fell out of your phone and you sent it in for warranty and the manufacturer said they won’t honor it because you rooted the phone. That’s not right because you changing the software of the device has nothing to do with the faulty trackball falling out.

Regardless though, since we are just altering software, it is relatively easy to “unroot” most phones and get them back to factory spec without it showing any trace of it ever being rooted in the first place and therefore “reinstate” our warranty (which makes sense because if we bring the software back to factory spec and the issue still persists, then it has nothing to do with the software changes we made and should be the manufacturer’s responsibility, right?)

2. You can harm your device – Now, while it is true that rooting your phone and changing things and potentially stop your phone from working (anyone that tried to flash the wrong ROM on their phone can tell you about getting stuck in a boot loop). But the truth of the matter is that Linux (what Android is running on top of) is pretty hard to mess up. This is because it has fail safes in place for just such an occasion. Two of these fail safes are the recovery image, and bootloader (aka Hboot mode). Even if you flash the wrong ROM on your phone, the recovery and hboot partitions of your device are untouched and so long as you can boot into one of those two modes, you can flash a different ROM and get the phone working again.

I would like to point out, that in all my time doing this,  I have yet to see a completely unrecoverable phone.

VI. Difference between Unlocking, Rooting, and Jailbreaking

Another big question I get, is, “If I root my phone, can I use it on another carrier?” The short answer is no but I’ll explain.

Rooting and unlocking are two completely different procedures. Rooting your phone does NOT unlock it. In order to unlock your phone and use it on a different carrier, you must either purchase an unlock code (if you have GSM phone), flash a new carrier’s firmware manually through a cable (if you have a CDMA device), or you have to alter the phone’s baseband (as with the iPhone unlocking software).
Now, this seems to become a very confusing thing for people because of the iPhone I think. Sometimes people get confused with jailbreaking and unlocking by thinking they are one in the same (understandably with a name like jailbreaking you might think you are “setting it free”). But this is not the case. The iPhone has software to unlock it but that software is not automatically installed if you jailbreak your iPhone. The reason for the confusion, I think, is the fact that in order to use the unlocking software for the iPhone, you must have jailbroken it first (as the unlocking app needs root permissions to change the baseband, etc).

I hope that this helps some people who are new to rooting/jailbreaking their devices. For instructions on how to root and/or load a custom ROM on your phone, feel free to check out our How To section of our site and choose your device. Good luck and happy rooting!

  • Beerloverme

    Excellent Article!! Thanks For Your Time To Posted Such a Great Explanation.

  • Thank you for this article. I loved the ” You make kitty scared” image

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  • misterB

    That’s great and everything. Now where’s my muffins?

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  • ben

    Great article. Now we have a good reference to point people to when they are new to the scene and have all the usual questions!

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  • cool

    If I unlocked a phone with the provider’s sim unlock code and later root, is my phone still unlocked? If I unlocked with sim unlock code and then root and use a custom rom, is my phone still unlocked. If I unroot, is my phone still unlocked? TIA for advice.

    Cool

    • Cool,

      Yes to all of the above lol just keep the unlock code for your phone just in case (you can always reenter it if it relocks).

      • cool

        Thanks for the info. I know I was being paranoid!! HAHAHA! I will keep the code at a safe place.

    • iKarlos

      Rooting has nothing to do with unlocking so if you root or unrooting a device it won’t affect the unlocking process, they are completely different processes, unlocking is for use other networks based on the similar band, rooting is for changing the software of the phone like if like Windows phone u can change it to Andrioid if its possible, do you understand?

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  • Hi I have a T-Mobile 3g my touch phone can u email me on how to do this unlocking and jailbraking or rooting. Please thanks d2pac424@Hotmail.com

  • jose droid

    i dont get it??? i have a t-mobile droid, i rooted it and at the same time im not on the t-mobile network im on the simple network. if you cant have your droid rooted and be on a different carrier, how is it i can and iv even have set up other peoples phone like that too?

    • Jose Droid,

      First off, whats a T-Mobile “Droid”? So I can better answer the question.

  • jose droid

    oh sorry. its a t-mobile htc g1 android

  • luki

    You guys are amazing. Thank you. I have one more question thought. For example I have a IMOBSTER game on my rooted phone. Once i Made an account you cant make a different one unless you reset your game. Even if you redownload it and istall it over again that name is already saved on the game. Is it possible to have two games at the same time but like with different names on it? For example on Imobster im on level 90. Than can i download another imobster and make a new name for myself so one of the imobster games would be level 90 and another level 1?

    • Luki,

      Unfortunately, that question is best suited for the game developers, not us. In the Market where you downloaded the game from, click on it under downloads and then you’ll see a link to contact developer.

  • ranas

    sorry .. I have the motorola CLIQ already bought my unlock code but put it tells me network unlock unsuccessful request number of Attempts Remaining: 0 … if I root my phone could put back the code? This would return reset the counter?

    • iKarlos

      No, in order for for you to put back the code u must restore to factory settings which is the same when u bought it, rooting isn’t the same as unlocking as mention in the above, rooting is changing the software of the device and has nothing to do with unlocking the device, if u need further assistance maybe there is specialist near you, they often don’t charge for resetting your device but will for the unlocking

  • yo unlocker, i rooted my motorola cliq xt, and i want to teather wifi with it, but i need now netfilter. what is the video to follow along with the pros?

    • Januarybaby95

      how did you do it i have the same phone and i would like to 

  • Mr Pnutt

    My G1 Build# reads DMD64, what does this mean and can it still be jailbroken/rooted?

  • matt

    So lets say i do the app2sd deal to add more memory to my phone. Once i copy all the data currently on my sd card to a separate folder so that i can format my sd card, and have completed the partitioning and everything, can i now go to the folder where i copied all my data and put it back on my sd card?

  • matt

    So lets say i do the app2sd deal to add more memory to my phone. Once i copy all the data currently on my sd card to a separate folder so that i can format my sd card, and have completed the partitioning and everything, can i now go to the folder where i copied all my data and put it back on my sd card?

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  • Moooooooon8

    First, I like to thank you on your effort in making this Android 101. so, thank you very much 🙂
    Second, does flashing(writing and reading) ROMs affect the memory ?(since that section of the memory is only intended to be read)

  • Welcome! 🙂
    Affect the memory how? Like make it not last as long or something?

    • Moooooooon8

      yes, exactly…

  • DxBiLL

    Dude u rock for that a million thank u’s i was starting to think i’d never understand what my co-workers were talking about

  • DxBiLL

    Dude u rock for that a million thank u’s i was starting to think i’d never understand what my co-workers were talking about

  • DxBiLL

    Dude u rock for that a million thank u’s i was starting to think i’d never understand what my co-workers were talking about

  • DxBiLL

    Dude u rock for that a million thank u’s i was starting to think i’d never understand what my co-workers were talking about

  • DxBiLL

    Dude u rock for that a million thank u’s i was starting to think i’d never understand what my co-workers were talking about

  • This explains everything. I rooted and ROM’d my Moto Backflip for the first time yesterday. Still hate my phone, but love the ROM and Overclock. This site explains everything in a easy to read / understand way. Now I feel like getting dangerous….perhaps learning some code.

  • Jdmammie

    i wanted to share my internet from my hero to my laptop..can i do this? i know i dont have a driver or cannot locate one but was wondering if it could be found and done?

    • Yes, you just need to root your Hero and then find a Wifi Tethering .apk file and install it (Google for the Wifi tethering app and you’ll find it).

    • Yes, you just need to root your Hero and then find a Wifi Tethering .apk file and install it (Google for the Wifi tethering app and you’ll find it).

  • Jdmammie

    i wanted to share my internet from my hero to my laptop..can i do this? i know i dont have a driver or cannot locate one but was wondering if it could be found and done?

  • Ywliu

    I think the reason it’s called “jailbreaking” is from the “jail” concept on FreeBSD, which is the kernel of iOS. Though this is never explicitly confirmed.

  • Adam

    Is there any way to get past the screen lock, pattern and/or password without hard reset or getting the service provider involved?

    Adam

  • Jukes_john

    how can i jailbreak/ root my samsung galaxy europa (I5500)

  • Alex(:

    How would I flash my htc hd2.
    Can you tell me how to “flash” my phone?

    • Click on How To’s at the top of the site, then Windows Phone How To’s and go from there.

  • spidergirl0408

    ok i have kind of a complex problem but you did say in all your time doing this you havent seen an unrecoverable phone so im hoping you can help me soon! i have a Tmobile G2 and i did a root with the app VISIONary i did the temp root and it worked great! but then i tried the permaroot with that same app *sigh* and after it rebooted it wouldnt go past the white HTC screen so i rebooted again and again and again … i’ve found posts that say i can go into my sd and restore ive seen the h-boot screen or whatever and i used the clockwork mod as well and i see a file on my sd card that says recovery check point but honestly i dont know how to use any of these things : / im so new at modding its sad so please can someone help because id really like to get my phone back to at least stock 2.2! thanks for all help! oh and also i believe im still S-on ..(i dont know how to tell but i dont remember turning it off)

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  • Vic

    is there a way to root the htc inspire 4G?

  • Peter

    following the steps to root my phone….i get ‘failed to copy exploid to /sqlte_stmt_journals also failed to copy update.zip to /sdcard : is a directory

  • Jrmwsn3691

    my phone is not in list. i have motorola devour. how can i root phone?

  • Aaronwalker

    how do u jailbreak your phone

  • Aaronwalker

    how do u jailbreak your phone

  • Hdude_95

    how do i flash my htc wildfire running adroid 2.2.1

  • Alemmy71

    i have always had an iphone and understood the differance between jailbreak and unlock. but i just got the nexus S and i was reading about rooting, roms and was really getting confussed. So now i have a better understanding of the nexus.
    thanks

  • Alemmy71

    i have always had an iphone and understood the differance between jailbreak and unlock. but i just got the nexus S and i was reading about rooting, roms and was really getting confussed. So now i have a better understanding of the nexus.
    thanks

  • Q DIZZLE

    is there a way to root a motorola i1

  • Jdirt42

    I have a Motorola Flipside running 2.1.  If I root my phone, will I be able to just upgrade it to 2.2?  That would seem to be alot easier than doing the format fat32, make a partition and then install link2sd procedure.

    And if I root the phone, will my battery life improve?

  • B Zakzouk

    i need to know how to unlock G1

  • Jazmynnbradbury

    this is some damn dumb ass fucking shit
    > all i wanted is to know how to unlock it not all of these damn stories shit if i wanted a story to read i would have t mines on there and read it.

  • Storm_kenui

    samsung gem?

  • Shaneyadao

    Thanks David!! I have already rooted and flashed a custom rom. Thanks to you and the other awesome sites out there. I really appreciate you taking the time to put all of these how to’s and faq’s together. im loving my phone and new tweaks and customization that im now allowed to do it because of info like this!! thank you again!!

  • Roevans1178

    How do i root a htc slide? Do i need to?

  • Pepo

    i need to know how to unlock htc evo 4g sprint

  • como unlock my mytouch 4g

  • Kalena

    Ok  I am in search of answers, I just had my phone flashed to a different service provider ex Sprint to boost…. was wondering if I would be able to root it now that is has been flashed or if I should have done so before I have providers flashed……….. needing help I have been told I could do it but chances are it would mess up the service flash and I have been told that it would work and wouldnt mess anything up at all….. I am fairly new to the whole wide world of flashing and rooting…. I have a pretty good grasp but I am making sure to do all my research before I brick another phone lol…… anyone with suggestions of help I would greatly appreciate it. you can email me if you would like at
     tattooed.angel.without.a.halo @gmail.com (remove the space of course)
     again anything that will help possibly would be greatly appreciated ty
     

  • Anonymous

    very informative

  • Kolbertdk@yahoo.com

    I really need to know how to flash unlock my HTC inspire

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  • Michelthekid

    Nice well written explanation.
    I actually only have one question remaining:
    If I root my phone and install a custom ROM can I install apps from the Market (directly) which I otherwise could not?

    For example with my HTC Wildfire some apps are just not available on the Market, does installing a custom ROM change this?

  • Rodlewis1993

    How do I root my samsung galaxy (boostmobile)

  • unknown unknown

    I need to unlock an HTC Inspire 4G from att, any how to?

  • Thstephens1

    Much thanks for the easy to understand distinctions.

  • Anonymous

    Hey everybody (specifically David). Basically, I’m pretty new to the world of smartphones and, by extension, the android OS. However, I’ve been doing some pretty intensive reading because I’m expecting a Droid Razr by Motorolla to be coming in tomorrow. I felt compelled to figure out a lot about this phone because I thought (maybe erroneously?) that I could unlock it and maybe use it on carriers in Russia and the rest of Europe. However, answers didn’t really clear up and all I could figure out is that I should definitely get root access in any case. So I think I’ve gotten up to date on the lingo and watched the how to’s on ADB and rooting the Razr so I have all my files ready and I know what to do whenever the phone actually shows up. I guess the question that I am really getting at is does anyone know whether or not this root access has gotten me any closer to making the Verizon Droid Razr function on GSM frequencies in Europe and elsewhere? Or is this just impossible?

    Also, after I get root access, can I make my phone a wireless hotspot without getting charged by Verizon?

  • Alvrtsnchz

    Very useful information. Thank you. Now go to ‘how to section’ :))

  • Mike3216

    Hi, I recently bought an unlocked T-Mobile G1. If it’s unlocked, does that mean it’s rooted already?

  • Anonymous

    Thank your an excellent “wiki” on the different facets of cell phone tech language. Well written and very informative. I hope you can update the device library for some of the requested devices listed below as well as the Samsung Infuse…
    Thanks

  • Kimandall

    Can you bypass a lock pattern on an HTC evo to look at text messages?

  • Emmugeorge

    how do i convert my samsung galaxy pop CDMA to gsm mobile? ppls reply soon  

  • Emmugeorge

    **** Samsung Galaxy Pop CDMA SCH I559 mobile to use any network sims?

  • Clpeop4

    Whats the worst that could happen in rooting an android?

  • DroidGuy

    Thanks 🙂 .. Great informative guide for us Droid dummies 🙂

  • tenzi

    Will resetting my unlocked HTC Inspire cause it to revert back to AT&T?

  • tenzi

    I went ahead and risked it. Resetting factory data settings DOES NOT cause the the HTC INSPIRE to revert back to AT&T. Triumph and jubilations!