PhotoIt's been a long time coming but effective tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, if you own your cell phone outright you can move from one carrier to another.

That sounds pretty simple but it has taken a long time and a lot of wrangling by regulators, wireless carriers and their lobbying organization. There are also lots of conditions that apply.

What do we mean by unlocking? Cell phones and wireless devices like tablets have traditionally been "locked" so that consumers are tied to their carrier for the term of their contract.

But now, if you now have a phone on -- let's say -- the Verizon network, you can switch to AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint or any of a number of others.

That's assuming that you have paid for your phone and fulfilled your contract. Chances are you haven't, since most smartphones -- which cost hundreds of dollars -- are owned by the wireless carrier until you have lived out your contract, typically two or three years long.

There also some plans, like Verizon's Edge, that let you buy your phone on the installment plan. To switch carriers, you must have paid off the full amount due on that plan.

If you haven't met these conditions and are just dying to switch carriers anyway, you will have to pay an early termination fee (ETF), typically a few hundred dollars. (You may want to think twice about this. You don't want to go to a lot of trouble and expense dumping Carrier A only to find that other carriers don't work well in your location either, a not uncommon condition).

It's also possible that you bought an "unlocked" phone, which puts you that much closer to being able to wave good-bye to your current carrier. Many BlackBerry fans, for example, have bought the new Passport and Classic phones outright, since they are not yet being offered by the major carriers.

Next step

So assuming you have met all those conditions mentioned above, what's next? First, make sure your carrier has agreed to the new unlocking rules. This new procedure is not a law, it's just a statement of principles incorporated into the "Consumer Code for Wireless Services" that major carriers have agreed to follow. 

At the moment, carriers signed on to the code are:

Each of these carriers will, if history is any guide, have its own procedures and requirements and will probably try to persuade you to hang around, so the process may vary slightly. You can call the customer service line and take your chances or go to your carrier's website using the links above and carefully read through the posted procedures before taking the next step.

Some carriers may require you to go to one of their stores to have your device unlocked. Others will be able to do it remotely. It may take a day or two, so be patient.

The carriers have agreed not to charge a fee for unlocking.

Prepaid phones are also eligible for unlocking within one year of activation, assuming you have been up to date on payments.

Network types

Nothing is ever simple in the wireless universe and this is no exception. Agreements and regulations aside, there are several different types of wireless networks -- primarily GSM, LTE and CDMA -- and not all devices are compatible with all network types.

Most newer phones will work on the most common networks, with many Sprint phones being the exception. 

The FCC has prepared a guide to unlocking and an unlocking FAQ. Check them out for more details. 


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