Unlocked Phone Facts

Do you have a cell phone? If you do, you're in the majority. In 2011, there were more mobile phones in the United States than citizens. The ratio of phones to citizens was 103.9 percent.

If you're in the market for a new cell phone but desire something different from what your GSM phone offers, an option is an unlocked phone that's not tied to a carrier.

GSM is short for Global System for Mobile Communications. It's the world's most widely used cell phone technology. About 80 percent of users across the world use GSM technology when placing a wireless call. If you travel abroad, GSM is the international standard.

GSM phones have a card called a SIM, which stands for Subscriber Identity Model. With an unlocked phone, you can remove the SIM and put it in another unlocked phone. You won't lose your contacts or subscriber data.

The group of people interested in unlocked phones appears to be small. In 2007, during one month on eBayR, 110,000 Americans researched unlocked phones. In that same period, eBay received about 77 million queries on all topics.

Not tied to a carrier

An unlocked phone is a GSM phone not tied to a carrier. They don't work on Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) based networks. CDMA is a different cellular service and standard from GSM. If you live in the United States, you must use AT&T Wireless or T-MobileR.

A locked phone will only recognize the SIM card from a specific carrier. You can't change it whenever you'd like. The "lock" is a software setting. It keeps the cell phone married to one carrier. A locked phone benefits just the carrier.

Some cellular carriers require that you buy a locked cell phone for the contract period. They will unlock the phone when the contract expires.


There are several positives to going unlocked. For one thing, you can switch between GSM carriers and not have to purchase a new handset. If you carrier were to suddenly decide to raise its rates or change coverage, you're in luck.

An unlocked phone gives you more control over plans, pricing and services. You can move your SIM card from one device to another but avoid signing another contract with another carrier. If your device breaks or gets damaged or if you want to upgrade, you have more freedom to do so.

International roaming charges can add up. You might pay several dollars for just one minute to make a call to a foreign country. Unlocked phones mean you can travel without paying for roaming. You can buy a prepaid SIM card in the country you're visiting and pay local charges for local calls.

Buying an unlocked phone directly from a manufacturer can pose problems. Some unlocked phones are sold directly by the manufacturer. The carriers can alter the phones to fit certain requirements. They might have alternate carrier software or missing pieces of the hardware, like GPS or Wi-Fi.


The biggest disadvantage of unlocked phones is the cost. Unlocked phones can be expensive. They can easily run several hundred dollars.

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