/ Technology

Mobile unlocking policies are confusing and inconsistent

Padlock on smartphone

Ofcom has published a guide on mobile phone locking and unlocking. As useful as it is to check whether your handset will be locked, it just shows how confusing and inconsistent phone locking really is.

Last week, a friend asked me how easy it would be to switch providers on her Pay As You Go mobile phone. She’d seen a good Sim-only deal with a different network and asked me whether everything would work straightaway if she simply bought the Sim card and put it in her phone. Sadly, I couldn’t really answer.

‘Your phone might be locked, so it won’t work on another network,’ I said. ‘But it depends on who your provider is, when you bought the phone, and even what type of handset you’ve got. Oh, and it may, or may not, cost you to get it unlocked.’ She looked a bit confused.

Can I unlock my mobile phone for free?

Happily Ofcom has published a guide featuring all of this information – which providers lock mobiles, what their policies are for unlocking them, and how much it will cost you.

It’s good news if you’re with Three Mobile. Since December 2013, all of its handsets are sold unlocked, and if you bought your phone before then Three will unlock it for free, within seven days. Danny Dixon, Three’s director of customer strategy, told us:

‘We want our customers to have the best mobile experience. Unlocked phones give consumers a choice about how they use their handset. We’d rather focus on making the services we offer attractive and useful rather than limiting what our customers can do with their phones.’

Unfortunately, it’s not so straightforward on some of the other networks. O2 will only let you unlock a PAYG phone after 12 months, at a cost of £15. Vodafone charges £19.99 – and while you can unlock a PAYG handset at any time, you’ll have to wait three months if you’re on contract. Both providers can take up to 10 days to unlock phones, which is quicker than Virgin Mobile, which can take as long as 30 days.

Clear? Not really. Consistent? Definitely not.

Unlocking policies are a minefield

If anything, Ofcom’s research shows just what a minefield unlocking policies are. We want providers to either sell handsets unlocked or unlock them for free at the end of your contract. If you agree, make sure to sign our petition.

In response to our campaign, we’ve heard that EE is now considering changing its locking policies and we hope to hear more from them soon. An EE spokesperson told us:

‘We welcome Which?’s work on unlocking. We are currently evaluating our unlocking policies to ensure they balance safeguarding our customers in relation to theft and fraud while ensuring they can easily use their phone on other networks at the end of their contract if they decide to.’

A change in line with what we’ve been calling for would be great news, and could convince other providers to follow suit. We’ll let you know as soon as we have details.

In the meantime, help us persuade companies to change their stance. If you haven’t already, sign our Unlock Mobiles petition and then tell us – do you think mobile providers should change their unlocking policies?


There would be no need for locking if the companies charged a fair price for phones and kept the charges separate.

If customers want to avoid paying the full cost of the phone then they can shop around and buy from whoever offers the lowest interest rate, longest warranty or best customer service.

I was about to make the similar comment, but you beat me to it!

I would like to see unbundling of the goods and the service to promote competition and transparency. We need an end to the cost of mobile phones being subsidised by monthly charges because this:
– Encourages consumers to acquire handsets they cannot truly afford through an unhealthy “buy now pay later” consumer debt culture with a disguised loan from the mobile network.
– Distorts competition by disguising the true price of the handset and of the service, as opposed to a SIM-free handset and SIM-only service.
– Encourages wasteful acquisition of new handsets because consumers mistakenly believe they are receiving the handset for free or for very little.
– Necessitates long contract durations in order to spread the cost of the handset, which inhibits competition by preventing consumers from switching networks.
– Causes consumers to continue paying the inflated monthly charge even after they have paid off the subsidy of the handset, unless they remember to take action at the end of the minimum contract period.

Subsidised handsets are usually SIM-locked which:
– Inhibits competition by making it more difficult to switch networks.
– Prevents consumers from using local SIM cards abroad, allowing UK networks to impose unreasonably high roaming charges by excluding foreign competition.

For these reasons, Ofcom should encourage unsubsidised SIM-free handsets and competitive SIM-only contracts to become the norm, as is common in many other countries. At the very least, networks should be forced to unbundle the monthly handset subsidy repayment and the monthly charge for service (as O2 has started doing), itemising the two separately with independent contract durations and an APR for the loan (as Giffgaff is doing). The monthly handset subsidy repayment should not be allowed to continue after the cost of the handset has been paid off. If SIM-locking of handsets was banned, it would encourage the mobile networks to unbundle the goods and service.

And of course how do you tell if a handset is locked except by trying another SIM for a totally different network !

You can’t easily, but it at least prepaid SIM cards are free in the UK, so it’s very easy to get another network’s SIM card to test it. In any case, you should always try a new network’s prepaid SIM before switching networks in order to test coverage in your most frequented places.

I don’t see why EE are mentioning “theft and fraud” with regards to locking phones. I thought it was about ensuring recovery of the “subsidy”…

There are three uses of words “locks” or “locking” with regard to mobile phones:

1. SIM-locking, i.e. restricting handsets for use with SIM cards of a particular network, the topic we are discussing here.
2. Locking one’s own SIM card with a PIN, which protects against fraudulent use if the SIM card is lost. Unlike networks in other countries, UK networks neglect to enable these PINs by default.
3. Locking one’s handset with a PIN, which protects one’s data if the handset is lost.

Are you sure that EE are referring to the first definition above in the context in which you read it? “Theft and fraud” sounds like the second or third.

Right, I am aware of the different types of locking. But I understand this article to be about SIM subsidy locks, which is where the quote about “theft and fraud” appears…

Can you please post a link to where EE states this?

This page, the quote under the heading “Unlocking policies are a minefield”.

I see you are referring to the quoted text in the article above. I believe that, by fraud, EE are referring to whereby a fraudster obtains a new subsidised handset with falsified identity details and then vanishes with the handset without paying a penny for either the goods or service.

Thanks, NFH, that makes some sense at least! But don’t really see how a subsidy SIM lock acts as much of a deterrent. Surely the usual IMEI blacklisting for lost and stolen handsets is more appropriate.

T-Mobile told me that I am “not entitled to seek an unlock code for any handset”, and “there is no contractual obligation to unlock a handset at any stage before, during or after termination of the Agreement”.

As many people will know (despite T-Mobile not pointing it out until it’s too late), they also charge £20.42 for unlocking codes and don’t provide these instantly (nearly two weeks later and I’m still waiting for mine). They claim that “As T-Mobile do not hold unlocking codes, this needs to be requested from the relevant manufacturer. The administration fee is in no way a penalty charge, this is the genuine cost T-Mobile incurs from the manufacturer, which is passed to the customer.”

However, Motorola, the manufacturer in my case, has confirmed to me that “Every time a network pre-order a mobile phone this handset is delivered with its codes.” They also said that “Motorola does not charge, and has never charged for an unlocking code, not customers, carriers or distributors.”

Well, I know who I trust more…

I strongly believe that this form of locking should be outlawed. If someone has signed up (and so is locked in) to a contract with a phone included, then the network will get their money whatever happens. The only benefit to anyone from the handset being locked is to the networks in the form of the anti-competitive effect it has.

In any event, the alternative dispute resolution schemes should be able to force providers to give unlock codes (currently CISAS won’t, as they say it is out of scope of their scheme).

Let’s be clear about one thing, unlocking may not be enough. Phones that are customised to their networks down to that annoying t mobile jingle every time it is switched on. With simple phones that only make calls this may not matter. With smart phones how far is that wider functionality rigged with network-specific tweaks buried the software? Here’s a question I look to the tech people at Which? to provide and answer. Question: is my Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 when unlocked as good as a SIM-free phone? Will the functionality on another network be compromised? Scope for some mystery shopping here. Be careful what we wish for. With ‘Fixed means fixed’ did we really get any more than the RPI terms out of the small print to being declared up front? Bringing unlocking out of the small print may not help much.

On security, how is an i-phone different from an i-pod or i-pad in this regard? What about SIM free phones? If I buy one, can I secure it by preventing others from inserting their own SIM card?

With any iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod), you can indeed secure it to prevent others from using it. You can remotely locate it whenever it is connected to the internet (e.g. via wifi), and a thief cannot disable your ability to do so without the password for your Apple ID. This creates much more of a problem for a thief than restricting which SIM card can be used.

RA Midlands says:
8 August 2014

You need to think things through. PAYG phones may well become more expensive initially if sold unlocked, as the providers do not have a decent prospect of recouping their costs through the very high call, message and data charges. You cannot expect a provider to provide a network on the off-chance that some one might occasionally want to call and not pay much for the privilege, so you will either have a tie in or higher call charges. If other providers adopt Three’s unlocked and 123 strategy, then maybe there will be some real competition, and prices will come down, but I suspect that this is not at all commercially attractive to the providers, so there will be a limit to this.

On monthly phones, I think that both locked phones and unlocked phones should exist to give proper consumer choice. A reasonable fee should be charged if the network has chosen to lock the phone, as there is a cost to the network and a potential loss of revenue. You should be asked whether you want your phone unlocked as you come to the end of your contract. It is in general better that people only change their phones when they need to, and also that the second-hand phones be reused. The general public, who need a good, reliable mobile phone service with a reasonably modern phone, should not subsidize the early adopters, and the malcontents, who just have to have the latest thing. Anything that puts pressure on providers to reduce charges should be explored, but at the end of the day they need to make at least enough profit to maintain and enhance reliable networks.

gg – I have bad news for you. Unlocking my previous Nokia took 2 months and several phone calls. In the event of delay, try posting on the t Mobile comments site. They respond to public comments. I also got the fee refunded. I too had the line that the code came from the manufacturer. Made it sound as though each one was requested by post to the manufacturer and returned by carrier pigeon! Maybe few phones ever get unlocked. Is there any data out there? Ofcom’s recent guidance suggests they think there is a problem but don’t want to force networks to be transparent about locked handsets or impose a licence condition. Let’s have some action!

dave29 says:
10 August 2014

I have been able to unlock 4 devices, 2 phones and 2 wifi dongles using unlock codes bought on ebay for about £2 a time. The phones still had Vodafone branding after unlocking but worked with any network SIM. Even after unlocking Vodafone upgraded the operating system (android) over the air.

However, it is possible to get even payg phones in an unlocked state if you buy from some independent phone shops rather than the network shop

In France network providers are obliged to unlock your phone free of charge after 6 months. We should press Ofcom to introduce the a similar requirement in the UK as a minimum

Peterg says:
12 August 2014

I have no objection to being locked for the duration of the contract if that is what the contract says but to remain locked after the contract has expired is wrong and I believe, anti-competitive. I think that Which should mount a complaint to Ofcom on this basis. There should be a charge to unlock during the currency of the contract, but not when it has expired. Can anyone remember being told that an unlock charge would be incurred at the end of the contract? I can’t.

Agree strongly. Which? should submit a formal complaint to Ofcom. free unlocking at end of contract.

My brother bought his son a sim-free (ie unlocked) iphone from an independent retailer. He then signed up to Orange. Seemingly when the iphone OS was updated it locked the phone to the Orange network so that it is, effectively, no longer sim-free. Does anyone have any experience of this. Is reversible? Is that legal? Is it reversible without paying the Orange unlock fee?

Can you be sure that the phone was unlocked beforehand? Is there anything in the terms and conditions of the contract that indicate that the phone would be locked? If you can be sure that it was unlocked and there is nothing in the t&c’s, your brother has a very good case to get the problem resolved promptly.

Stephanie says:
17 December 2014

I was using my iphone. Under settings>phone>sim pin
I decided to try and create a sim pin for extra security.
I tried to do this but it immediately locked the sim and is now asking for a puk code.
At the point in settings, it should state you may be charged if you get this wrong.
Just one stupid attempt to create a password for my sim and now I have to pay £20.42 to unlock it.