Now that it’s legal, here’s how to unlock your phone on all four U.S. carriers

After you’ve finished up with a two-year smartphone contract, one of the easiest ways to save money is to keep your old device and bring it to a compatible carrier with a lower monthly cost. But if your device is carrier locked — and if you bought it on contract from one of the big four carriers, it probably is — you’ll need to unlock it first.
Last week Congress passed a bill that requires carriers to unlock eligible devices, although the carriers were already doing that voluntarily in some situations. On Friday, August 1, Barack Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law.
So now that’s it’s officially legal, how do you go about unlocking your smartphone?
Read next: In February 2015, additional rules went into effect that protect consumers looking to unlock their phones. More information here

First things first…

Unlocking a phone from a wireless carrier isn’t an instantaneous process. Sometimes unlocking a device can take several phone calls and hours (up to two days, according to CTIA guidelines.) If you’re taking your device overseas, I recommend you start the process at least a week in advance.
I would also recommend unlocking your phone before you leave your current carrier. After all, once you’re no longer a customer, there isn’t the same customer service incentive to help you through the process, as my colleague Jeff Roberts found out last year when he brought his AT&T iPhone to T-Mobile.
Before you make the call to your carrier, gather some information:

  • The account holder’s name and account number
  • The account holder’s social security number (they’ll ask you for the last four digits) or password
  • The IMEI of your device — often found underneath the battery cover, it can also be accessed through software on either an iPhone(s appl) or Android(s goog) handset.
  • The phone number of your device
  • Your overseas deployment papers if you’re requesting an unlock before your contract is up and you’re in the military
  • Most importantly: Make sure your contract is finished. Carriers aren’t required to unlock your device if you’ve still got months on your plan.

Here’s how you should approach the unlocking process depending on which carrier you currently use.

AT&T(s t)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? It needs to be a device from a current AT&T customer or a former customer, and you’ll need to verify that with either a phone number or account number. The device will need to have been paid for in full and not reported lost or stolen. AT&T customers can unlock up to five devices per account per year.
Caveats: Your unlock code comes in through your email, and can take a few days to arrive. Check your spam folder. Officially, AT&T doesn’t do SIM unlocks over the phone; instead, it funnels all requests to an online form, which is a good system until it isn’t.
Can I unlock it online? Yup, just plug in your IMEI number right here.
What’s the best phone number? Customer support can be reached at 1-800-331-0500 but the web form is your best bet.
Where’s the official documentation? Here.
Alternate carriers or prepaid MVNOs: Straight Talk, AT&T’s GoPhone, and T-Mobile are the biggest names offering plans for GSM devices. Other options include H20 Wireless, Ultra Mobile, Net10, LycaMobile, Spot Mobile, Telcel America, GIV Mobile, Simple Mobile, Red Pocket, and Pure Talk.

Verizon(s v)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible?  Here’s a list of Verizon devices sold with an unlocked SIM slot. Verizon uses the CDMA network in the United States, but many of its devices also include an unlocked SIM slot. This means most Verizon phones — including all LTE devices — aren’t locked. Unlike Sprint, the SIM slot on Verizon iPhones comes unlocked.
Caveats: While you can use SIM-equipped Verizon phones on AT&T, T-Mobile and other GSM carriers, unless the device has roaming GSM radios it won’t be able to make phone calls or send texts in the United States. Most recent Verizon phones will work on American GSM bands, but LTE support can be a mixed bag depending on your device.
In the past, Verizon has sold a small number of phones described as “Global Ready 3G.” Often older phones — think Blackberrys — with a SIM slot come locked.
Can I unlock it online? Verizon currently doesn’t have an online unlock request form.
What’s the best phone number? Call 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock.
Where’s the official documentation? Here.
Alternate carriers or prepaid MVNOs: PagePlus operates a prepaid plan on Verizon’s network, and you can use most modern (LTE) SIM-equipped Verizon phones on AT&T, T-Mobile, and other GSM carriers, although LTE support will depend on your specific device. Verizon also offers a prepaid plan, which recently got LTE support.

Sprint(s s)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? You’ll need to have an account with Sprint, verified either through an account number or a phone number. The account needs to be in good standing, and the phone can’t be reported or lost and stolen. Sprint does unlock devices for short overseas trips. If you’re an active member of the U.S. Military deployed overseas, you can request an unlock from Sprint, although the same caveats (good standing, account with Sprint) still apply.
Caveats: If you’ve got a Sprint iPhone, you’re probably out of luck. From Sprint’s legal unlocking policy:

Sprint-branded iPhones have been manufactured in a way that prevents them from being unlocked to allow the device to activate on a different carrier’s network in the United States.

While Sprint uses radios that make it difficult to use its devices on other CDMA and LTE networks, almost all Sprint spectrum resellers are free to activate unlocked Sprint phones.
If you’re using a Sprint prepaid affiliate, like Virgin or Boost, Sprint currently cannot unlock those devices. Supposedly help is on its way — as these policies are in violation of the CITA’s unlocking agreement, new, more consumer-friendly policies should be in place by February 11, 2015.
Can I unlock it online? Yes, through an online chat with a customer service representative.
What’s the best phone number? Call 1-888-211-4727, or *2 from a Sprint device.
Where’s the official documentation? Here.
Alternative prepaid carriers: Ting, iWirelessVoyagerFreedomPop, ROK Mobile, Sprint Prepaid

T-Mobile(s tmus)

How can I tell if my phone is eligible? Your device needs to meet four conditions: it must be a T-Mobile device, not reported as lost or stolen, associated with an account in good standing, and users can’t request more than two mobile device unlocks in the span of a year. If the device is paid for through an installment plan, it must be paid in full.
Caveats: If you have a smartphone on a T-Mobile prepaid plan, you need to have made at least $100 in refills.
Can I unlock it online? Yes, you can engage in a live chat that can unlock your device.
What’s the best phone number? 1-877-746-0909 or 611 from a T-Mobile device.
Where’s the official documentation? Here.
Alternative prepaid MVNOs: AT&T GoPhone and Straight Talk. Other options include H20 Wireless, Ultra Mobile, Net10, LycaMobile, Spot Mobile, Telcel America, GIV Mobile, Simple Mobile, Red Pocket, and Pure Talk.
This post has been updated to include the fact that President Barack Obama signed the cell phone unlocking bill on August 1.