You could be forgiven for thinking that phone contracts are like this: buying the phone right away gives you the ability to switch networks easily, while contract equipment means you are lock with supplier.
While that’s true to an extent, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A locked phone will prevent you from using your minutes, messages, and data with your new SIM, but when your contract expires, you’re free to do as you please.
In the UK, networks are no longer allowed to sell locked handsets. The UK’s communications regulator Ofcom has introduced a new set of rules preventing any network from being allowed to sell unlocked phones, effective December 2021.
However, if you bought your phone before that deadline, there’s still a chance that it’s still locked.
Just to clarify, we are referring to phones that can be locked to specific service providers. If you’ve been locked out of your device by forgetting your password, PIN, or swipe gesture, check out our guide here.
Is it legal to unlock your phone?
If you’ve completed paying for your contract, it’s perfectly legal to unlock your phone. The same goes for any phone you bought outright.
However, if you’re still in the process of paying your original contract, you don’t technically own the phone yet, which means that unlocking your phone for other carriers may not be possible. available until the end of the contract. Some service providers may have nothing against it, but it’s definitely worth checking before you start the process.
Before proceeding, you should be 100% sure that your phone is locked. Check out our dedicated guide to learn how.
How to unlock your phone
Unlocking a phone can be surprisingly easy when you know how.
1. You need to first contact your provider and request an unlock. This should be the original network, not the network of the new SIM you are trying to use.
2. Once you have confirmed that your phone is unlocked by your carrier, you can power off your phone, insert a new SIM card into the SIM card slot, and turn the phone back on.
3. Now try to make a call to find out if the unlock was successful or not. If you can connect a phone call over the new network, then the unlock feature is already active. If not, contact your network provider again for further assistance.
If you don’t have the original SIM card, you may need to reset your phone before you can unlock it.
Taking a closer look at step-by-step, we’ve listed each of the popular UK network providers to help you learn how to unlock your phone. Find your carrier from the list below and follow the instructions provided.
Visit EE’s phone unlock page
To unlock your EE phone, you must be the account holder of the device and the phone number, have used the device for at least six months, have paid the update bill, and have not reported the device as lost or stolen steal.
While EE used to charge a fee to unlock certain handsets, such as those still on contract, it now unlocks any device for free. The only thing you need is your phone’s IMEI number, which you can usually find on the original packaging or discover it by dialing *#06* on your phone’s keypad.
EE aims to unlock your phone instantly, but it can take up to seven days in some cases.
You can learn more about how to unlock your EE phone and contact EE directly by clicking here.
Giffgaff is a bit unusual in that it offers an ‘unlocking dictionary’ that you can use to search your phone’s make and model to learn how to unlock it.
You’ll find the Giffgaff unlocked dictionary here.
O2 will unlock your phone anytime for free. However, you will need to continue to pay for your contract until it ends.
O2 says that the easiest way to do that is to use My O2 Online or the My O2 app, and the network provides more detailed instructions here.
Phones purchased through Sky must be unlocked, so you won’t need to contact the company to unlock your phone. Try your new SIM instead and it should work.
If you’re using an iPhone, you may need to go to Settings > Cellular Data > Cellular Data Options > Cellular Data Network > Reset Settings.
If you have a phone with Tesco Mobile, it will be unlocked for free whether you’re on contract or not.
You just need to submit an unlock request and have your IMEI number ready.
It can take up to seven days to unlock your phone on Tesco Mobile.
Three has an online unlock available, but if you purchased your phone from Three after January 1, 2014, your device will be unlocked.
Most Virgin Mobile phones are unlocked, so you should have no trouble here. Just try a new SIM card and it should work without requiring any further action.
You will be able to use Vodafone’s online unlock request form. It may take up to 10 business days to receive the unlock code from the company. You also need to keep your invoices up to date.
Use a third-party unlocking service
We always recommend checking with your network provider before using a third-party unlocking service, but sometimes it can be much quicker and easier.
It’s important to watch out for third-party unlocking services that cost customers extra at the end of the process, so be sure to read the fine print before handing over money.
We’ve tried and tested Doctor SIM, which promises a refund if the unlock fails, and hasn’t surprised us with any hidden fees. It may be an option if you have tried the methods listed above.
We don’t recommend paying anything more than £25 to have your phone unlocked. If someone is trying to charge you more than that, they are trying their luck.
If you have multiple phones, you may also need our guide on how to unlock iPhone.
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