/ Technology

Mobile unlocking – is your network holding you hostage?

A mobile phone being unlocked with a key

You’ve come to the end of your contract and want to move to a new deal on a different network. All you need to do is give your provider a call to request your PAC code and you’re ready to go, or is it not so simple?

When you complete your mobile phone contract and want to change provider, you have to ask for your porting authorisation code (otherwise known as a PAC code) to take your existing phone number with you.

If you want to use the same handset, you may have to make an explicit request and pay for an unlocking code, as many handsets are locked to the original network.

The unlocking process

The cost of unlocking your phone can be between £15 and £20, but on some networks where you’ve had your handset for a while it may be free. Some Which? members have been in touch to complain about these unexpected charges and feel they are a deliberate barrier put in place by the networks to put people off leaving.

The information provided online by the providers on handset unlocking is patchy at best. From the comments we have received it seems that although providers will speedily provide you with a PAC code, they are unlikely to offer the unlocking service unless you specifically ask for it. This not only seems a little unhelpful, but also makes the switching process take longer.

We have also received complaints about how long it takes to get a handset unlocked once you have managed to make the request. One customer reports waiting almost three months for an unlock code from Orange, and others have been left tied to their old provider for up to two months following their initial request. Is this essentially a hostage situation?

What does Ofcom have to say?

Ofcom takes a firm stance on the provision of PAC codes, stating that they should be provided immediately over the phone or within a maximum of two hours by text. However, when it comes to mobile unlocking there are currently no specifications surrounding the process or the fees providers can charge – although Ofcom has said this is an issue it’s currently considering.

Are you happy to trade off having access to any network on your phone if it means that you can walk out of the store with a flashy handset? Perhaps you would rather pay more to have more flexibility?

What have been your experiences when moving between providers and what do you think needs to change when it comes to mobile unlocking?

Sunil Karir says:
29 July 2016

I had a Virgin SIM only deal, was using a SG5. Purchased an IPhone6, 64GB. Informed Virgin of this & they sent me a new SIM. Informed Virgin that I wanted to leave network & to provide me with a PUK code. Also informed them that I wanted to continue to use handset & keep number. This was on 29th June 2016. I changed SIM over on 20th July 2016, & was told all should be working by 21st July 2016. At time of writing, not working, so been without a phone for nearly 9 days. Been told today, could take up to another 5 working days! I have heard all the excuses that it should be Apple/Carphone Warehouse to unlock. Was told that there was a charge then told Virgin could not do it. Also told a request was made to unlock but lost in system, so new request made today. Apple say no delay at their end, as it takes them maximum 2 days to unlock, once they get Virgin to submit request. The time delay is unacceptbale. I have made a formal complaint & will be seeking due compensation.

i moved from EE to giffgaff ,, When I called to get get my PAC CODE from EE the operators tried all ways to delay, or persuade me from having questioning why I wanted my pac code ,,,
I eventually got it ,,I transferred to New Network ,,, keeping my Old number ,, Phone works on new network but i can not receive calls ,,,but I can make calls

my new Network provider says : ” EE ,your previous provider has not released all the required files for your number port to go through”

I wonder if this was done intentionally by EE?

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Bought a 2nd hand iPad from a legitimate retailer. The iPad was locked to EE. The iPad had been given as a deal sweetener, a free gift without a contract sim in it, as part of a contract phone deal. The customer had every right to sell it, it wasn’t under contract it was a free gift he no longer wanted. EE’s excuse for refusing to unlock it wasn’t that it was “a tablet bought under contract” but that “it was linked to a customer who’d taken out a phone contract. The tablets IMEI had to be linked to someone’s name to show it wasn’t stolen from EE. No reason what so ever not to unlock it, but as I’ve heard time and time again from people locally, EE will say anything not to unlock an item.

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Martin says:
9 April 2017

I wanted to upgrade a Samsung phone to an IPhone 6s 32g and found the best offer on car phone warehouse. The upgrade offer by Vodafone was much more expensive.
I went ahead with car phone warehouse and contacted Vodafone to get a PAC code to transfer my old number to the new phone. Both old and new phone are on the Vodafone network. When finally getting to take to the retention team the agent offered me what he said was a much better deal. I declined pointing out that it was too late and I had the new phone in my hands. I just wanted the PAC code. The agent continued to push his offer and said that I could send the new phone back and take out the Vodafone offer. I worked out the difference in my head and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and asked again for the PAC code. The agent then told me that the signal to my new phone would not be as good with car phone warehouse. I pointed out that the new phone is on the Vodafone network but the agent insisted that my new phone would not work very well.
I knew that this was not true and challenged the agent. The agent then pretended he could not hear me and the line went dead.
I phone Vodafone again and complained about the previous agent.

After all of this the new agent tells me I have to wait for 30 days to get my PAC code. You and I know that it takes just minutes to swap number with a PAC code. If I had an upgrade with Vodafone it would have been done immediately. Apparently I have to wait for my old phone to be switched to pay as you go and only then can I get the PAC code.
Why not switch the numbers and have the new number as the PAYG on my old phone. They still get their months notice but I would have my old number on my new phone.

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Norman T says:
15 May 2017

I have just used the really useful link from Duncan Lucas: http://www.paccodes.co.uk/networks/vo and phoned Vodafone. After listening to their latest offers to try to retain me I had the PAC code within seconds & the new provider will do the rest. There is no need to contact Vodafone again to cancel the existing contract.

I bought a new phone (Sony Xperia XZ) from the local Vodafone shop after having lost my previous phone and tried initially to cope with an old phone. I realised that I couldn’t use all the services I was paying for my (monthly contract £40) The reason why I bought it outright was that I wanted to leave Vodafone by the end of my contract (May 17).
I requested PAC which they duly gave me. However, when I inserted the SIM card from the new service provider, The message came up that I need a NUC. Filled out all the paraphernalia on Vodafone’s webpage. After 10 days (and an intermittent reminder from Vodafone, asking me why I haven’t used my PAC!!) I phone them, asking them why there was such a delay. I had of course checked my email (and Spam box), no message.
I made three telephone calls, speaking to 3 different “customer service advisers”. The first one told me, MY IS UNLOCKED, which it wasn’t. The second gave me a NUC which didn’t work (after asking me if I would consider staying with the network, she was after all also from the customer retrieval team) . The third gave me an email address which I had high hopes for, only to get an automated response, placing me back in the queue.
I am appalled, since I OWN the phone outright. In addition I had done my time with Vodafone, but this is a different issue anyway and nothing to do with handset.
I think that is short of theft.
Any idea how I can proceed?
Kind regards

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Many thanks for that!

Jean Ward says:
6 March 2020

I was on a sim only contract with 02 and I have the iphone 7 contacted 02 told them I wanted to end my 30 day contract and was told they will text me with pac code which they did meant time I was going to join sky mobile so sky sent out new sim card said it would take 2 days it was here in 1 day but what 02 never told me I would have to ask to get my phone unlocked so I had to call back and they said they will send text and it could take up to 72 hours once I get text I have to go onto my ITunes account by usb cable before I can go ahead why is it not straight forward for one I don’t have a computer in house ipad yes but no computer so if someone asked me is switching easy no it certainly isint if I had known all this carry on I don’t think I would have bothered so im still waiting on my text and I have no idea how to do it once it through only bonus is I wasn’t charged to unlock my phone

Hi Jean, I hope some of our resident Apple fans will soon be along to help you with this.

I’m afraid I’ve only ever bought unlocked iPhones, so I have no experience of unlocking any of them. Nonetheless:

O2 have a webpage about this here:-https://community.o2.co.uk/t5/How-to-Guides/Unlocking-an-O2-phone-to-use-a-different-SIM-card/ba-p/1014131

While Apple have one here:-https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT201328

From those webpages, it looks as though sometimes iPhones need to be factory reset before they will accept a different sim card. For those cases, connecting to ITunes by usb cable will allow any data on the iPhone to be backed up and then restored after the wipe. Presumably, if you don’t mind losing any data on the phone you could just do the factory reset and save yourself the bother of the backup and upload.

I wonder also if you could pop into a local O2 or Sky Mobile shop and get them to help you with this?

I have recently carried out this backup and reset procedure between a couple of iPhone 8’s, for a friend who was moving from a somewhat cracked and broken iPhone to an almost pristine one.

PS – I don’t blame you for leaving O2 sim-only. I moved from them a few months ago, to get a much better deal on giffgaff payg.

Sky is a mobile virtual network operator that uses the O2 network, so is it necessary to unlock it to switch from O2 to Sky?

I looked for information on the Apple website and came up with the same page that Derek has referred to. If there is a handy Sky store I’m sure they will sort out the problem and having the PAC code will allow the phone number to be retained.

Sarah says:
27 August 2020

You still need a PAC code if you want to transfer your number from a different mobile virtual network operator running on the same network.

https://www.portnumber.co.uk shows you how to get your PAC code from all UK mobile networks.