Up until recently it was completely fine to unlock your cell phone for use on a third-party carrier’s network. But that changed on Jan. 26 when a new law went into effect in the U.S. banning that practice. This means that if you buy a new cell phone intended for use on a particular carrier, it will be illegal to unlock it for use on another carrier.
Why the legal change? When you buy a phone through a particular carrier, its price is subsidized by your future use on that carrier’s network. Essentially, the carrier was betting that your usage charges over the life of your contract would outstrip the price of the phone. A pretty safe wager.
Previously, however, it was legal to unlock your phone — with the help of that carrier, a rival carrier, a third-party service provider or yourself, if you searched online for the unlocking code from the phone’s manufacturer — for you to use it on another carrier’s network. This wasn’t always permissible under the terms of the contract with your cell phone carrier. But say, for instance, your contract was up and you wanted to use your Sprint phone when you switched over to Verizon. That was fine. And unlocking your phone was particularly handy if you wanted to use it abroad.
But those days of carefree unlocking are over.
Of course, some phones, like the new iPhone 5, come unlocked from some carriers, but such devices are far more expensive precisely because their costs aren’t subsidized by carrier contracts.
Also, keep in mind that unlocking your phone is different than jailbreaking it. That process usually involves using a bug in the software to force the device to run non-standard (read: third-party) apps. Jailbreaking can give you access to a wider range of apps and operating systems, but it also can open you up to attacks from mobile malware.
There is a silver lining: The new law applies to phones purchased after the law took effect. If you have an old phone you want to unlock for use on a different carrier you can probably still do that — provided doing so doesn’t violate the terms of your service contract and that your new service provider actually can support your old phone. But going forward, it will be illegal to unlock a new phone.
That doesn’t mean that a lot of tech savvy mobile users won’t keep doing it; it just means that now they can be punished for it.