Mobile phone locking and unlocking

Locked mobileMobile handsets are sometimes 'locked' to the network from which the handset is purchased. This means the handset will usually only work when used with that particular provider.

If you want to switch to a different provider but keep your existing handset, you may need to get it unlocked.

You may also need to get your handset unlocked if you want to use a local SIM card in your handset when travelling abroad to avoid roaming charges.

Will my handset be locked when I buy it?

Handset locking policies can differ from provider to provider or can depend on the type of device and package being sold to you.

The table below gives you advice on what you can expect if you purchase a handset directly from your mobile provider.

Mobile providers' current handset locking policies

Provider

Customer type

Does the provider lock handsets to its network?

EE, Orange, T-Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Yes

Pay-monthly

O2

Pay-as-you-go

Yes

Pay-monthly

Usually 1

Tesco Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Usually1

Pay-monthly

Certain handsets 2

Three

Pay-as-you-go

No 3

Pay-monthly

Virgin Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

Usually 4

Pay-monthly

No

Vodafone

Pay-as-you-go

Yes 5

Pay-monthly

1 A small proportion of smartphones may not be locked.
2 Some smartphones are sold locked, and pay-monthly handsets that are also available on PAYG tariffs are sold locked.
3 All new phones supplied to Three since 1 December 2013 have been sold to consumers unlocked. Prior to this date handsets were sold locked to the network.
4 Certain smartphones are sold unlocked.
5 All handsets have been sold locked since July 2013.

How do I find out if my existing handset is locked?

You can find out whether your handset is locked by asking your mobile phone provider, or by trying a different network SIM card in it.

If you get a message that indicates there is a problem and you cannot make calls, it's possible that your phone may be locked.

How do I get my handset unlocked?

If your handset is locked you can ask your provider to unlock it for you. Phones reported as lost or stolen will not be unlocked.

Mobile providers have different policies and processes for unlocking phones. For example, some will only unlock your mobile phone after a certain period of time has passed and will charge a fee, while some will unlock your phone at any time for free.

Some handsets can be unlocked relatively quickly, for example most providers unlock iPhones within three days. For other handsets, unlocking may take longer, particularly if your provider has to contact the handset manufacturer to get the unlocking code. This is often the case for older handsets.

You may wish to unlock your handset after you have left your provider. All the providers listed in the table provide this service, as long as the request to unlock is made by the former account holder of the handset.

The table below sets out the current mobile phone unlocking policies of the major mobile providers.

It shows the charges you may have to pay, the maximum time you can expect the unlocking process to take (for some handsets, the time taken to unlock may be considerably less than the estimated maximum) and whether the request to unlock can be made online.


Provider

Customer type

Point at which phone can be unlocked

Charges

Time required to unlock

Unlock code request form available online

EE, Orange,

T-Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

6 months after activation1

£20.42

Up to 10 calendar days

Yes

Pay-monthly

After 6 months in contract

O2

Pay-as-you-go

12 months after activation1

£15

Up to 10 working days

Yes

Pay-monthly

At anytime

No charge

Tesco Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

At anytime

£20 if phone activated less than 12 months ago.
No charge if phone activated more than 12 months ago.

Up to 28 calendar days

No

Pay-monthly

£20 if contract less than 12 months old.
No charge if contract more than 12 months old.

Three 2

Pay-as-you-go

At anytime

No charge

Up to 7 working days

Yes

Pay-monthly

Virgin Mobile

Pay-as-you-go

At anytime

£15.32

Up to 30 calendar days

No

Pay-monthly 3

Vodafone

Pay-as-you-go

At anytime

£19.99

Up to 10 calendar days

Yes

Pay-monthly

After 3 months in contract

No charge if contract held for more than a year.
£19.99 if contract held for less than a year.

1 Activation starts from the point when the Provider’s SIM card is inserted into the handset and switched on.
2 Prior to 1 December 2013 Three sold handsets locked to the network.
3 Virgin Mobile currently sell all pay-monthly handsets unlocked, however a small number of pay-monthly handsets sold before July 2012 may require unlocking.