The US mobile market is weird in that almost all the phones floating around here are locked to one carrier or another. You can usually request an unlock code from the carrier if you are not under contract or still paying off the device, but Sprint is different. It claims it doesn't have any mechanism to unlock phones for use on other US carriers right now, but that's going to change next year.
Even in cases where you can get a SIM unlock on your Sprint phone, it will only work internationally right now – it's the only carrier that operates in this way. The CTIA's Consumer Code for Wireless Service was put together late last year and includes, among other things, requirements that carriers adopt more consumer-friendly unlocking procedures. The FCC had to do a bit of threatening to get this passed, but Sprint and other carriers got on board. Note: unlockable doesn't mean they are always unlocked, just that it is possible to unlock them, provided you qualify.
Here's the language in Sprint's unlocking FAQ that spells out its plans.
I've been told by another carrier that Sprint needs to unlock my SIM slot in order to use my phone on the other carrier's network.
For eligible devices, Sprint will unlock the SIM slot, to the extent that a device SIM slot is capable of being unlocked. It is important to note that not all devices are capable of being unlocked, often because of the manufacturers' device designs, and that even for those devices capable of being unlocked, not all device functionality may be capable of being unlocked. Specifically, devices manufactured with a SIM slot within the past three years (including, but not limited to, all Apple iPhone devices), cannot be unlocked to accept a different domestic carrier's SIM for use on another domestic carrier's network. Sprint has no technological process available to do this. In accordance with Sprint's voluntary commitment contained within CTIA's Consumer Code for Wireless Service (“Unlocking Commitment”), Sprint is working to ensure that all devices developed and launched on or after February 11, 2015 are capable of being unlocked domestically.
Sprint’s unlocking policy appears to apply only to postpaid customers. I am a prepaid customer. Am I eligible to have my device unlocked?
Neither Sprint nor its prepaid affiliates (Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Assurance Wireless) currently unlock devices for prepaid customers. However, in accordance with the Unlocking Commitment, Sprint and its prepaid affiliates are working to create new policies and procedures in order to unlock prepaid devices, or to provide the information necessary to unlock the devices, after certain eligibility requirements to be established are met. Consistent with the Unlocking Commitment, Sprint and its prepaid affiliates will implement these new policies and procedures no later than February 11, 2015.
So, we're basically looking at a future where you can get a Sprint phone and unlock it to work on a GSM carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile (almost all devices have the radios). This is something that should have happened a long time ago, seeing as it's technically possible to unlock phones for use on international carriers already. It's not just Android users who deal with this – iPhone folks have the same issues. It's one of the few things we can all come together on.
Sprint is essentially saying that when it is required to unlock phones, it will do so by no longer requiring domestic SIM lockouts. The wording makes it sound like unlocking will work with the prepaid sub-brands, as well. It's a good development for consumers, but long overdue.
[Thanks, Frederick Suleiman]