/ Technology

Jane Bradley: hang up on costly phone unlocking

Lock and key on phone

In this guest post, Jane Bradley of The Scotsman writes about the murky world of backstreet phone unlocking. Have you ever got your phone unlocked in an independent shop to avoid your network’s high fees?

Making my way down the dingy alley, I felt like I was heading to an illegal 1950s backstreet abortion clinic.

To suspicious stares from groups of unshaven men hanging around the streets, I’d been wandering, lost for hours. I eventually located what looked like it might be the correct door and pushed it. Nothing. It was locked. To the right was a bell. I rang it and waited. Nothing. After a few minutes, a dark-browed man pushed his head around the door.
‘What do you want?’

I muttered a few words, hoping they would magically grant me entry. He grunted and considered me for a few seconds. He finally stepped aside and let me in. I explained the service I required and handed over a fistful of grubby banknotes.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the residence of Vera Drake. It was a mobile phone shop, albeit a dodgy one. What was about to be butchered wasn’t a person, but a handset. In an attempt to save cash, I had decided to take my first step into the murky world of phone unlocking.

This, to be fair, took place in eastern Europe in 2002, when I wanted to open up my UK Nokia handset to use a foreign Sim card. But the experience in Britain – and I have tried it many times – is not dissimilar.

The cost of unlocking phones

For those who’ve never tried to dodge the exorbitant fees charged by mobile phone companies to use a phone which you have already paid for probably twice over through a contract, this is how it works:

A phone is usually locked to a certain network. If, when the contract is up, you want to swap to a different provider on a Sim-only basis – or, more likely, give your handset to a loved one whose own phone has conked out halfway through a thousand-year tied-in deal – you almost certainly can’t without a struggle.

Most companies will unlock a phone, but charge a high fee to do so – up to £20.99, depending on your provider – and some take up to 28 days to perform the process. By contrast, the backstreet practitioners do so pretty much on the spot for a few quid. Mobile phone companies have us over a barrel. A report from Ofcom found that Three is the only provider which does not routinely lock mobile phones, allowing the user to freely use it with another company’s Sim whenever they like.

The refusal by other telecoms companies to do this prevents customers from easily switching companies when contracts are up – a restrictive practice the likes of which has been lambasted in other industries in recent years. Bizarrely, mobile phone companies seem to have got away with it.

And few take the backstreet route. Telecoms expert Ernest Doku of uSwitch, commenting on the story, described the ‘stigma of [unlocking] being an illegal or shady practice’. He’s right.

Wherever you are in Europe, the shops which carry out this invasive process are always a bit dingy. Confusing. Daunting. With a distinct lack of corporate reassurance. You’re never quite sure that when you return a few hours later to pick up your beloved phone, that the entire establishment won’t have evaporated into thin air, doing a moonlight flit with your lifeline to the world.

So far, that’s never happened to me, but you never know.

Unlock mobiles phones for free

There is, of course, a problem with making phones easier to unlock. Box-breaking – when handsets are bought up in large quantities, unlocked and re-sold for profit – is a real problem for mobile operators, preventing them from making any cash from the Sim cards they come with. Apparently those friendly mobile phone providers often sell handsets at a loss and need the cash from the Sims to survive. So you can see why they’re not keen on the idea.

That aside, they cannot be the only industry immune to the need to open up to competition. It is already daunting enough to have to deal with the PAC codes or MAC codes or whatever they’re called to transfer an existing number, without having to jump through expensive hoops to unlock the handset too.

Consumer group Which? has launched a campaign to make unlocking free. I’m with them on that. I can see one group of people who won’t be so delighted, though. The independent traders.

Next, there’ll be a campaign to save the backstreet dodgy mobile phone shops. If we can find them.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Jane Bradley – consumer affairs columnist at The Scotsman. The piece originally appeared on The Scotsman. All opinions expressed here are Jane’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


Bit over the top regarding dingy backstreet shops to unlock your phone.
Most of the ones I know and have used are very nice long standing phone shop business’s.

DerekP says:
21 August 2014

I agree entirely with this observation.

Tink says:
22 August 2014

Agree, this is a bit over the top and a recollection from 2002!!! It was different back then the market was no where near as developed as it is now and processes have got easier.

It’s hardly difficult to unlock a handset to be honest, so you have to pay it’s not much and to a point already made, yes sometimes handsets are subsidised. You only get a £400 handset with your contract because operators have to make the money back on the cost of buying the handset in the first place, so it’s not ridiculous to think they need to make that cost back, it’s business!

The best way to overcome the hassles of locked phones is to pay a reasonable cost for the phone and let people switch to which network they want to use at any time. What we have at the moment is as daft as it would be if car dealers insisted we use a particular brand of petrol.

The reason some phones are locked is that you are getting a handset that would usually cost hundreds of pounds for just a few pounds or sometimes for free. The phone supplier will make the money back in the contract fees , so if you unlock the phone and start using another suppliers sim card the original company will not get back the cost of the handset.

Nigel says:
23 August 2014

I don’t quite aree with this – the phone is not cheap or free – you are effectively buying it on credit. The price of the phone is built into your monthly contract price. If you look at what you pay per month and then compare it with a sim only deal, yo’ll probably be horrified at just how much you are really paying.

I agree with you. I bought a Nexus 5 SIM-free, then obtained a Three 3-2-1 PAYG SIM. As a low-user, I pay very little and am perfectly happy that, having bought my phone outright, I now pay only for what I want to use and, what is more, most of my downloading is via free Wi-Fi. Also, I can change suppliers as often as I want although, having said that, I am very happy with Three’s 3-2-1 deal and have yet to find anything remotely as good.

DerekP says:
21 August 2014

To avoid all this hassle:

1. Go to your phone vendor of choice (mine’s Argos)…

2. Get a nice cheap unlocked phone…

3. Get a nice cheap sim-free contract from your favourite company (mine’s Tesco Mobile)…

3. Keep the phone that you own and change contract as often as you want.


John says:
23 August 2014

nah, that’s too simple let alone rational 🙂

They make the money back from the contract whether you unlock it or not.

A large number of contract phones now come unlocked anyway, and most providers will unlock them free. The bonus for them if you don’t unlock it is that you will have to continue use them after the two years is up. But these days, people seem to move on to a new phone at that point anyway.

And, yes, the bizarre story about unlocking a phone in Eastern Europe 12 years ago is irrelevant and completely pointless.

Barbara says:
23 August 2014

I’ve used online websites to unlock at the end of a contract and they worked fine. My last O2 contract phone was just unlocked automatically at the end of a contract a couple of years ago, not sure if this is normal. Just buy and use prepay now.

John says:
23 August 2014

I had a phone unlocked in a local shop for £20 and after that it stopped my computer starting up properly when the phone was left on charge through the USB, and could make the computer freeze when plugged in. Strangely this behaviour stopped after a while.

But what worries me more, with all that one hears about viruses and phone hacking, is that one is handing over the phone to someone who may seem somewhat shady to do whatever they want with.

Dave says:
23 August 2014

Here is another dirty trick.

At the end of the contract I transferred my number to a new a phone. I applied for the transfer code within 30 days of the end of the contract and and arranged transfer on the final day of the contract. As the transfer code was valid for 30 days the company took the view that I had extended my contract an extra month.

After many letters and much time I got my money back.

I now use GiffGaff and am very happy with the service.

Ian Savell says:
23 August 2014

I’ve never had a problem switching sims in a phone at end of contract.

Also, don’t be fooled by that old “£400 phone” trick. Back in the days when Nokia were king one of their flagship phones sold in phoneshops for around £200 (though when you bought one on a contract the salesman would tell you it would cost £400 to replace so you’d better buy insurance too). I was reliably informed by a Nokia marketing manager that the phone left the factory for under £50.

There’s a reason the high street is full of mobile phone company shops and independent retail chains, and also why every saggy-jeaned youth seems to have a nicer phone that you. Did I read somewhere that 80% of the price of an iPhone is marketing costs? When manufacturers talk about cut-throat competition it’s not about low prices, it’s about leading fashion trends and keeping the price high to make it look like a premium product.

My wife has a contract with O2 which comes to an end in a couple of days from now. A couple of weeks ago she requested a PAC code, which was sent to her, and yesterday she obtained a new PAYG SIM card from the local Three shop. It was only then that she realised that her phone was still locked. We had assumed that, as her contract was about to end and she had requested a PAC code from O2, they would also arrange to unlock the phone. No. When she spoke to them yesterday, though, they did say they would arrange an unlock, presumably free, and that this would take up to 72 hours, so things could have been worse. We are still hoping that the number port will take place without any problems, as her contract ends in two days.

Nigel says:
23 August 2014

I bought a new IPhone privately and connected it to EE on a SIM only deal. On the first connection, the phone was automatically locked to the EE network. But because I didn’t buy it from them, EE refuse to unlock it. So I’m tied to them for the life of the hardware. How bizarre is that?

If the phones were simply sold, like a camera or computer, and the connection provided as SIM only, people would buy what they could afford and all this nonsense would be athing of the past. Definitely in the consumer’s interest, but it would hit the networks and phone manufacturers hard.

Mike says:
23 August 2014

This is a very silly article. Firstly you can get unlocking down by entirely respectable firms online, sometimes through eBay. Secondly it is very easy to get unlocked phones through Carphone Warehouse or phones4u. Finally, networks will increasingly abandon locking and charge a bit more. Three has already done this. Things have changed a bit since 2002.

None of the shops I went into were dingy or back street but the fees were £35 with a wait of 5-7 days, £34 and a wait of 8-10 days and £38 with a wait of 7-14 days at the three shops I went into. The fourth shop, where I had been before with mobile phone problems, at least had the decency to tell me that Orange, who I was with, were the worst provider as they could only send them away to get them done, hence the high fee (their’s was £30) and the time of being without a phone (each shop varied from 5days to two weeks). In the end I purchased a new phone from this last shop. On the third day it developed a problem and back I went but again they were polite and helpful and fixed the problem whilst I waited. I would add that my new provider had said that if I phoned them from the shop telling them the fee, they would refund the amount of the fee to me immediately but they did say do not pay £30+ which they said was usual.

I bought a phone from tesco for the full price, without any contract. They say they will unlock it for free, so I phone up customer services and get a a code, a PUK or PAK. But what do I do with it? Search the web and I can’t find anything that tells you how to unlock you phone legitimately, even on the tesco site.

I applaud Three and GiffGaff for leading the way in routinely NOT locking phones on their contracts. I believe that once a contract is taken out, it should be paid for throughout its contract length. Surely, that is a legal requirement anyway. So why should most service providers insist on locking the phones they sell?
If I should buy a phone on a contract I should be free to try different providers’ SIMs at any time I wish, provided that I honour my financial contract.

I’d also be interested to learn why it takes three days or more to unlock a phone. Why can’t this be accomplished almost instantaneously?

Fred says:
24 August 2014

Perhaps people have never tried searching the web for the service. I’ve unlocked several phones for free and one or two for a couple of pounds getting the unlock code and full instructions online. The one time I didn’t have internet access and had to buy a phone to replace a broken handset, I found a UK highstreet shop that unlocked the new phone for five pounds.
The author of this article would have been better to go to a shopping mall there are often small booths there that will do the service cheaply, even in Eastern Europe (where I live)

I buy ALL my phones unlocked, then buy a SIM with a pay monthly deal far far less than the nasty ‘contracts with phone and still pay when its nicked not-good deals’

Tesco Mobile £10 moth
Monthly O2 / Vodaphone £50 /month

and I’ve already saved more than the cost of my phone in savings!
Na na Nahhhhhhhh

Tried to get really old iPhone handset unlocked officially through Orange. Currently on THIRD request!
Attempt one: The Orange call centre operative failed to put the request through – operative two could not find a request (this was the whole point of my contact with customer services).
Attempt two: not enough credit on the PAYG sim in said phone, despite me topping up to cover the cost. Call centre operative said we had used data which had taken credit (we had not). The he changed his mind and said it was Orange’s fault – they had taken money off credit in error for charging us twice for a bundle of texts and minutes. Orange refunded costs and paid ‘goodwill gesture of £10. Assured that unlocking code would be sent to my email. Unfortunately Orange website gives the ‘oops there is a problem’ with website when I try too verify email. I am assuming that code will not be sent to an unverified email.
Attempt three: assured that my complaint was being dealt with. Tried to ensure unlocking code is sent to mobile as a text and not email. Call centre operative just put phone down !

Really not impressed with Orange. In my opinion, a cynical person might conclude Orange are trying to block an unlocking request.
We shall see…….