/ Technology

Pat and Rob on the case for free mobile unlocking

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In under two weeks, more than 17,500 people have signed our petition to Unlock Better Mobile Deals. We don’t think handsets should be locked to a network after you’ve left – here’s Pat and Rob to explain why.

You shouldn’t be locked into contracts that aren’t right for you, and one problem is that when your contract comes to an end you’re left with a phone that’s locked to your network. We think handsets should be unlocked automatically at the end of your contract, for free. If you’re not convinced that this needs to happen, I’d like to share two stories with you.

‘I basically feel like I have been used’

The first story comes from our supporter Pat, who first commented in 2013:

Pat‘I left T-Mobile two months ago. I was not told at the time that the phone needs unlocking or what I should do to unlock it. They are now refusing to unlock it as obviously I am not an active customer. I cannot use it, I cannot sell it unless they’re a T-Mobile customer, so I am losing money.

‘I think they should have automatically unlocked it when I left or at least tell me it needs doing so I could have requested it then and there. I was with them for four years, always paid on time and never cause them any issues. I basically feel like I have been used.’

The majority of mobile users agree, with eight in 10 telling us that handsets should be unlocked automatically when contracts end.

‘Effectively a charge to prevent me from switching’

Rob had a similar experience with his pay-as-you-go (PAYG) EE phone:

Rob‘EE/Orange have just asked me to pay £20.54 to unlock a PAYG phone. I bought it in December for my wife as a present. At the time I was told we had to have the phone for three months before they would unlock it.

‘This is effectively a charge to prevent me from switching supplier. If, for example, BT were to do this, should I want to switch to another landline supplier, it would not be allowed.

‘EE Customer Services originally told me that they would send me an unlock code via email within 20 working days. I topped up my account with them over the phone at the time as there wasn’t enough money in my account to pay for it to be unlocked. After taking the extra money I said that the account would still be a few pence short. They assured me that this didn’t matter.

‘A month later, I called them back. They said it was because I had less than the £20.42 in the account. They told me they would credit the account as it was only a few pence short and I would receive an unlock code within 10 days. I didn’t.

‘Two weeks later I called again. The person from Customer Services apologised and passed me on to a manager. He said, once again, that they hadn’t sent an unlock code as there wasn’t enough in my account. I offered to pay the extra few pence there and then. He declined saying he would credit my account and I would receive an unlocking code within 20 working days. I mentioned that this is what had happened on 11 June. He apologised and reiterated the 20 working days.’

Rob finally got his EE phone unlocked three months and three days after originally asking the company to do so. And on that point, we think all PAYG phones should be sold unlocked from the get go.

Do you think phones should be unlocked automatically, for free? Sign our petition, and if you’ve had a similar experience to either Pat or Rob, let rip below.


I don’t think any phone should be locked. Consumers should pay a fair price for the phone and be able to use it on any network.

I am also opposed to manufacturers selling cheap printers and charging a fortune for ink.

I agree. Consumers should pay the going price for the phone and pay separately for 1-month SIM-only contracts. There is no need for phones to be subsidised. If consumers can’t afford the upfront price of the phone, they should save up or get a loan. The only purpose of subsidised phones is to encourage consumers to buy phones that they cannot truly afford.

Jeff Richardson says:
11 June 2014

Fine words, I’m sure; but, as everyone knows and many persons would acknowledge, The Consumer always goes for the deal with the lowest up-front cost and then tries to find ways of cutting the running costs afterwards, even if that means moaning about having been ‘conned.’ There is no bigger con-man that Joe Public, himself. Offer him a quality product, at full-price, and he will walk. He always wants something for nothing; and certainly not to be told the truth.

We are a good thirty-years down this route, and, if Joe Public really wanted what you say you want, they would never have stopped making the Russell Hobbs K2 Kettle; the Mercedes W124-series E-Class motor car and knee-length fell-walkers raincoats.

In some jurisdictions (eg, France) locking is prohibited as anti-competitive. Ofcom should take a string line on this. It makes switching difficult. It allows the original network to build in functionality that may not transfer to another network. As NFH says, the consumer would be better off buying a handset on credit rather tan paying for it through a rental deal. All this does is muddy the property rights regarding the handset and the ‘line rental’. A credit deal would also give protection under s75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

DerekP says:
27 June 2014

I agree too. I like to separate the costs of my phone contract from my costs of phone ownership.

New phones are available from prices of £4 upwards so it is easy to buy a new phone if an old one is locked to the wrong network and cannot be unlocked.

Peter M says:
20 July 2014

Sorry, but I have a fundamental disagreement with the argument that someone should perhaps use a loan to fund a “top of the line” phone. The charges people pay during a contract are generally covering both airtime and the phone.

Over 24 months they might total (say) £750, of which (say) £500 is to cover the cost of the phone, the rest cover the charges for voice calls, texts, and data. If they were taking a loan for that £500 over 2 years, and paying an APR of (say) 10% (or using a credit card, where it might be 20% or more), then the phone would have cost either £550 or £600.

While I can understand the wish for a phone to be unlocked, and some networks now do this free (or buying an upgrade at some stores provides a customer with an unlocked phone), I don’t see any strong reason to “insist” on there being no option but to buy the phone outright, in the way you suggest, and it would lead to many spending more overall, because of the interest paid for finance.

Are you really of the opinion that the existing option, of paying over 12, 18 or 24 months for a phone be scrapped ?

Seems a bit ‘elitist’ if the only way someone could get an iPhone, for example, was to pay up front for the cost of one of those (rather expensive) phones…

While there are some ‘budget’ Android phones in the £100-£150 price band, with 4G, and so forth, I doubt there will be any ‘budget’ Apple iPhones in a similar price band, in the near future, or possibly ‘ever’.

Peter M says:
20 July 2014

comment above was a response to that of NFH

I agree with NFH about not buying what you cannot afford, so the suggestion that you could get a loan to buy the phone seems a bit odd.

No-one needs an expensive phone, so buy a cheaper one or buy a secondhand one. People who are in debt can get into serious problems and be exploited.

I may be missing something. If you pay full price for a phone then you should be free to use that on any network. If you are on a contract that provides a subsidised phone, then I consider the phone is their property. If you leave the contract you should have the option of paying an extra cost to cover the full price of the phone, or return it. Please put me straight! All my phones are PAYG with Tesco and I’ve had no need to change.

A mobile phone contract is not like leasing a car. YOU own the phone and YOU are responsible for it. If it doesn’t work that’s your problem not their’s. If the phone were the network’s property, it would say so, require you to insure it and so on and with the possibility of buying it at the end of the agreement. The unlocking charge is buried in the small print of the contract and the precise magnitude of that charge buried in an obscure corner of the web site. In effect it is the sort of undeclared end of contract payment that would breach regulations on the transparency of credit or leasing agreements. It is time Which? took a hard look at mobile phone contracts and put pressure on Ofcom to secure a reform.

Peter M says:
20 July 2014

OK, while the phone isn’t their property, it has often been provided at a lower cost than an unlocked phone available for use on any network.

I think distinctions need to be made between PAYG and contract phones, too – with a reduced cost PAYG phone, I’d accept a charge of (say) £10 to £15 but no more.

However, if I’d been paying £x per month for N months, then I’d think the phone should be unlocked free of charge, even before the end of the 12 / 18 / 24 months. (It doesn’t stop the contract terms, ie you’d still have to continue paying the £x each month, but would allow the customer an opportunity to sell the phone and buy an alternative, because it may be the case they want something better half way through a 24 month contract…

Like so many things we have to contend with as ‘customers’ (how I dislike that term ‘consumer’, it’s far too passive!) the legislative and regulatory landscape in the UK is confused and open to many interpretations and assumptions. I believe that what we really need is clarity from the start and then competent regulation and adjudication with competent and courageous advocates and representatives to back up the system.

We have a few elements of these things but generally the situation is a mess. We urgently need to address the problems of weak regulation which are at the heart of many issues we find on these forums.

We pay for these wet lettuces, it’s time for a change. In my opinion it is time that the organisations that represent our interests were a tad more robust in their approach. having taken on the Telcos and won an apology and compensation over the cashback scandal of three or four years ago I know that the conciliatory approach simply doesn’t work.

The CEO of EE will recognise that ‘consumers’ are generally an inert bunch and will laugh at the few bleatings that penetrate his office secure in the knowledge that all the Telcos are as bad an in a saturated market the numbers simply ‘churn’ . . . We can’t be changing provider all the time so it really is time the Regulator got a grip on basic elements of the contracts.

Rob’s story about EE chimes with my experience – delays and misinformation. Previously I have had Nokia phones unlocked by a man with a lap top on a market stall. No questions asked. All I had to provide was a security code. £10 – £15 on the spot! Last time I was told that Nokias had become too complicated. The process would tie up his lap top for hours and success was not guaranteed. I have a contract. I was not aware that locking extends to PAYG. Which? needs to push Ofcom to take a strong line on this. Locking is anti-competitive and the contracts in which it is set out contrary to the Consumer Contacts Regulaions.

Peter M says:
20 July 2014

While I accept the frustration and time delay should not have happened (Rob’s experience), and further, that EE (which is using the rule that was in place at Orange beforehand) over the “3 months as a customer” being unnecessarily restrictive, I don’t see any reason to ‘outlaw’ phone locking, but can see it could be made far easier to achieve unlocking, and at lower cost, or for free when part way through a contract.

I have a number of phones still locked to different networks, and appreciate it can be a bit of a problem, but find it quite a surprise that so many comments (if not the public) feel that there’s something so bad about network locking being done…

I may be in the minority in there comments, but if you told the bulk of the public they’d have to save around £450 to £650 for some of the latest phones, and that 2 years later (when their SIM Only deal came up for renewal, and they might be looking at changing network and/or phone), that they’d again need to have £450-£650 to switch phone, I think there’d be many who would hate the suggesting of only ever having unlocked phones and paying full price with no way to spread the cost.