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Un-Locking Cell Phones - Why and How

A Cell Phone uses a unique serial number in your phone known as its ESN.
The ESN is used by the cell phone service provider to identify who you are.
The wireless service assigns your phone's serial number to correspond with your phone number, and knows to send phone calls to that phone when someone dials your phone number. A GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phone is not directly linked to you. It has a removable account card, called a SIM (subscriber information module) and this SIM has a unique serial number on it.
This unique serial number is what identifies you to the wireless provider.
A SIM card stores subscriber data.
The SIM card is issued by a carrier and provides cell service by activating any phone into which it is inserted.
If you've already bought an expensive phone and you change from one GSM wireless company to another, you don't have to change phones.
You can keep your phone, and all you need to do is replace the first company's SIM with your new service provider's SIM.
The problem is that some wireless providers lock their phones.
This means that their phones have been programmed to only work with SIMs issued by their company.
Reversing that programming is called unlocking the phone.
You unlock a phone so it can work with any SIM.
A locked phone, will only recognize a SIM card from a particular carrier.
If the cell phone is unlocked, it will recognize a SIM card from any carrier.
The "lock" is a software setting that keeps the cell phone "loyal" to one carrier.

In areas like the United States, where carriers offer free, or deeply discounted phones with cell plans, the phones are commonly locked so that they wont work with other carriers. Carriers claim this is necessary to subsidize the cost of the phones.
After a period of time, a carrier might agree to unlock the phone upon request, possibly charging a fee.
Due to proprietary settings sometimes installed in locked handsets, the phones wont always function correctly with other carriers, even once unlocked. This usually applies to carrier specific special features for your phone, which are programmed in to the phone. They may not function.

From the consumer viewpoint, the practice of carriers locking phones and using proprietary settings defeats many of the benefits of SIM handsets.
Complaints led to a class action suit. Phones should be left unlocked, or at least unlocked after the initial contract expires.

You can get an unlocked phone without proprietary settings if you buy it new from a third party vendor in its original, unlocked state.
The downside is that the price is usually close to full retail. Some consumers might not want to pay big money for a phone they can get for free with a plan. The advantage of the third party unlocked phone is that it should work equally well with any carrier that uses SIM cards.

Third party services will unlock your cell phone for a fee. This doesn't guarantee the unlocked phone will work correctly, as unlocking it doesn't change any carrier specific proprietary settings your phone may have.
There are hacking instructions online to unlock many phones, but a phone that is unlocked improperly can end up non-functional.

Carriers operating on the GSM network use SIM cards.
In the United Sates, this includes Cingular Wireless, which merged with AT&T Wireless, and T-Mobile.
Carriers that use the competing CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network don't use card-enabled phones yet.
These carriers include Sprint PCS, Verizon and Virgin Mobile.
The CDMA equivalent of the SIM card is the R-UIM which will be used by carriers in the future.
R-UIM cards are already in use in some parts of Asia.

There are three reasons why you might want to unlock your phone:
1. Because you want to change the wireless company you get service from in the US, and want to keep your present phone.
2. You've changed to a different service provider and got a new phone, and you want to unlock your old phone, so it can be use in case of an emergency, by swapping the SIM if your new phone ever has problems.
3. Because you want to travel internationally, and don't want to have to pay expensive international rates your wireless company would charge you for international roaming.

When traveling internationally, GSM service is offered in 207 countries.
US GSM cell phones work at 1900 MHz and some at 850 MHz.
Most other countries have GSM networks at 900MHz or 1800 MHz.
Check on the website of your cell phone manufacturer and see what frequencies your model of phone supports.

In November of 2006 it became Legal to Unlock Cell Phones.
In the United States an exemption that took effect 27 November 2006 which specifically permits unlocking your phone, and will expire in three years 27 November 2009, but can be renewed after that.
The exemption only applies to the actual unlocking, not to providing an unlocking device or service.

How to Un-Lock your Cell Phone

There are two ways that a phone can be unlocked, which way is used, is dependant upon the phone being unlocked.
Your existing service will work perfectly with your unlocked phone.
If you have a phone that can be unlocked  by keying a code into it you are fortunate.
The code is usually a unique number for that particular phone, based on its serial number or  IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) and the service provider who locked it. Enter *#06# into your phone to retrieve the unique 15 digit IMEI number. It can also be found printed on the back of the phone underneath the battery. Extracting MCC and MNC codes from your IMSI
The first 3 digits of the IMSI are MCC "mobil Country Code" code and next 3 digits are MNC "Mobil Network Code".
The confusion comes from some countries having a 2 digit network code and others having a 3 digit Code (USA). For this reason, most major US carriers have MNCs ending in 0, so that they are uniquely identified by the first two digits, thereby providing their subscribers with compatibility on international networks.
Take this sample IMEI number for example 404450014863533, here MNC code can be 45 or 450.
The Mobil Country Code is 404 (the first 3 digits), and the Mobil Network Code can be either 45 or 450 (the next 2 to3 digits).

Before trying anything else, contact your service provider and ask for an unlock code! (This IS the Best way to unlock your Phone)
Usually, if you've been a customer of theirs for some time, they will provide you with an unlock code for free. You can not get a better price.
This is, by far, the best way to get your phone unlocked. If your Phone unlocks with a code, in most cases your service provider will provide it, by just asking for it. It is a common request for people traveling over seas. Many will email you with the code and instructions for you to unlock your phone.
Usually, after entering the unlock codes, the phone will say something like "SIM is not restricted" or "Restriction off" or something encouraging.

Sample Procedure for unlocking a GSM Phone:
Get your IMEI, MCC/MNC numbers with the procedures above.
Get your phones unlock code using the phones IMEI and Manufacturer data and Current Network.
Slide your phones SIM card out.
Put the battery back in and power the phone on.
You will see a message "Insert SIM Card".
Enter all of the characters you see in your unlock code, including the # symbols.
To get a 'p' press * 3 times, to get a '+' press the * key 2 times, to get a 'w' press the * key 4 times.
Disregard any spaces in the code.
In order to unlock your phone you generally need to enter only one code.
Start with the first one.
If your phone is not unlocked by typing the first code, try entering another code.
(MCC (Mobil Country Code) + MNC (Mobil Network Code) GSM phones), use code "7" (Multilock - CDMA phones)
Once you have finished entering a code that works you should see a message that says something like "SIM is not restricted" or "Restriction off" message depending on your model. Phone unlock messages will vary, and the phone messages can relate to SIM lock or Network lock, unlock messages.
If you don't get one of these unlock messages, indicating the unlock was successful, try entering another code.
Message "Cannot undo restrictions" means the phone is "hard-locked" and cannot be unlocked by code.
Attempting to unlock your phone is done at your own risk.
Most phones only allow you to try a certain number of unlock tries, Nokia phones have a limit of 5 tries.
After that, the phone becomes "hard-locked", meaning it cannot be unlocked without using special equipment.
Although it is legal to unlock your phone, your cellular provider may choose to void your warranty.
Most of the newer phones will not work with the codes generated by the free unlock programs.
You can download unlock programs / software to generate the unlocking code.
Software is available on some websites for free and some pay websites that also offer support if things go wrong.
Using software, if you have downloaded it, enter in your Manufacturer and Serial Number (IMEI number) and generate your code.
Here are some web sites, and a download that generate unlock codes for a number of phones for free. They could be worth a quick look:

UnlockitFree            Trycktill          NokiaFree          NokiaFreeCakculator

Other types of phones need their "firmware" (operating system software) to be rewritten to remove the lock.
This requires connecting the phone via a data cable to computerized equipment or a computer and flashing / re-programming it.
Phones may be unlocked by updating the phone's firmware.
Unlocking applies to all cellular phones.
The steps provided above work for GSM phones.
You CANNOT use the steps above to unlock a CDMA or TDMA phones.
To "unlock" a CDMA or TDMA phones is known as reprogramming the phone.
For CDMA phones, you need the MSL (Master Subsidiary Lock), which you MAY be able to get from your service provider.
Please note that you may not be able to get the MSL from your service provider, as it usually is against company policy to give these to customers.
Switch off the phone. Hold the keys "3", "*" and "Call" and switch the phone on.
Keep the buttons held down till you see the word "Formatting..." on the screen.
Make sure that the battery is full charged before you attempt this. This should reset the phone lock code.
Also some software is able to unlock CDMA, GSM and other phones to different networks but you must watch out for the frauds.

After unlocking, the phone will still shows the name of the previous wireless service. This logo (called a "splash screen") has been programmed into your phone by the company that sold it to you. For an unlocked phone it doesn't mean anything regarding which company is now providing you with phone service.
Unlocking your phone removes the electronic restriction that prevents your phone from working with SIMs from other wireless service providers. It doesn't change your splash screen. You can usually get rid of the splash screen. Doing so does not require you to unlock your phone. Look in your phone's manual for how to change the splash screen, or consider calling the phone manufacturer and having them walk you through it.

Unlocking for Free in the United States:
The two national GSM carriers in the United States:
T-Mobile, will unlock your handset if you have an active account in good standing for at least 90 days.
T-Mobile will also unlock a phone if you pay full retail price and show proof of purchase through a faxed document.
AT&T Wireless, the other GSM carrier, will usually do so after 90 days, or once you have concluded your contract, and may unlock the phone in some other situations as well.
Verizon Wireless, owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone, have long provided an unlocking code to customers who knew to ask for it.
Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel had several cases against them which resulted in settlements requiring both companies to inform subscribers that the carriers will help unlock phones when their contract ends.
Carriers are not compelled to unlock phones by any law or regulation, and they may choose not to unlock certain phones.
AT&T, for example,  has stated that they will not unlock the iPhones under any circumstances, even after customers are out of contract.
In a 2006 submission to the US Library of Congress' Copyright Office with respect to DMCA exemptions, Stanford law professor, Jennifer Granick, specifically stated that the FCC does not prohibit handset locking.

How do I know that my phone has been successfully unlocked?

Borrow a SIM from a friend who has an account with a different wireless service provider and see if it works in your phone.
If it works, then your phone is already unlocked, but if it creates some sort of error message and doesn't work, your phone is still locked.

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