/ Technology

If phones can be unlocked in the US, why not in the UK?

Lock and key on phone

All mobile operators in the US will now have to unlock mobile phones or tablets at the end of your contract. Great news for US consumers – shame about us Brits!

US mobile providers will need to automatically let you know when you are eligible to unlock and they have two days to complete the process once you’ve notified them.

In late 2013 US mobile providers agreed to the voluntary Consumer Code for Wireless Service, which included rules around handset unlocking for customers on contracts, as well as Pay as You Go. This means once you’ve paid for it, you can use your phone on any network.

Unlocking phones in the UK

However, it’s a different story here in the UK. The majority of providers still sell all of their handsets locked to their network, with just Three, GiffGaff and Utility Warehouse selling them automatically unlocked. When you can unlock them and how much it costs can vary hugely. Just a quick look at this table by Ofcom shows how complicated it is, with some charging as much as £20.

Even when companies allow you to unlock your phone, some customers find themselves waiting far longer than promised. David told us:

‘I have spent a long time trying to get Vodafone to unlock a phone at end of contract, it actually took three attempts and five months.’

In the UK, we want providers to follow the US’s lead and make switching easier by unlocking handsets automatically for free. We also think they should also tell you when your contract’s about to end, give details of the best deals for you and separate the cost of the handset out from the rest of the tariff so it’s clear how much you are paying.

So if mobile phone networks can do it in the US, why not in the UK? It’s time for the UK networks to turn their backs on locked phones.


Article 28(2) of this draft European directive (PDF) will make it unlawful for networks to charge a SIM-unlocking fee after the customer has repaid the network’s subsidy on the phone (which the customer will be able to do after 6 months if they choose).

I buy my iPhones from Apple directly. I pay for the goods and service separately. This works out cheaper overall and my iPhone isn’t SIM-locked, meaning I can use local SIM cards whenever I travel. It also makes it much easier to get redress if a fault develops outside the warranty, as the supplier and manufacturer are the same party, negating the ability for one party to pass the buck to the other. Why do people insist on acquiring their phones from the networks instead of buying them outright? I don’t expect Sky or TV Licensing to subsidise my television. I don’t expect my ISP to subsidise my laptop. I don’t expect oil companies to subsidise my car. Why do consumers expect mobile networks to subsidise their handsets?

For me the answer is simple. Buy a phone that is unlocked and you have the freedom to use it with whichever network you want. Like insisting on a car having a spare wheel rather than a repair kit, it is my top priority when buying.

I can understand why networks lock phones during contracts where the cost of the phone is subsidised by a monthly payment, but it should be part of the terms & conditions that the lock is removed at the end of the contract.

t-Mobile told me when I asked for a PAC number (to change to Tesco Mobile) that I would need to have my phone unlocked before I left t-M. Nothing in the contract to say this. I had to ask twice. The person who gave me the PAC number seemed unsure of how to get a phone unlocked so after 2 weeks I found a link on EE’s web site. It still took longer than claimed and needed a kick in the form of a strongly worded text on their facebook page.
So come on Which? Let’s have no more messing about. NO locked phones. Tell Ofcom it is anti-competitive and should be banned. Also let’s unbundle the phone from the line rental. TESCO does it. I pay £5 month for the phone for 24 months and after that £5 comes off the bill.

I find having the US lauded as an example for consumer law just a tad annoying as plenty of countries are in advance of the US in respect of unlocking mobile phones. Chile for example, or Israel or …

I find it very illuminating to see how other countries deal with consumer matters – particularly in Europe given the vast amounts of British living and working on the continent and the numbers of EU nationals working in the UK.

Country Estimate CI +/-
1 India 696 37
2 Poland 614 34
3 Pakistan 456 30
4 Republic of Ireland 387 27
5 Germany 298 24
6 Bangladesh 229 21
7 South Africa 222 21
8 United States of America 192 19
9 Nigeria 184 19
10 Jamaica 151 17
11 France 140 16
12 China 138 16
Figures 2011 Census The second figure is the margin of error.

The above link is actually an historic snapshot of a Wikipedia page. The original up-to-date page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SIM_lock#Laws_and_practices

However, I don’t understand what the rest of the above post is about. Does anyone else understand it?

I did look at the Wikipedia page and decided the Chimeratool page is visually easier to read – even if a tad out of date. I am sure most would agree.

As for the second part that was trying to show [badly] how European we are becoming compared to American influences.

For the UK looking at what happens in the US so often we neglect the fact that we are an EU country and what occurs in the EU may be more relevant to subscribers. Particularly as the mobile equipment sold and the roaming charges are all pan-European. The fact that Singapore and Israel [and others] dealt with the problem much earlier ought to be recognised.

Feb 2014
” The numbers, covering 2010, were put forward last week in a government response to a parliamentary question by Matthew Oakeshott, a Liberal member of the House of Lords.

Compared to the 2.3 million EU citizens in the UK, which includes people who came after Poland and nine other states joined the Union in 2004, British consular authorities estimate that 2.2 million Britons live in the other 26 EU countries, excluding Croatia, which joined in 2013.”

falkenna says:
17 February 2015

Not really relevant perhaps, but there is no such thing as Pay As You Go in the US, at least not that I have been able to find after extensive searches. There are only monthly charges without contract, which has made it impossible to carry a phone for emergencies-only when I visit my family, unless I pay an outrageous amount for probably no phone calls.

PeterM says:
27 February 2015

*falkenna* – I’m no expert – I have not lived there, only visited USA on holiday a few times, but surely the “burner phones” often mentioned in procedural shows like NCIS, CI, etc, are PAYG compared with contract phones.


Is an interesting site and seems quite detailed. There is at least one other site that does this sort of analysis.

PeterM says:
27 February 2015

While personally I tend to buy the lower cost phones, (just before they are discontinued, if I am lucky), I have bought some s/h phones on Ebay. As I am a customer of Three, and had wanted a Sony Xperia T (but not at the full 400+ price), I bought a used locked phone, thinking I would be able to get it unlocked for free.

Sadly, Three would not do this, merely asking me to contact them. When I did, they explained that the phone had been bought on a contract and money was still owing. They suggested I return it to get the previous user to pay the balance outstanding. Of course there is no guarantee that the person owing Three was the person selling on Ebay, and it could have gone via a dozen different online and local shop exchanges before getting onto Ebay at all.

Three would tell me nothing about this phone (which I was puzzled about – I can quite understand the Data Protection Act banning them from giving any *personal* details, but I merely asked how much was owed).

In retrospect, since the phone is part of an outstanding contract, Three might have been within their rights to prevent the phone being used, and request its return (or get the Police involved, because in effect the phone might be classed as ‘stolen goods’ or at least the subject of a fraud / theft / dispute, and I may have no rights to keep using it.

I will probably not buy any locked mobile in future, whether online or in a shop.

My experience of getting ny phone unlocked would make me extremely wary of buying a phone that was locked, never mind any question of whether the seller had title to it. Any phone that has been reported stolen is likely to be locked. Moreover, phones that were not supplied SIM free may come with operator specific mods to their software, even if it is only an annoying t-mobile jingle every time it is switched on or pre-loaded apps that only work on the original network.

If anyone from Which? is monitoring this conversation, could we have some views please? Unlocking phones is about more than unlocking deals (as per the on-line petition), it is about unlocking handsets.

Hi Tim, sincere apologies for the delay in responding. I can confirm that the petition is also about unlocking handsets – it’s been a key point for us from the start of the campaign. We believe that all operators should unlock their handset automatically for free.

I find it totally unacceptable that EE can lock my unlocked phone when I am using a pre-paid sim. I bought my iPhone in the UK unlocked, used the pre-paid EE sim for less than a month before returning to Lebanon only to discover that my phone is locked into EE. There was no information at all that EE would lock the phone so now I have to try to get it unlocked through the EE site and I have to pay for this!

I, for one, would really welcome this. I have been dealing with O2 to get my iPhone 5s unlocked. I filled out the form online, but after waiting three days, received an email saying I’d done it incorrectly. I rang, and someone on the phone submitted the request. I waited patiently again, only for the 72 hours to expire with no word from O2 either way. I rang them again, and was told that they couldn’t unlock the phone because I had bought it via Carphone Warehouse, and only they could unlock the phone.

Firstly, this is appalling customer service. They made no effort to inform me that my unlock request had been unsuccessful, like they had during my initial attempt. Second, it is total nonsense. Phones are locked by carriers; only they can unlock them. I rang again, and another customer service staff member confidently asserted it was up to CPW to unlock. I told him he was wrong, and got a condescending “who told you that”. I had to explain very carefully to him how ridiculous the statement was (I think he was just reading from the notes on the file, rather than using his own brain). After he spoke to the manager, he came back on the line to confirm that he could, indeed, unlock the phone.

I really worry that companies give misleading information to customers and offer rubbish customer service because it extends the amount of time that you are stuck as their customer, meaning they can bill customers more. At the very least, phone companies should be honest and upfront with customers about the process and how it works!

Win! EE has announced that it will be dropping all fees to unlock mobile phones.

Last year the mobile supplier responded to our Unlock Mobiles campaign by reducing the charge for unlocking phones by 50% to £8.99. More than 75,000 of you have backed our campaign to get mobile phones unlocked for free, and now EE has decided to go whole hog.

This summer EE’s pay monthly customers will be able to request to unlock their phone for free at the end of the contract. And pay-as-you-go customers will be able to unlock their phone free at any time.

An EE spokesperson told us: ‘We believe that this policy provides the best balance of meeting our customers’ needs, whilst providing an important defence against device theft and fraud that remains a constant issue for the mobile industry.’

It would be even better if EE unlocked your phone automatically when your contract ends, but this is a big step forward considering the company used to charge customers more than £20.


Great. Now to persuade EE not to increase prices mid-contract.

Maybe try persuading them to turn the heat up a little in rural area’s also