By Frank Ling
At one time or another you’ve probably heard about devices called unlocked phones. If you’ve wondered what they are, what unlocked phones do, and where to get one, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll give you information about how much they cost, who may need one, and what the benefits of owning one are. So if you want the key to finding out what unlocked phones are all about, keep on reading!
Mobile phones that can be connected to different wireless carriers are called unlocked phones. These phones accept SIM cards from any mobile phone company as long as they operate on compatible mobile networks. About 99% of the world operates on the GSM network standard.
In the U.S. the major wireless carriers that operate on GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile, while Verizon and Sprint run on the CDMA network. All unlockable phones are GSM phones and use SIM cards, while CDMA phones do not.
On the flip-side locked phones are devices that are "locked" to only one wireless carrier and cannot be switched to another company. So if you own an AT&T locked phone, it cannot operate on T-Mobile, Verizon, or any other network except AT&T. Virtually all mobile phones sold by wireless carriers are locked.
Why use an unlocked phone?
For people who want to be free of the obligatory two-year contract with wireless carriers, unlocked phones may be the solution. When these individuals are ready to upgrade to another phone, all they have to do is purchase an unlocked phone, insert the SIM card, and they’re done; no waiting for the contract to expire.
Overseas travelers see unlocked phones as an economical way to avoid costly roaming charges. With an unlocked mobile phone, all they have to do is to purchase a SIM card at a local mobile phone store in the country they are visiting, plug it into the unlocked phone, and they can make calls on the country’s network.
Buying an unlocked phone isn’t as simple as it seems because the GSM network operates on several different frequency bands, and depending on the country you are in, some unlocked phones may or may not work.
The GSM-850 and GSM-1900 frequencies are used in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and other countries in the Americas. GSM-900 and GSM-1800 are used in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Australia, Oceania, and most of Asia.
So if you want to purchase an unlocked phone that works in your part of the world or other destinations outside of your locale, make sure it is capable of operating on the proper GSM frequencies.
Some unlocked phones will not have the same features and functionality of locked phones so be sure to check and see what works and what doesn’t.
For no frills unlocked phones the prices are quite affordable and can start as low as $30. But for models that are more popular, prices can range anywhere from $50 to well over $700 for an unlocked iPhone 4S.
Where to buy one?
Unlocked phones can be purchased from wireless carriers, large online retail stores such as Amazon.com, and specialized aftermarket mobile phone stores. If you do buy an unlocked phone, make sure the store has a valid return policy or money back guarantee.
Do you need one?
This depends on what your needs are. If you like to travel to other countries, an unlocked phone will make connecting with friends, family or vacation areas easier and more affordable.
If you like to swap your old phone for a new one every few years and don’t want to be tied down to a two-year contract, an unlocked phone may be what you are looking for.
In the long run, there is nothing that can replace careful research when shopping for an unlocked phone.
Frank Ling is the SF Gadgets Examiner. He is a writer, professional photographer, and video editor. One of his all-time favorite jobs was working at a large video game publisher.