How to unlock GSM-based cell phones to work on any carrier

February 15, 2009

How to unlock GSM-based cell phones to work on any carrier Unlocking a GSM-based cell phone is easier than you think, and most carriers don’t mind that you do so.  Being able to use your cell phone on any GSM-based carrier worldwide is a huge asset, so let’s take a closer look at how it’s done.

There’s two different types of mobile technology in use with carriers these days; CDMA and GSM.  On a global scale, GSM is much more widely used than CDMA, but in the US, CDMA is still holding on strong.  Both technologies refer to the method the handset is identified and connected to the wireless carrier.  Every cell phone has a unique ESN, which is an identifier for routing data and phone calls from the carrier to the device.  While CDMA involves that ESN being on the device itself, GSM uses what’s called a SIM card to carry the ESN of the subscriber.  The SIM card is separate from the device, meaning the subscriber is only tied to the SIM card instead of being tied to the device itself as with CDMA.

The fact that a subscriber is only tied to the SIM card, means that any GSM-based device can be “unlocked” from the original carrier.  When devices are sold through wireless carriers, the carrier locks the device to only be used on their specific network.  “Unlocking” breaks that link to that specific network, and opens it up to be used on any carrier worldwide that uses GSM technology.  Why would you want to do this?  If you’ve purchased an expensive smart phone, or one you’d like to keep even though you’d like to switch carriers, you can unlock the device to be used on any carrier you prefer. 

A misconception is that unlocking devices is against the terms of your contract with your wireless carrier.  In reality, the carrier doesn’t care whether or not you unlock your device, and will even supply information on how to unlock them (if you’re lucky).  The carrier already has you locked into a one or two year contract anyway, so they’ll get their income from you no matter if you’re using their network services or not.  If you’re not, your monthly fee is pure profit for them, so it’s actually better for the carrier if you unlock your phone and use it for another.

There are two ways to unlock a GSM-based cell phone; via entering a unique “unlock code” into your device, or by plugging into a computer and upgrading the firmware of the device to remove the lock.  The method varies depending on the make and model of your phone, so the first step should be to gather some information about your device and carrier.  Here’s what you need to find:

  • Obviously, the make and model of your specific device.  If you don’t know the model, look under the battery cover or the battery itself.
  • The IMEI number.  This number can also be found under the battery cover or battery itself, and can also be called up on the device by pressing “*#06#” – this doesn’t work with all devices though, so your best bet is under the battery labeled “IMEI.”
  • Your “Provider/Carrier code.”  This is the unique identifier for the carrier your currently using.  This info isn’t usually readily available on your device, so you’ll have to do a quick Google search.  Wikipedia also has a good resource for US carrier codes here.

Once you have this information, it’s time to move on to finding the appropriate unlock code (if available) for your specific credentials.  Some carriers will divulge the unlock codes to subscribers who have been loyal for a certain period of time, so it’s worth your time to check with them first.  If they do, it’s as easy as entering the code into the device, and it’s automatically unlocked.  If your carrier isn’t so kind as to provide this information, you can still discover it using a variety of methods.

Depending on the make and model of your device, you can do a quick Google search for “unlock codes for **make & model of phone.”  You can either download certain software pertaining to your specific make of device which allows you to input the credentials such as IMEI and carrier numbers to get a list of unlock codes, or you can directly purchase the unlock codes- although they’re sometimes pricey.  Since there’s such a variance in the makes and models of cell phones being used today, let’s focus on the most popular ones and explain further how to unlock them.

The two primary makers of cell phones that are easily unlock-able are Nokia and Motorola.  While the steps to unlock devices from other makers are most likely very similar to these, we’ll focus on how to unlock devices made only by Nokia and Motorola for example purposes.  Since GSM has become so prolific in recent times, Nokia and Motorola are two of the most widely used brands of GSM-based cell phones available today.

Nokia devices can be unlocked using simple unlock codes.  Depending on your model, you can download and use one of two programs available that will identify the appropriate unlock code for your phone.  Nokia models are broken down into two categories in terms of unlocking; DCT3 and DCT4.  Again, a quick Google search will help you determine which category your Nokia model falls under.  You can download a program for DCT3 models here, and for DCT4 models here.  After filling in the proper information such as IMEI number, carrier and carrier number, country and so on, the software will output the necessary codes.  Input them into your device, and it’s unlocked.  It’s important to remember to always remove your SIM card before inputting the unlock code.

Similarly, Motorola phones can make use of software found here to find the necessary unlock codes.  The process is the same, it just uses a different software method.  Alternatively, you may find that your device requires you to re-work your firmware using a data cable and similar software to the ones used with Nokia and Motorola.  In this case, you may have to purchase a USB data cable.  They’re relatively cheap, and Motorola usually uses a USB to miniUSB connector which are universally available. 

If you’re device is capable of unlocking, which almost all GSM-based phones are, it’s a process of gathering the necessary information about your device and carrier, and searching for the next steps which will vary greatly depending on your phone.  9 times out of 10, it should be as simple as inputting an unlock code found via cheap and simple software, or plugging the device into a computer to unlock it automatically.  Either way, it’s a relatively quick and painless procedure.  When shopping for new phones, it’s also a good idea to shop online for “unlocked GSM cell phones” that will come unlocked from the factory.  You won’t ever have to worry about unlocking it, and it can be used on any carrier worldwide. 

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