Are you wondering what the differences are between a locked and an unlocked cell phone? Are you looking for some ways that you might be able to tell the two types of phones apart? Look no further this guide explains the primary differences between a locked and unlocked cell phone as well as some methods that you can use to tell the two apart.
Main difference between an unlocked and locked cell phone
Unlocked cell phones
Unlocked cell phones are not carrier specific meaning that they can potentially connect to and use the cellular service provided by many different wireless carriers with some limitations.
Locked cell phones
Locked cell phones on the other hand are usually sold by a wireless carrier to be used solely on their network.
Choosing a locked or unlocked cell phone
Since unlocked cell phones can be used on a variety of carriers it may seem like the obvious and simple choice between the two types of smartphones but you might be surprised to find that most smartphones are in fact locked and limited to a specific wireless carrier. Here are some reasons why.
Locked cell phones are often purchased through a wireless carrier at discounted prices. The carrier then makes up the difference by charging you over time for the service that they provide. This is one of the reasons why locked cell phones are more affordable and why contracts exist. It’s also one of the reasons why you have to often pay an early termination fee when trying to break that contract.
Unlocked phones on the other hand are generally much more expensive then locked phones, at least upfront anyways. Even two or three times as expensive! Why? Because when purchasing an unlocked mobile phone there is no wireless carrier subsidizing any of the manufactures expenses and you are paying the entire cost of the phone on your own. Remember to do the math though… you might be able to save money in the long run if you can afford the initial upfront cost of an unlocked cell phone.
So in a nutshell an unlocked phone, while more expensive up front, allows you the freedom to switch carriers instead of having to sign a contract and getting tied to a single carrier, usually for two years.
If however, you like your current service provider and don’t see a reason to switch to a different wireless carrier for another couple of years (which is very common) then choosing the locked phone at a discounted price might prove to be the most beneficial.
All cell phones are limited to the wireless technology that they can connect to and operate on. At the moment there are two main types of mobile technology often available to choose from; CDMA technology and GSM technology. A phone that utilizes GSM technology cannot connect to wireless networks that use CDMA technology and vise versa.
Types of technology used by unlocked cell phones
You have to be careful when buying or choosing an unlocked cell phone as it may work for some wireless carriers and not others. It depends on which technology type the phone operates on. So for example AT&T uses GSM technology for its network as does T-Mobile; Verizon and Sprint on the other hand utilize CDMA technology. So if you bought an unlocked GSM cell phone then you would not be able to use that phone on Verizon’s network. The phone would not know how to connect to or communicate with Verizon’s towers (or any wireless carrier that uses the CDMA technology) and it simply would not work because both operate on different types of technology.
Types of technology used by locked cell phones
The type of technology that a locked cell phone can utilize is usually pretty straightforward. A locked cell phone can use either the GSM or CDMA technology types, and the good thing about locked cell phones is that they are simple to understand service wise. If you buy a cell phone from AT&T then it’s almost certainly going to be locked, and excluding any technical difficulties it should connect and function on AT&T’s wireless network with no problems. You don’t have to worry if your phone will work with AT&T or not. It was sold to an AT&T customer to connect to AT&T’s towers and work on AT&T’s wireless network.
Dual technology phones
Some unlocked cell phones are able to utilize both GSM and CDMA technology. Some are sold as dual SIM devices allowing the phone to utilize two different SIM cards from two different carriers. Many dual SIM cell phones are even designed to take a SIM card for networks that use the GSM cellular technology while at the same time are able to utilize a SIM card that use the CDMA cellular technology. This allows the user to use a single device on just about any wireless carrier; providing the person has a SIM card intended for that carrier.
Unlocking a locked cell phone
Here is where things start to get a little fun and complicated. There has been some legal discussion as to whether a person can unlock their own cell phone or not. This pertains to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and after everything is all said and done the law does not prohibit you from getting your phone unlocked. It’s being able to get your cell phone unlocked without your wireless carrier’s permission that’s the legal concern.
I’m not going to get into the subject of legality and ethics as they pertain to unlocking a locked cell phone because this topic alone can be a whole article unto itself but typically if you call your cell phone provider they can often give you an unlock code and walk you through the process of unlocking your phone.
This is actually a pretty legitimate process and happens often when wireless customers plan on leaving the country. This way their phone can be unlocked and they can utilize their cell phone while abroad where their current service provider may not be present. Then when the person returns home they can re-connect to and use their carrier’s wireless network again.
How to tell if a cell phone is locked or unlocked
If you have two cell phones in front of you and one of the phones is unlocked while the other is locked how can you tell the two apart from one another? Here are some things that you can look for when trying to tell if a cell phone is locked or unlocked.
Check for a branding
Many cell phones sold by wireless carriers contain the name of the phones manufacture as well as that carrier’s logo or brand name. While this might not be the case for every locked cell phone it’s a good bet that if a cell phone is branded with a cellular companies name such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc. then that cell phone is a locked cell phone.
If you do not see a logo printed on or visible on the exterior of the phone then try turning the phone on as well. During its startup process if it shows a wireless companies logo, it’s also a good bet that the phone was sold by that wireless company as a locked phone.
Check to see if it’s Duel SIM
If the cell phone you are looking at has two separate SIM card ports then it could have been designed to utilize more than one technology type but also shows that the phone can connect to and use the wireless service provided by multiple carriers. This should be a big indictor that it was sold as an unlocked cell phone.
Check the Model Number
If you are still unsure then look for the model number of the phone and do a search online for it. The model number can usually be found on the back of the phone. You will likely need to remove the back plate to see it and on many phones you will need to remove the battery from the device as well, assuming that your cell phone has a removable battery. Once you have the model number you can do an online search for it which should reveal rather quickly if the phone was sold as a locked or unlocked phone and or what type of technology the phone operates on.
Try a different SIM
If the phone was purchases as a locked phone but you are unsure if that particular cell phone has been unlocked then you can run its model number online to find out what kind of cellular technology the phone uses and then attempt to use a SIM card from a carrier that uses that same technology. If the phone connects to that network and works properly then that phone is unlocked and you can enjoy using the phone on with that service provider. If the phone uses that cellular technology but doesn’t work then the phone is probably still locked and you could contact its original wireless carrier for unlock instructions. If that’s not an option then you should be able to search online for the unlock code and unlock instructions for that specific cell phone.
Pros and Cons of Locked and Unlocked phones
Unlocked cell phones
- Carrier Choice – can choose any carrier that uses the same cellular technology.
- No Contract – can move to different carriers anytime you choose.
- Minimal Bloatware – when purchasing an unlocked cell phone the phone shouldn’t come with any extra and debatably unwanted or unnecessary programs. Simply the ones installed by the cell phones manufacture.
- Price (Long Run) – an unlocked cell phone may be less expensive in the long run. Don’t forget to crunch those numbers to find out if you can save money by using one carrier over another and comparing the price difference you might be paying when you’re not locked into a contract. If you can afford the initial purchase then an unlocked cell phone can actually be cheaper in the long run.
- Resale Value – while unlocked phones may be more expensive when first purchased unlocked phones can be sold at a higher price then locked phones and to a broader range of people. Unlocked phones can be very attractive for buyers because there is a good chance that the buyer could use the phone with their existing network. There is also a bigger market from people located in different parts of the world where a locked phones service provider might not be available.
- Traveling Abroad– Unlocked cell phones are a must if you want to continue using your cell phone when traveling abroad. Simply swap out the SIM for a SIM intended for that particular location you are visiting to have service in that area.
- Upfront Price – unlocked cell phones are noticeably more expensive, up front. An unlocked cell phone may however be less expensive in the long run. Don’t forget to crunch those numbers to find out. If you can afford the initial purchase then an unlocked cell phone can actually be cheaper in the long run.
Locked cell phones
- Upfront Price – can get a cell phone at a lower price right away. If you are planning to use a certain carrier regardless then why not get a discounted phone in the process?
- Additional Warranty Options may be Available – this will depend on a few factors but some wireless carriers maintain their own warranty programs. AT&T is one such wireless carrier. If you bought a phone directly from AT&T and it started to malfunction then instead of sending the phone to the manufacture and then having to wait for the phone to be repaired you might be able to file a warranty claim through your carrier instead and have a phone shipped out to you. When the replacement phone arrives you send back your malfunctioning unit and then enjoy the replacement. If you were using an unlocked cell phone on AT&Ts network then AT&T would likely refer you to the cell phones manufacture for possible repair options. Warranties differ from carrier to carrier but this can be easily overlooked and is something that you may want to consider when weighing your options.
- More Commonly Available – when shopping for a cell phone most of the phones that you handle in the store are going to be intended for a specific wireless network and are going to be locked.
- No Carrier Choice – you get to choose your wireless carrier when you initially buy your phone. After that you are going to have to stick with that specific carrier.
- Contracts – you will likely need to sign a contract to get a great deal on your locked cell phone. Most contacts last for one or two years.
- Bloatware – most cell phones sold by cellular companies contain extra software pertaining to that company. These apps and programs are built into the phones software and cannot usually be uninstalled directly.
Additional information about locked and unlocked cell phones
CDMA vs. GSM
Unlocking and reprogramming a cell phone that uses the CDMA technology may not be as easy as unlocking and reusing a phone that utilizes the GSM cellular technology. CDMA phones don’t typically use SIM cards and may not allow an unlocking code from the manufacturer. Many CDMA phones have to be flashed in person to allow the phone to connect to a different wireless network as opposed to simply inserting a SIM card from a different wireless carrier like you can usually do with a GSM phone.
While on the topic of cellular technology, here in the United States CDMA and GSM are still both fairly common but for the majority of the rest of the world GSM is the dominant cellular technology and it would seem that mobile technology as a whole is heading in that direction.
Thanks for reading
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