Unlocking Your Phone

It has been a long time coming, but a few of the more benevolent phone companies (God bless Apple) are finally beginning to release readily unlocked models capable of supporting a SIM card of your choosing from the outset. If you aren't lucky enough to have one of them, then this article is for you.

With no-frills packages for basic mobile use proving increasingly elusive among the big networks, and upstarts like giffgaff setting in motion something of a mini-revival in the pay-as-you-go market, lifting SIM restrictions from your mobile can afford you a much wider array of choice when it comes to choosing the best deal. An unlocked phone will also command a larger fee if you're looking to sell up, and failing that, at least make for a better gift if you are passing it on to a friend or family member.

It's tempting to accept your fate as life-long Vodafone or 02 customer, deterred from jumping ship by the potential headache that comes with the unlocking process. However, it is probably much easier, and more importantly, cheaper than you think (though the cliches about it taking a while are unfortunately true; waiting periods can tally in the weeks). Generally your best bet is getting your hands on a unique unlock code, which - after providing some basic details re: phone ownership to prove it has not been stolen - you then simply punch into your device to lift any built-in network restrictions. Inevitably, this option is not supported by some older phones, for which you will have to go to a specialist or buy an expensive USB cable in order to complete the process.

Though they aren't exactly shouting it from the rooftops, some networks do hand out codes free of charge on a selection of models, so before you start looking at paid options ensure you have checked that yours doesn't qualify. If it doesn't, don't panic: the fees vary depending on the network and model but you can expect to pay no more than £20, which is marginally down from what you might have paid a few years ago - not that we're condoning what is a fairly cynical industry practice.

As is so often the case, it is Apple who are - if slowly - starting to buck this trend. iPhones released within the last year or so can be bought without any SIM restrictions, and in some cases, earlier models can be unlocked without a fee, though this offer usually stipulates that existing contractual commitments must first be fulfilled. If you're with Three, and purchased your iPhone from 2014 onwards, then there are no such caveats; you're free to unlock your device by simply hooking it up to iTunes.

Unless you strike it lucky and happen to qualify for a free unlock, there is no obvious answer to the question of whether your investment will prove worthwhile. It all hinges on how often and for what purpose you use your mobile phone - so make sure you crunch the numbers first. As a general rule, if you are downsizing from a premium annual contract to a more flexible PAYG deal then you will likely make some significant savings, but if you are merely switching from one big network to another then you might be better served simply buying an upgraded model without any SIM restrictions; spending £20 to service a £30 model doesn't represent much value for money.

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