There’s good news and bad news for folks in the US looking to unlock their smartphones so they can be used with a different wireless carrier. The good news is that earlier this month all the major US wireless carriers (and a few less well-known operators) started allowing customers to unlock their phones, in accordance with new CTIA guidelines.

The bad news is that there a lot of restrictions… including one that could make it awfully difficult to actually use your phone on a different network in some cases.

android network

The most important restriction is that most carriers will only promise to unlock your phone once it’s paid in full and your contract is up. So if you’re paying for a phone in monthly installments over the course of a 2-year contract, that means you’ll either need to wait until the contract is up, or pay an early termination fee and pay the outstanding balance for your phone.

But even if your device is paid for, you might run into trouble when trying to take it to another carrier. For instance, Ting is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that lets you build your own voice, text, and data plan while using Sprint’s wireless service. Theoretically if you have an unlocked Sprint phone, you should be able to bring it to Ting and save a lot of money.

Up until recently you’ve only been able to use Sprint phones that were more than a year old with Ting. Now you ca bring recent devices including the iPhone 6… but Sprint blocks you from activating your device with Ting if you have any outstanding balance on your Sprint account. That includes your most recent phone bill… which you almost certainly haven’t paid yet if you’re planning to port your phone and your phone number to ting at the same time because you probably haven’t even received your final phone bill yet.

Ting customers have been complaining about this since the new program was put in place, and the Ting team has joined in the complaints with a company blog post… and an offer to provide a service credit to customers who failed to pass the Ting compatibility test thanks to Sprint’s new policies.

While the Sprint/Ting example is a pretty big caveat to the whole “you can ask your carrier to unlock your smartphone” thing, (which also affects FreedomPop and other MVNOs that use Sprint’s network) there are some other things to keep in mind, such as:

  • Sprint phones launched before February 11th, 2015 will be unlockable for international use, but not for domestic use in the US.
  • Not all phones will work on all networks: Some phones have the wireless chips to work on any major US wireless carrier once they are SIM unlocked, but many phones that work on AT&T or T-mobile might not be fully compatible with Sprint or Verizon (or vice versa).
  • Some folks contend that not all carriers are really doing a good job with following the CTIA guidelines (which are voluntary, after all).

As for Sprint, it tells the folks at Fierce Wireless that if customers are dissatisfied with the financial requirements for unlocking a device or porting a phone number, they should contact Sprint directly.

thanks Miguel for heads up about Sprint’s new policies

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14 replies on “Major US carriers let you unlock your phones, don’t always make it easy”

  1. It’s even worse folks. If you bought a Sprint branded phone last year, had it on a nvmo for say a few month and then decided to sell it after Sprint made this move, it’s on their blacklist! and they wont do jack for you. They have given their csr talking points to make them sound sympathetic. In reality most are playing dumb about it. My phone has been checked befoer doing anything with it, with Sprint. As of yesterday it was free and clear and yet neither Freedompop nor Ting can get it activated! Sprint needs to be slammed at the source customer service, fcc, better business burea and your lazy politician’s office.

  2. It’s even worse folks. If you bought a Sprint branded phone last year, had it on a nvmo for say a few month and then decided to sell it after Spprint made this move, it’s on their blacklist! and they wont do jack for you. They have given their csr talking points to make them sound sympathetic. In reality most are playing dumb about it. My phone has been checked befoer doing anything with it, with Sprint. As of yesterday it was free and clear and yet neither Freedompop nor Ting can get it activated! Sprint needs to be slammed at the source customer service, fcc, better business burea and your lazy politician’s office.

  3. I wish phones bought from retail locations weren’t locked if I am buying a phone outright why do I have to unlock it?

    As for Sprint
    Something I hate about Sprint is that phones from virgin mobile and boost mobile are paper weights unless you use the plans from those specific Sprint owned MVNO and cannot use on other MVNO

    I bought a nexus 5 on eBay just to be able to use on a Sprint line and Sprint wouldn’t activate it because it was bought from T-Mobile never looked back from them since…

  4. My guess is that those who are apt to unlocking their phones are already contract free.

  5. I wonder how this will affect off-contract purchases (i.e. people who are already pre-paid, or those who want x carrier’s exclusive version, or foreigners vacationing in the US who might want to take advantage of the local prices).

  6. So glad I left Sprint this past fall for Ting and didn’t have to deal with this hassle. This behavior will boomerang on Sprint, as Ting will soon offer both Sprint and GSM (thru TMobile) and they will probably direct most new customers to GSM … depriving Sprint of their wholesale revenues (only area where they are adding customers).

  7. thats what you get from buying a phone from the cell provider,,,you thought it was free, ..are you that stupid ???

    1. Right, I don’t understand why you would even bother buying a phone from the phone company anymore, and then complain about it. There is no reason at all to buy the phone from them. Do you really need to finance a purchase that is under $1000?

      1. In the case of millions of Americans, the answer is undoubtedly, yes.

      2. How do you think flagship phones from Apple, Samsung, HTC etc. have sold in so many millions in the US over they years? If they weren’t being financed, the US would never have seen such an explosive growth rate for those devices…

        1. I don’t see why those phones have to cost like $800 IMO I think they are inflated just to pay for advertising awesome that Chinese companies are finally releasing phones with US LTE bands to throw a monkey wrench into that business model I am getting a Asus Zenfone 2 next month I am hoping the cheap price inspires developers to release multiple OS for it.

      3. I just picked up a new unlocked ATT branded LG G2 for $210 (into which I inserted my Ptel sim card). This price would not have been possible without the mandatory unlock-ability of phones and ATT buying a specially branded version in bulk. I think the US market is finally in a great place for wireless consumers.

    2. Dough we can’t all be as well off finacially like you and some others! We are not stupid, at least many of us. SOme of us saw a good deal, and Sprint saw a way to screw customers and consumers! If you got nothing productive to share, go count your money!

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