While mobile devices sold after December 2021 are sold unlocked as standard, handsets sold before that date may be locked to a specific network.
Unlocking services are generally provided free of charge by our existing mobile network, although some may prefer to pay around £10 to get the phone unlocked on the high street.
Mobile phone unlocking is perfectly legal and should not put people off from trying to switch to a better mobile deal if they want to.
Are mobile phones locked to a network?
All mobile phones that are sold now in the UK are unlocked, so they can be used on any network.
Until December 2021, mobile providers were allowed to sell phones that were locked to their network until the end of a contract or when the phone was a year old.
However, Ofcom changed the rules following a consultation to make things easier for customers after their own research found that almost half of customers who tried unlocking their phone had difficulty doing so.
These rules mean that:
- Networks are not allowed to sell mobile phones that are locked
Yet this means that customers who purchased mobile phones before December 2021 or have purchased a second-hand device that was originally sold before that date might have a locked mobile.
So, let's look at what happens if you have an older device.
Unlocking older mobile phones
Just because a mobile phone was purchased before December 2021, it doesn't automatically mean it was locked to the network it was bought from.
For example, Three had sold mobiles unlocked as standard since 2014, so if the handset was on the Three network, it's going to be unlocked.
The easiest way to check whether a mobile phone is already unlocked is to:
- Insert a SIM card from a different network
- If the handset is locked, an error message will appear on the screen
If you're buying a handset from a third-party like a second-hand electronics shop, it's worth requesting to check whether the device is unlocked before purchase.
Reputable sellers won't mind taking a few seconds to demonstrate a phone is truly unlocked, especially if they have advertised it as such.
Things can be trickier when we purchase a second-hand phone online and we don't get the opportunity to check whether it's unlocked before we buy.
If we purchase a phone and we find it isn't unlocked when the seller has said it is, we can either:
- Get it unlocked ourselves (see below)
- Cite the Consumer Rights Act and ask for a refund
Under the Act, goods sold must be as described and meet our expectations. A locked mobile phone that was advertised as an unlocked one clearly breaches these conditions.
However, as the cost of unlocking a mobile can be relatively small, customers may decide to keep the device and unlock it themselves.
One final point on second-hand mobiles that are locked when the seller said it wasn't: double-check if everything else about the phone is in full working order and matches the description.
Unlocking through a network
Mobile networks are not allowed to charge customers to unlock a device when they come to the end of a pay monthly mobile contract.
Under Ofcom rules, networks must unlock a phone on request after a customer has been with them for a year.
However, both of these rules are going to naturally expire as more customers upgrade to handsets that are unlocked anyway.
The unlock process works like this:
- Find our IMEI number by opening the phone app and entering *#06# on the keypad or looking in Settings
- Contact the network and request an unlock
- Ask how long the process will take
Each provider will have their own method of requesting an unlock but it's usually an online form or via a customer's online account:
|Network||How to do it||How long does it take?||Notes|
|EE||Via My EE||Up to 10 days||PAYG devices must be registered with EE|
|O2||Via My O2||Up to 7 working days||N/A|
|Vodafone||Online form||Up to 10 working days||Customers must have received and paid at least three pay monthly bills or been using PAYG SIM for at least 30 days|
|Tesco Mobile||Online form||Up to 7 days||Minimum top-up requirements for PAYG|
|Virgin Mobile||Via phone||Up to 28 days||PAYG devices must be registered with Virgin Mobile|
Providers generally make it easy for customers to request an unlock, with the exception of Vodafone who have a few more stipulations than other networks.
Unlocking through a third party
It's also possible to unlock a handset through retailers on the high street who advertise they unlock mobile phones.
This is perfectly legal, but it's important to choose a retailer we trust in case they need to hang on to the phone for a while.
Third-party retailers will charge us to unlock our phone while our network won't, but if we're having difficulty with our network or need it done quickly, these retailers might be a better option.
When looking for a high street retailer:
- Check whether you need to pay even if they can't unlock the phone
- See what their policy is if the phone is damaged while in their possession
- Ask how long the unlock is going to take
It should cost around £10 to unlock a mobile. Beware of quotes that are much higher than that and shop around.
While there are some online retailers who promise codes for unlocking phones, it's worth being cautious about these.
Some companies will provide unlock codes that are useless and customers would have little chance of getting their money back when they're dealing with someone that unscrupulous.
Older devices (non-smartphones) were sometimes unlockable by codes found on the internet, but newer handset codes haven't been leaked in this way. Again, be wary if companies say they have one of those available.
There are still misconceptions about unlocking mobile phones.
Here are a few frequently asked questions that look at the rules and practices around phone unlocking in the UK.
Does my network have to unlock my phone?
Yes. Under Ofcom regulations, customers have the right to unlock their mobile phone if they have reached the end of a contract or the phone is over a year old.
As we've seen above, most will do it even before that.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, once we're out of contract, they must unlock our handset free of charge.
Is unlocking illegal?
No. Unlocking a phone to switch networks is completely legal.
There was an Ofcom review in 2002 that confirmed that unlocking is legal. However, there are a few grey areas mostly involving using unauthorised methods.
The confusion that still exists is largely because unblocking is against the law.
Phones are only blocked if they have been reported as lost or stolen; the block is put on the device's IMEI. The mobile networks share a list of blocked and barred IMEIs, so if a phone is reported lost or stolen to one network, it'll be flagged as such to them all.
Unblocking a phone attempts to make it usable again by changing its IMEI, so that when it is used, the networks don't identify it as the lost or stolen, and therefore blacklisted, handset.
The only way to lawfully unblock a phone is for the verified owner to request the removal of the block.
No reputable unlocking service will offer to unblock a phone.
Will it affect my warranty?
Yes. While unlocking a phone isn't illegal, it will almost definitely invalidate its warranty. If thinking of getting a handset unlocked by the network, it can be worth checking with them.
But any warranty will definitely be invalidated if the device is unlocked by someone other than the network or manufacturer.
Is it worth unlocking my phone?
For those who are happy on their current network and who have no plans to sell their handset, unlocking could be a waste of money.
For a whole variety of reasons, however, it could be well worth it.
In or out of contract, having an unlocked phone means we can use a local SIM when abroad, avoiding enormously costly roaming charges or, use a PAYG SIM when travelling around the UK to get signal when in an area where our own network has poor coverage.
If we like the phone and are in no rush to upgrade, an unlocked mobile phone opens the door to getting cheaper deals elsewhere.
Summary: Unlocking set to be history
Thanks to Ofcom's intervention, the need for unlocking mobile phones is going to be gradually phased out over the coming years.
Any mobile phone that we've bought from a mobile network after December 2021 is going to be unlocked as standard, so we won't need to do anything if we want to use that handset with a SIM card from another network.
If you do have a phone that needs to be unlocked, here are a couple of things to remember:
- Networks are obliged to unlock phones on request (some may have certain stipulations)
- Customers can also try high street retailers to get their phone unlocked
- While network unlocking is usually free of charge, customers can expect to pay around £10 for unlocking on the high street
Also remember to beware of online scammers suggesting they can unlock a device cheaply or offering codes they promise will work.
Unlocking a mobile phone is still an effective way of using a handset on a different network for many customers.
Once a phone is unlocked, customers can consider switching to another provider and getting a SIM only deal that works for them and their circumstances.