/ Technology

Is it too difficult to unlock mobile phones?

Mobile with PDA locked up, in black

When you think of mobile phone unlocking, market stalls and back alley shops might come to mind. It’s a murky image and it’s one the networks don’t seem overly keen to dispel.

A recent YouGov survey for mobile operator giffgaff found that almost a third of mobile users weren’t sure if liberating your handset (from the network it’s initially locked to) was even legal.

Almost all operators lock phones to their networks for various reasons. The most common excuse is that they’ve paid a large subsidy for the handset, and so lock the phone to their network to ensure they recoup their investment.

Are locked phones necessary?

For your average pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customer this might come as a bit of a shock – especially when they often opt for PAYG for its flexibility, only to find out that they’re essentially locked to one network. That’s unless they want to pay as much as 20 quid to unlock the phone.

Some operators – such as Tesco Mobile – will let you unlock the phone for free after a certain amount of time (12 months in Tesco’s case), but the rules differ between operators and it can often be quite tricky to track down this information.

With contract phones, I think locking is completely unnecessary. Yes, networks are paying a higher subsidy, but you are already locked into a contract that ensures you pay them back for their initial ‘generosity’. Why should you have to jump through hoops – or even have to pay more – to use the gadget you’ve now paid for after that contract has ended?

Ofcom holds the key

Ofcom has stayed well out of it. Instead of imposing any mobile locking rules, it has simply called for operators to make their policies clear to customers. I’ll let you judge the success of that one yourself.

Instead the onus falls on us, the consumer, to ask what a network’s policy is when we’re buying a phone – which is one more thing to think about when being hassled by a (usually pushy) mobile phone salesperson. Would it be so hard for them to tell us upfront what the rules are?

I’m not saying the networks should stop locking phones – I wouldn’t want to see the end of subsidised handsets – but a common set of rules would at least mean it would be easier for us to understand where we stand.


I bought a PAYG phone on the Orange network because I regularly visited an area where this network was the only one that worked reliably. The phone was returned three times to Currys because of the same fault. They had the phone longer than me but the store manager refused to replace it, and did not want to know about the Sale of Goods Act. Another store manager did replace it with the same phone on the Virgin network and let me keep the Orange sim card. I had the phone unlocked for £10 using one of the online services. I understand why phones are locked but in the circumstances I feel that I was justified in unlocking mine.

Next time I buy a phone I will look for one that is not tied to a network.


ditto wavechange

I have asked for Orange to reflash my phone with the original HTC firmware on it to which they have refused. I contacted Which legal team and they gave me a good template on which to base my letter.

Basically, my “smart” phone is full of bugs, the most annoying being the seemingly erratic network coverage. It is more noticeable when either connected to wifi or there is a wifi network in the area.

No-one has really highlighted the awful performance of these smartphones actually as a PHONE! This is why when quoting the sales of goods act, you have to mention the fact that its simple phone functions are not working.

I am on my first smartphone and at this rate, will be my last. Definitely the last phone locked to a network as Orange developers clearly do not have a clue about the smartphone software. Although I also hear that other people are struggling with their mobile reception.

Could it be because everyone is accessing so much data over the mobile networks?

Has anyone commissioned any research into this?


I’d agree with Dean that the newer phone have a worse performance for voice calls in areas of lower signal strength – I’d like to see Which? include this as a major fact in test ratings.

But, on the subject of locking, I understand that the cost of the handset is subsidised by the network provider, as the cost of the handset-only is way above the PAYG price.

I have a very good SIM-only contract, and I always buy new handsets independently. I found that Orange would charge £20 for unlocking a PAYG phone, especially as I would want to use an overseas PAYG SIM in it when I go abroad, for much cheaper local calls within that country.

My last few handsets have been bought on eBay from sellers who got them as an unwanted upgrade, and I have saved over the handset-only price. It has also been much cheaper in the long term to do this, than be tired to an 18-month or 24-month contract.

I don’t have a problem with networks locking the handset, but they should be transparent about unlocking procedure and charges.


I paid over £400 for my Iphone last year, on payg. I think it works well as a phone as well as itunes etc.

I had to pay £20 to have it unlocked, because I wanted to switch to a better service provider.

Seems a bit rich to have to pay to unlock MY property.

Bit since the unlock and switching provider, the phone definitely works better.

Burak B says:
17 September 2011

I had gotten a mobile phone from o2 for getting an 18 month contract. The contract ran its full course and I have in fact renewed it and am in the 2nd 18 months now. As such, I have been given a new phone and the previous one is ideal now.

I intended to use it abroad when I travel and asked o2 to unlock it. Their customer support services emailed me the unlock code upon request (and me sending them my IMEI). It did not work. I was told to take the phone to the shop, where I was told to call their support department, as the shops apparently dont have any say or capacity to deal with matters relating to unlocking. When called from their store I was told by the person on the phone that for that particular model/brand they had a contract with the manufacturer (which actually is now out of business – the palm company, that is) preventing them from unlocking this. He said it was for that reason that the code that I was sent was not working, which is a little stupid then to send in the first place.

But my question is actually this; why can I not make use of a phone for which I have made all the payments for a full contract term? Whether I am still on the same network or not is also irrelevant in that respect. I kept asking “what I was now supposed to do with this phone” and all I was being repetitively told was that “their contract with the manufacturer was for exclusivity and that they would not breach it”. This is NOT the answer to my question and constantly being given the same (and pointless) answer is somewhat disrespectful to my intellect, as if I don’t understand what I am being told. I am not asking what their contract is but what I am supposed to do with this phone.

If someone wants to unlock and use a phone during their contract term, I can understand some limitations on that, but once out of contract, I can not. My question remains; what am I supposed to do with this phone now?

Shakeeb says:
6 June 2017

They should give u different one that is unlocked so u can use when ever


Locking phones is done for commercial reasons Shakeeb so that you provide income to the company your phone is locked to.


i’m interested in giffgaff.

i only need a mobile phone when on holiday in the months of june and september.

i cant find out from the giffgaff site if i have to top up EVERY month or if i can just top up when i want.

and is there any contract legnth?

thanks for any ideas.

Internet John says:
7 December 2011

So did you find out whether back street market traders unlocking phones is legal ?

Here’s a bit of a checklist you can take with you to HappyMobile
slogan : wireless is beta because there is no radiation meter

Charge to unlock phone
sars rating
battery life
known issues

Mobile phone makers dont really have any direction when it comes to assessing consumer requirements. Here’s a 12.2 mexapixel camera that takes blurred photos social network all 5000k of it on the train to Flickr and we’ll all get scans before seeing the opticians.
While the reviewer has his eye on the new model while he’s unwrapping the one he got from the bigFriendlyMediaGivingPhoneCompany.