/ 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?