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Tech tips for travel #24 - The ultimate guide on how to unlock your phone

Having an unlocked phone or wifi hotspot is one of the most important things to do BEFORE travelling overseas if you are planning to use a roaming SIM card or local SIM card.

I like to think of the three golden rules of buying a SIM card, whether it be a New Zealand SIM, US SIM, Japan SIM, Europe SIM, or Australian prepaid SIM card, as the following:

1. Know thy SIM size
2. Have thy phone unlocked
3. Knoweth the APN settings for thy SIM/network

So today I' going to cover a few of the basics on unlocking your device.

What does it mean that my phone is 'locked'?

Basically sometimes networks/carriers (ie the big bad Telco companies), 'lock' some of the devices they sell so you can't put a SIM card in from anyone else other then them unless you unlock the device. They do this for obvious reasons of stopping you from spending your hard earned cash with anyone else but them. It originates from the practice of selling at a cheaper price upfront on the initial purchase, in an effort to have you only use that device on their plans where they can recoup their 'subsidy' of the device later on down the track.

ie Device costs $150, but they sell it for $100 instead, then hope to keep you using their plan for at least 10 months where they 'allocate' $5 profit of the monthly fee to recuperating the initial subsidy.

Lots of industries and companies do this, from game console manufacturers (xbox et al), to Amazon. They sell the hardware at small profit, break even, or at loss, only to get you in their 'shop' to spend money on games, apps, ebooks and the like!

They don't want you to then go off spending your money using that device with someone else.
Especially in the case of roaming overseas and spending $40 on an international SIM prepaid cardloaded with data and calls, instead of $5,000 on their data roaming fees :-)

Why unlock my phone?

Unlocking your phone provides quite a few benefits:
1. It gives you the flexibility to use a local or roaming SIM card overseas & save significant money.
2. You can also use that device with an alternative (better value!) carrier in your home country.
3. Unlocking your device significantly improves the resale value and attractiveness to other people when you go to sell it. Mostly because of points 1. & 2.

What happens when I put a different SIM in my locked phone?

Most of the time when you put a SIM in a phone that is locked, it simply won't connect to the network. For example your phone is locked to the Australian carrier Telstra, you buy a AT&T prepaid SIM card and have it activated with credit applied and ready to go when you land in LA or New York. You pop it in the phone, turn it on, wait a few minutes for the device to connect and you get no network signal. 100% of the time I have seen this happen, the phone isn't unlocked.

Some times for devices like hotspots, and even some phones, a message will pop-up on the screen saying something to the effect of 'SIM lock'.

Things to remember:
- Only works in that country; Sometimes SIMs will only connect in the country they are destined to be used in eg Japan SIMs or AT&T prepaid SIMs can't be used outside their home country (well Mexico and Canada are exception for AT&T, but the roaming rates are expensive).

- Network coverage; your phone won't connect if there isn't any signal/coverage. For example you turn your phone on in the middle of nowhere, and there isn't any reception or signal from any network, it doesn't mean your phone is locked :-)

- Unlocked but not synced; More on this below in the section on Apple and iPhones, but sometimes you can request the carrier to unlock your phone, but it won't fully process until you connect the device to Apples database and it synchronises/registers that an unlock has been processed - see more below.

- Being out of contract, doesn't mean your phone is unlocked; just because you are out of contract with the carrier (ie you bought the phone 3 years ago), that doesn't automatically unlock your phone. It needs to be done in their system!

- Test unlocking with a different SIM, but!; The most effective way of testing if your phone is unlocked is popping in a SIM from an alternative carrier (that you know has coverage where you are doing this test!). There is a 'catch' with this method however, in that you should make sure the alternative carrier truly is a different network! 

What I mean here is that for example in Australia, 'virtual operators' such as AMAYSIM, TPG, or Virgin all use the Optus network (known as an MVNO agreement - see full list here), and sometimes* you can put one of these SIMs in an locked Optus phone, and it will work no problem. This doesn't verify your phone is unlocked, it must be from another network.
* I say sometimes, because it can depend on a range of factors, I won't go into that here. 

So, what can I do to unlock my device?
OK, so I've established my phone is locked, now what do I do!

First step is to contact who you bought it from.
Normally this will be when you have bought a phone on a contract/plan from a Telco operator, but even some prepaid phones are locked too.
Find their contact number or live chat service on their website and get in touch, and explain you are going overseas and you would like to; 
a) check if your phone is locked, and 
b) to know if they could unlock it for you
They will probably try to talk you out of unlocking your phone, as they don't want to lose you!

It is getting more common for carriers to sell their latest model and expensive phones (such as iPhones within the last year or two), already unlocked. It is still a good idea to double check and also test it is unlocked, as this varies greatly from country to country and network to network! From experience, don't just believe what they tell you, test it for yourself to be sure!

I think partly, some of the big networks in Australia got sick of the barrage of complaints and hassle they were getting from customers to unlock their phones, they started not locking certain lines.

If your phone is locked, the carrier may:
i) unlock it for you for a fee, or 
ii) sometimes unlock it for free, OR 
iii) they might refuse to (or charge an unlocking fee of more than the phone is worth, to effectively dissuade you from unlocking it with them).

For Australia - the following carrier links may be useful:
Please always check direct with your carrier.

- Telstra; Online unlocking service for iPhones/iPads

- Vodafone; Self service unlocking

- Optus; online unlocking
> Optus also have a guide on whether your device needs unlocking here

Alternative unlocking services
There is some alternatives to doing it with the carrier if they are going to charge a big fee or won't do it! There are a bunch of unlocking services that exist on the web. Some are less reputable than others, so it pays to choose wisely!
FreeUnlocks is one such service I've personally used before.
They have two options for getting your phone unlocked:
1) Pay a small fee for the unlock code (depends on device model, carrier etc) - but costs ~ around $10, although can be higher depending on the device. And yes, these codes cost to be generated, so there is always going to be some transaction value.

2) Use the 'Trial Pay' alternative, which basically  completing an offer or transaction (giving you a trial or download of a product), so you don't pay anything, but still get your unlock code. Effectively this is just using a trial/advertising of products from a bunch of companies (including  some well known ones apparently) to pay for the code to be supplied. From their website "The company works with online merchants in the software, social applications, casual games, online services and retail industries".

I didn't use the free 'Trial Pay' method, but it seems they have lots of satisfied customers who did.
I think at the end of the day, pay upfront if you want, or otherwise use the 'Trial Pay' if you please.

I found FreeUnlocks clear, quick, and concise in the process of buying and supplying the unlock code. They also supplied clear instructions of the process to unlock my device which is very important.

Also note, whilst most devices can be unlocked (and they have an extensive database as I have seen anywhere), on the odd occasion they may not be able to process an unlock for you and they refund you. Apparently get in touch with them if your specific device isn't on their main list as they will quickly work out if they can.

What is required to unlock a phone?
The most important bit of info is the IMEI number of your phone.
This is like a unique serial number for your phone, from which the unique unlock code for that IMEI is produced to unlock your device.You can get the IMEI to display on screen by typing in *#06# into you keypad/phone

Important for Apple users
Apple iPhone users note; If the network unlocks your iPhone, it is a good idea to sync with iTunes (version 7.7 or greater) after unlocking. Note that devices running iOS 6 can be unlocked without using iTunes, and it is always a very good idea to ‘backup’ your phone before syncing- right-click your phone in iTunes and select ‘back-up’.

For Apple users with iOS6 and above, you should be able to "Sign In" to your Apple account in the iTunes app (pre installed on all iPhones..purple in colour), by opening the app and scrolling to the bottom and signing in with your Apple ID.

Attempts to unlock

Some phones and device only have a limited amount of times an unlock can be attempted.
Most times it is 10 attempts, however Nokia phones only takes up to 3 incorrect attempts before it will be HARD lock, so be very careful!

Also a common confusion is between unlocking and unblocking.
Unlocking: unlocks your mobile phone so that you can use different Service Provider of your choice.
Unblocking: this is ILLEGAL, this is a process of making the phone usable again after it has been reported by the Network Provider as lost or stolen. This should not be attempted.

What have I missed here? Let me know and I will update with your suggestions!

Written by Peter Cain

Peter Cain is the Founder and CEO of, a company committed to making it easier and cheaper to stay connected whilst travelling. You can find him on Twitter and Google+. You can also find dataGO on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Google+ for all the latest info on local and roaming SIMs and data hotspots.

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