Depending on which network provides your cell phone service, your phone came either locked or unlocked. Understanding the difference is very important and the distinction especially comes into play if you are not able to unlock your cell phone at the end of a contract.
Locked Phones vs. Unlocked Cell Phones
If you have a cell phone that is locked, this means that you cannot continue to use your current cell phone if you transfer cell phone service providers. If this is your situation, however, having a locked cell phone may not be the main reason you cannot easily transfer providers.
Often, contractual agreements lock users into one-year or two-year contract that they would have to break in order to transfer providers. However, if you do pay the fee and “buy out” your contract, and your phone is locked, you will then need to purchase a new phone from your new cell phone provider. You will not, for example, be able to use your old Verizon phone with your new Sprint account.
Even if you stay with your current provider for the duration of your contract, and then decide to switch providers at the end of that contract, you will need to acquire a new cell phone if the phone you are currently using is locked.
Being Unable to Unlock Your Phone Creates Problems
If you cannot unlock your cell phone at the end of your contract, this can be very frustrating when you want to switch providers. Being unable to unlock your phone and required to purchase a new one means that all of the information you are storing in your current phone – numbers, text messages, pictures, calendars, etc. – will need to be transferred from your old phone to your new one. The impact of this can be the need to spend a chunk of time manually transferring dates, phone numbers, and other information, and also that some information simply will not be able to be transferred – for example, pictures and text messages.
Another result of not being able to unlock your cell phone at the end of your contract is simple, but real: you have gotten very used to your current cell phone, and may like it very much. Having to learn to use a new cell phone and all the unique features that come with it can be time consuming and frustrating, especially if the layout and features of your old phone worked extremely well for you.
Other Problems with a Phone You Can’t Unlock
If you have a smart phone that is locked, this means that applications can only be purchased from the provider’s store. For example, if you have an iPhone, you can only purchase applications from Apple’s App Store. If you want to install an application that isn’t offered by Apple, you won’t be able to do it. When your contract has ended, you’ll still be locked in and without the freedom to choose.
When travelling internationally, it is convenient to have an unlocked cell phone so you can avoid high roaming charges from your provider. If your phone is unlocked, you may be able to purchase something called a SIM (subscriber identity module) card from a carrier in the country in which you will be, and simply place it into your current phone. If your phone is locked, however, you won’t be able to do this, and will have to use your home network, which can be quite expensive.
Even if you upgrade to a new phone and want to give your old phone to a friend or relative to use after your contract is up, if the phone is locked, that friend or relative will not be able to use the phone unless they also use the same service provider you used with that phone.
Though it appears to be most convenient to have the ability to unlock a cell phone, many providers, including Verizon and Sprint, do not give users the ability to unlock their phones- even after your contract is done.