Carrier-subsidized phones are remnants of a bygone era. In the old days, you’d wait anxiously until your line became eligible for an upgrade, bolting fast as you could to your carrier’s store when the moment arrived. You’d compare the newest smartphones with the help of a sales clerk, and, after picking the right color combination and accessories, fork over a few benjamins to seal the deal.
The death knell for cell phone contracts sounded earlier this year, and the process has become a little less straightforward as a result. You can still stop by your local Verizon store and buy an on-contract iPhone, of course, but a growing number of devices never actually appear on retail shelves. Instead, they’re available unlocked online, either on a payment plan or for the full retail price. This has opened up a new world of choice when it comes to smartphones, but has also introduced some complications. Some unlocked phones work on Verizon, but aren’t compatible with AT&T, for instance. Others make calls and texts perfectly well on T-Mobile, but refuse to play nicely with Sprint.
Figuring out whether an off-contract phone is compatible with your network doesn’t have to be intimidating, hower. We’ve put together a guide that lays out all you need to know.
In the simplest of terms, an “unlocked” phone is a phone that’s compatible with one or more cellular networks.
Just because a smartphone’s sold “locked” doesn’t mean it’s locked forever, though. Many cellphones previously sold “exclusively” by a carrier have been unlocked to work with another carrier, a process that wasn’t always legal in the United States. In 2012, the Library of Congress ruled that the changes necessary to unlock a smartphone constituted a violation of carriers’ copyright under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Luckily, that interpretation was superseded by the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act of 2013, which recognized unlocking as an exception to intellectual property protections.
Unlocked phones confer benefits that locked smartphones lack. They typically use a removable SIM card, or subscriber identity module, which is how some carriers know when you’re connected to the network and what services you have access to. It stores information such as your phone number, contacts, and other basic telephony, too. In theory, switching between carriers is as easy as swapping one telecom’s SIM for another.
More: The best cheap smartphone you can buy
Another advantage? Unlocked phones are sometimes cheaper, depending on the make and model, and they’re a boon for travel. You can take an unlocked iPhone 5S to Europe, slot in a pre-paid SIM card for a local network, and avoid your domestic carrier’s exorbitant roaming charges.
But just because a phone’s unlocked doesn’t mean it’ll work on your carrier. First, you need to ensure it’s compatible with your telecom’s bands. Then, you need to make sure it’ll work with your carrier’s cellular standard of choice.