Confused about locked vs unlocked phones? cell phonesAsk Maggie explains

The same is true if you take the Verizon iPhone to Europe. You can swap out the SIM card and put in another carriers SIM card, but the device will operate only on a GSMbased G network. And it wont operate on a ster LTE network.

In this edition of her advice column, s Marguerite Reardon explains the differences between locked and unlocked phones and helps a reader figure out how to get an unlocked device. She also advises a reader looking to bring an unlocked Samsung GS to Virgin Mobile.

Sadly, even if you were able to get your hands on a Sprint Samsung GS, it still wouldnt work on Virgins network. This is actually something that as a consumer I find maddening. As I said above, Virgin is owned and operated by Sprint. It uses Sprints G wireless network thats based on CDMA, so technically theres no reason why a phone made for Sprint shouldnt work on Virgins network.

As for what you should do while youre on vacation in Minnesota, so long as your iPhone is unlocked and supports GSM, you should be able to use an ATT SIM card in it. So use the existing SIM card youve used in the past or buy a prepaid SIM from ATT and pop it into your unlocked iPhone.

The lock is really a software code thats put on the phone by the manucturer as per the requirement of the carrier that sells the device. And the lock is meant to ensure that the phone cant be used on any other operators network until a different software code is entered to unlock the device.

For con, Im a Verizon customer with an iPhone S. Each summer my mily visits Crane Lake, Minn., where Verizon has zero coverage but ATT has very broad coverage. Weve resorted to using crappy basic phones with prepaid ATT calling plans for communication we have no WiFi/Ethernet networking for our iPhones/computers. It would be great if ATT would let us use a prepaid plan for one of our iPhones to use for the two weeks we visit each summer, but for some reason they wont.

This is not the case with phones developed for CDMA networks. This is the technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.S. Its also used by some carriers in Latin America, Asia, and Canada. The standard is not as widely used as GSM. CDMA devices do not have SIM cards. So if you wanted to take your CDMA device to another CDMA carrier, because a CDMAonly device cant be used on a GSM network and vice versa, youd have to get the carrier to provision the device for that other network. EVDO is the G technology used on CDMA networks.

In the past, the iPhone was treated differently than other devices when it came to lock codes. For instance, ATT was happy to unlock any other phone you owned, but according to its policy, the iPhone could never be unlocked. The reason for this was because ATT didnt want people buying the popular phone and going to another carrier, whether that was TMobile or an overseas operator. So to control how and where the device was used, it refused to unlock it.

CORRECTION August , A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile participate in Sprints Bring Your Own Device program for MVNOs. Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are wholly owned subsidiaries of Sprint. Sprint does not allow its used devices to be used on Virgin Mobile. Only select Sprint devices can be used on Boost Mobile. The story has been corrected

Im sorry to tell you, but the answer to your question is yes. Virgin Mobile is a prepaid brand owned and operated by Sprint. And Sprint is a CDMA wireless operator. As I explained as part of my above answer to the question about locked and unlocked phones, CDMA devices dont have the same flexibility in terms of device porility as GSM phones.

So thats the basic gist of how software locks for smartphones work. But things are getting a bit more complicated because now theres a new network technology thats currently used only for data services but will eventually be used for voice too. That technology is called LTE. And like GSM, LTE uses a SIM card.

But because of software locks and how the phones are provisioned for each network, Virgin Mobile customers are restricted from using Sprint devices on a Virgin service. Sprintlaunched a new program in Marchthat lets customers use their old Sprint devices on other mobile virtual network operators that use the Sprint network, but the program does not work for Virgin Mobile customers.

The iPhone S is not a G LTE device, so if you own this device from Verizon, youll have to get an unlock code from Verizon in order to unlock it. I would call a Verizon customer service agent and tell her youre going out of the country on vacation and you want to use a local SIM card. Shell tell you the requirements for getting your phone unlocked. And if you have met the appropriate criteria, the agent should provide you with the code and instructions for unlocking.

So what does this mean for the average consumer? Lets take the iPhone as an example. Its a G LTE device. A Verizon version of this phone comes unlocked out of the box. There arent special codes that need to be entered in order to use it on another carriers network. But because of the spectrum differences I mentioned above, a Verizon iPhone wont operate on ATTs LTE network. It will operate on ATTs G network, which is based on GSM. So this means you can use the Verizon iPhone on ATT, but you wont get the stest Internet speeds on it.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I reexamine this issue and offer some basic information about what a cell phone lock is. I explain on which wireless networks cell phones can be unlocked. And I caution consumers to investigate before they buy a device they think is unlocked.

Another way to get an unlocked phone is to buy one thats specifically advertised as unlocked. For instance, Googles Nexus series of smartphones come unlocked. Theyre built and configured in such a way as to allow any GSM SIM to be used in them. The international unlocked version of the iPhone is also sold without a lock. And again it can be used on any GSM network. This means that neither the Nexus series phones nor the unlocked iPhone can be used on Verizon or Sprints CDMA voice or data networks.

The difference between a locked and an unlocked phone is that a locked device has a software code on it that prevents you from taking a GSMbased device and using it on another GSM carriers network. An unlocked phone either doesnt have the lock software on it or someone was able to get a code that unlocks the software. Once a device is unlocked, you can pop out the SIM card and put in a different SIM from another GSM operator and get service. Remember that this issue of locked and unlocked phones today is really only relevant when youre talking about devices made for GSM networks. It doesnt really apply to CDMAonly devices or for swapping out SIM cards for LTE networks. As I explained above, most carriers use different frequencies and band plans for their LTE networks, so even without a software lock on the device, it still wont operate on these networks. That will soon change, but for now dont expect unlocked LTE devices to perform at top speeds on any other carriers LTE network.

Many people have been looking for ways to unlock their devices. The U.K. Web site Mobile Unlocked, which sells unlock codes to consumers, says sales of unlock codes are up percent. But others are still trying to figure out what the heck devicelocking is all about and how and if their own smartphones can be unlocked. Theres no question millions of consumers are still confused about cell phone unlocking. Aside from the legal issues, there are technical issues that may even make cell phone unlocking impossible for some consumers.

Thats changed. Now ATT, TMobile, and Sprint let people unlock any smartphone so long as theyve met the carriers unlocking criteria. Usually, this means the phone is fully paid for and the customers are no longer on a contract. And they have to be customers in good standing for a certain period of time.

How do Verizons and ATTs lock policies relate to each other?

This issue will soon change as chip manucturers start including multiple radios on their semiconductors. Whats more, wireless operators will also soon be incorporating other slivers of spectrum into their LTE networks, which will overlap with their competitors. When these things all start to converge, well likely see more interoperability among devices that include support for the sterspeed LTE services.

Meanwhile, many of the smartphones being built today for Verizon and Sprint also include GSM capability on top of CDMA and LTE. If a device also supports GSM, then it has a SIM card, which can be swapped out to access almost any GSM network.

All GSM devices are designed so that service is provisioned using a SIM card. With an unlocked device, a GSM smartphone can be reprovisioned and used on another network simply by popping out the old SIM card and putting in a new one from the new carrier. The carrier doesnt necessarily need to be notified, and you dont need anyone in the store to reprovision your phone.

One thing to note here in terms of software phone locks is that all Verizon G LTE smartphones come unlocked out of the box. The reason why is that the spectrum Verizon is using to build its G LTE network had restrictions put on it by the Federal Communications Commission, which required the company to allow open access to the network. So as part of this provision, Verizon has decided not to lock those devices. That said, its G devices are locked.

You are absolutely correct about this being a confusing topic. So lets see if I can explain some of the basics for you.

Ever since the Librarian of Congressdecided not to renew a provision in the Digital Millennium Actthat essentially makes it illegal to unlock your phone without your carriers permission, theres been intense interest in the issue. But when it comes to unlocked cell phones, theres also been a lot of confusion.

What are the explicit differences between a locked and unlocked phone?

Boost is another prepaid brand owned by Sprint. Like Virgin Mobile, most of Sprints phones wont work on this network. But there are select Sprint devices that can be activated on Boosts network. The normal reactivation fee associated with Boost used phones will apply, the spokeswoman said.

Remember that in the U.S., Verizon and Sprint customers use either a Verizon or Sprint CDMA network. The GSM radio is included in these phones so that subscribers can roam onto networks in Europe and other parts of the world. Verizon and Sprint subscribers can choose either to sign up for international roaming plans with their U.S. carrier when they travel, or, if they can get their devices unlocked, they can swap out the SIM, put in a SIM card from a local provider, and get new service that way.

How do Verizons and ATTs lock policies relate to each other? Is a Verizon unlock the same as an ATT unlock?

There is a chance that you may find a tech specialist who may offer to unlock a Sprint so it works on Virgin, but a Sprint spokeswoman cautioned the phone may not function completely on Virgins network.

Also, as Ive mentioned, you can get a special code to unlock the software from ATT so long as you meet the companys requirements. The same is true if you have a Verizon G device that supports GSM network technology. But if you have an LTE device from Verizon, you dont need an unlock code. The device is already unlocked.

But unlocked GSM phones from ATT and TMobile will work on each others networks, which makes the use of GSM much more flexible than CDMA.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggies advice. If you have a question, Id love to hear from you. Please send me an email at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put Ask Maggie in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie .

Is a Verizon unlock the same as an ATT unlock? As I explained above, Verizon has a slightly different unlock policy for its newer G LTE phones, which was born out of an F requirement. The spectrum ATT uses for its G LTE network and for its G HSPA and HSPA network dont have the same requirements, so every device sold by ATT or for use on ATTs network has a software lock on it.

What are the explicit differences between a locked and unlocked phone?

This is an issue thats most important for devices that operate on GSM networks. This is a wireless standard that used by ATT and TMobile in the U.S. and by most operators around the world, especially in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Africa, as well as parts of Latin America. The G technologies HSPA and HSPA are based on GSM, which means carriers offering HSPA or HSPA also operate via GSM.

But unlike GSM, not all LTE services operate over the same radio frequency. For instance, to deliver their LTE services, ATT and Verizon Wireless use different slivers of spectrum that have different band plans. This means devices built for ATT wont operate on Verizons LTE network and vice versa.

For example, voice services may function, she said in an email. Although many other features and services may not and system and network updates may become problematic over time.

OK, so a lot of that info was irrelevant, but Ive been scouring the Web sites of Verizon and ATT and trying to learn more about all of this.

So even if you buy an unlocked GS on the secondary market, it will work only on a GSM network. It wont work on Virgins CDMA network. The main reason is because that unlocked GS doesnt have a CDMA radio that will connect to the Virgin network.

And even though the phone is unlocked and uses the same CDMA technology and some of the same radio frequency channels as Sprint, an unlocked iPhone wont operate on Sprint.

Could you please explain the concept of carrier locks on cell phones? It is a tremendously confusing topic. I think I know the basics, but there are always strange technicalities that I keep seeing that just throw me off and make me question whether I really know how the system works.

I hope I answered your questions and helped you better understand the differences between locked and unlocked devices.

In summary, phone locks are not really relevant when youre talking about G and G devices that operate on CDMA or EVDO networks. But phone locks are very important for devices that operate on a GSM or HSPA/HSPA network. Almost every GSM device comes prelocked to a particular carrier. Certain phones are sold unlocked. And if you have a device that is locked, you can get it unlocked from your wireless carrier if you meet certain criteria, which includes paying the full price of your device or ending your contract and being in good standing with your service provider.

The ATT code is not the same as the Verizon code. So if your device is locked, you must get the appropriate unlock code from your carrier, or if you are getting the code elsewhere, you should specify which carrier network your device is affiliated with.

As I said, the iPhone on Verizon is already unlocked out of the box. So you should be able to use any ATT SIM card in that device and get service. If you want to do this on the cheap, make sure you turn off all the data functions on the iPhone, and youll just be able to use the voice network.

Be respectful, keep it clean and stay on topic. We delete comments that violateour policy, which we encourage you to read. Discussion threads can be closed at any time at our discretion.

I also explain to another reader why he cant bring just any phone to his prepaid Virgin Mobile service.

Why is the iPhone treated differently by carriers relative to other phones?

Verizon G LTE devices are unlocked out of the box

Generally, the only devices that do not have carrier locks are ones that specifically say they are unlocked, such as the Google Android Nexus brand of devices, the unlocked version of the iPhone, which is sold at the Apple store, and some developer edition devices. If you want an unlocked phone, you should research in advance whether the phone you are purchasing is available as unlocked and where you can buy it as an unlocked device. Remember Paying full price alone doesnt guarantee that a smartphone is unlocked out of the box.

Why is the iPhone treated differently by carriers relative to other phones?

Virgin Mobile is not offering the Samsung Galaxy S yet. Will I have a problem connecting/using a GS if I buy it from the secondary market?

Carrier locks come with just about any cell phone you buy from a wireless operator. Even if you arent buying the device directly from a particular operator but are buying it from a retailer, such as Amazon or Best Buy, and its for a specific carrier, then most likely it has a carrier lock on it. This is regardless of whether you buy the phone with a subsidy and a twoyear contract or if you buy the device at full price.

In general, CDMA carriers dont reprovision devices made for other networks for use on their own networks. So this means phones made for Verizon, which are using the same basic technology as devices made for Sprint, wont work on Sprints network. In other words, you cant reuse a Verizon device on Sprint and vice versa.Confused about locked vs unlocked phones? cell phonesAsk Maggie explains

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