Should you unlock your cell phone?

It’s easier than ever to unlock your cell phone. New guidelines imposed on carriers now mean that a cell phone company has to let you unlock your cell phone, as long as you do actually own it. If you’re on a payment plan then you kind of have to wait, or you have to do it yourself. But for all the coverage that there’s been on the internet about unlocking cell phones, no one has really wanted to talk about why you would want to unlock your phone.

First, let’s talk about the difference between unlocking, and jailbreaking/rooting. Jailbreaking and rooting are reallythe same thing, but jailbreaking refers to iOS phones while rooting refers to Android devices. The goal is to get access to the phone on a very low level so that you can change things that the manufacturer doesn’t want you to change. With iOS this means the ability to install unapproved apps and change settings that are otherwise impossible to change. For Android, which already allows you to install pretty much anything you want, it means total freedom to install pretty much anything you want on your phone.

Jailbreaking and rooting are really something that you should only do if you are really serious about making real changes. They’re not for regular folks. The chance that you’ll render your phone completely useless in the process of rooting it are pretty high and you’ll obviously get no help from the manufacturer in putting things back the way they ought to be.

Unlocking, on the other hand, is a much more benign process. Every carrier puts a lock on the phones they offer so that even if you’re trying to use the phone with a compatible service, you can’t. In other words, if you have an AT&T phone you can’t use it on T-Mobile even though both companies use the same technology. AT&T has put software on the phone that forces it to ignore T-Mobile cell towers. That’s perfectly legal.

On the other hand, taking that software off used to be illegal, thanks to a loophole in federal law. That loophole has been removed but carriers still have the right to deny you that unlock as long as you’re financing the phone. It’s part of that terms and conditions sheet you didn’t read before you signed.  There’s nothing from stopping you from doing it yourself…

…but then that gets back to the real question which is, “should you?” For most people an unlocked phone isn’t necessary. You’re not going to travel to another country or buy a second SIM card for use with a second carrrier. Unlocked phones fetch a little more coin on the open market but not much more since the unlocking process has become so easy now. If you are thinking about selling the phone when you are done paying for it, ask the carrier to unlock it for you. They can’t say no. Otherwise, I would say don’t bother.

That is, unless you intend to travel. One of the benefits of AT&T and T-Mobile cell phones is that they will usually work in Europe. You could technically unlock the phone and use it with a carrier there by buying a SIM card. This would be cheaper than paying international roaming charges. Truth is I still wouldn’t do this. My phone has access to a lot of personal stuff and the last thing I would want to do is bring it to a foreign country. I’d buy a burner cell phone that is designed to work where I’m traveling to and leave my regular phone at home. It’s a little more inconvenient and a little more expensive but why take a chance?

It’s up to you… what do you guys think?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.