The devices you buy from US mobile carriers are almost always locked to a single network, and unlocking them has been a legal gray area for the last few years. Now Congress is finally taking action to remedy that. The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act has been passed by the Senate, matching a House bill passed in February. As you can imagine, consumer rights groups are pretty jazzed.


It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? You bought a device, but even if you pay full price, it's probably illegal to unlock it to use on another carrier. It all comes down to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its anti-circumvention provisions. Unlocking a phone could be considered breaking a "technological measure" as described by the law. It's akin to breaking a DRM system to use a digital file on unapproved platforms (which again, is kind of crazy). There was a brief time a few years back that unlocking was permitted by a Library of Congress exemption, but when the next review came up in 2012, the exemption was removed. So began the political wrangling to do something about it.

The House and Senate sponsors have been working together to ensure the differences in the bill can be reconciled and signed into law by the president quickly. The only significant sticking point is the removal from the Senate version of a ban on bulk unlocking for resale. That provision would be trouble for companies like Tracfone, which sells subsidized prepaid phones.

Carriers have recently adopted clearer policies on unlocking devices, but consumer rights organizations point out you shouldn't need permission from the carrier to unlock your phone. Hopefully you won't need to do that much longer. The pending legislation doesn't actually codify unlocking in the law permanently, but rather requires the Library of Congress to reinstate the exemption immediately and consider extending it when the next review comes up.

[The Verge]

Ryan Whitwam
Ryan is a tech/science writer, skeptic, lover of all things electronic, and Android fan. In his spare time he reads golden-age sci-fi and sleeps, but rarely at the same time. His wife tolerates him as few would.

He's the author of a sci-fi novel called The Crooked City, which is available on Amazon and Google Play. http://goo.gl/WQIXBM

  • http://www.droid-life.com/ Steve B

    They should also block carriers from adding branding to unlocked phones. Something about using a T-mobile branded phone on At&t drives my OCD through the wall.

    • mcnegro

      So buy the unbranded variant. You chose to purchase one sold through a carrier and branded.

      What your asking would basically require the carrier to have two versions of the phone. Presumably handing out the branded model to fools that sign a contract, and the unbranded to those buying outright ?

      Or were you perhaps just saying they should be blocked from adding branding to phones period?

      • hp420

        Dude, it's a phone's case...is it really so hard to have one bearing tge logo and one which doesn't??? You make it sound like the logistics for that would overshadow the planning of Normandy!! It's simple...logo....no logo. Anyone who screws that up should be taken out back and shot in the head.

        • dude

          Okay Hitler....tell that to Verizon customers.

          • hp420

            Fuck you, how dare you call me Hitler!!! You have no idea who I am, and you have no idea what type of person I am!! Nothing I have ever done or said would, in any way, resemble Hitler...he was a terrible man who almost ended life as we know it on this planet for his own personal agenda by eradicating tens of millions of people. I said it wouldn't be difficult to have two different phones. Don't EVER compare me to that piece of shit EVER AGAIN!!!!

          • nottodaysatan

            Gurl, take it easy.

      • ProductFRED

        That's not an option for everyone. Different carriers use different frequencies and technologies.

    • William

      What right do you have that carriers are violating that should prevent them from changing the visual appearance of a produce they are selling you?

      FWIW i think it looks ugly also, but that does not mean they are breaking a law. No one is making u buy the device.

    • dude

      If you think T-Mobile branding is bad, you haven't tried Verizon, It have log in front, back, in the front, when the boot and shutdown. You see the Verizon 100% of the time using the phone.

  • Guest


  • h4rr4r

    It is the moral imperative of every american to violate the DMCA. Unjust laws should be ignored.

    • blumpkinator

      agreed. After it became "illegal" to do so, I unlocked every device I had. Thankfully places like China don't have the DMCA and are happy to sell me unlock codes.

      • dude

        In some countries like Chile it's illegal to sell locked phones.

    • jamaall

      Civil Disobedience. Everyone violates the law because it is unjust.

    • niuguy

      I heard this quote recently. Ah yes! *googles*

      “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
      ― Martin Luther King Jr.

  • rmkilc

    Carriers shouldn't be selling phones in the first place. I can't remember the last time I went to Comcast to purchase a PC, or went to Exxon to purchase a vehicle. Imagine Exxon selling cars with DRM that would only allow them to use their gasoline.

    • AD1980

      Comcast doesn't sell computers, they sell access to broadband. So yeah, lots of people buy their modems and cable boxes from them.
      If a carrier wants to sell a product they should be able to. I simply choose to purchase elsewhere.

      • rmkilc

        The carrier should provide the SIM card. That's it.

        • AD1980

          I'm sure they appreciate you allowing them to sell that product.

          • rmkilc

            I'm not advocating laws to prevent carriers from selling phones. I'm simply pointing out flaws in our cultural mentality.

          • AD1980

            I agree to an extent. I don't purchase phones from carriers either, but saying they shouldn't sell products because you don't like it is a bit ridiculous. They should be able to sell sex toys if they so choose. I'll refuse to buy those from them just as I refuse to buy mobile devices.

          • hp420

            No one said they shouldn't be ALLOWED except you. The comment was simply that they shouldn't do it...way to make a huge deal out of nothing!!

          • EowynCarter

            They shouldn't be allowed to sell locked devices though. And no branding.

          • Stoffers

            This is why I don't buy from carriers. Everyone has a choice. Stop buying and they'll stop selling.

          • Lorna – Kevin


            ✦✦✦� ✦✦✦ ✦✦✦ ✦✦✦ ✦✦✦ �✦✦✦

    • Alex Hernandez

      well when manufacturers start building local retail shops, like samsung and apple do, then we wont need the carriers to sell phones. for now it seems like the best choice for when you need a same day swap for a phone under warranty. Don't get me wrong I am not defending carriers, but what are you to do when your lg, htc, asus, motorola phone takes a dump on you in the middle of the day. Of course, this only applies to phones under warranty and that you have purchased directly from the carrier. The problem is not carriers selling phones, the problem is these major manufacturers not having local venues for service and support. That's one thing apple did right, and samsung is trying to do as well.

    • Bonedatt

      If OEM's could include "all" the wireless bands (LTE too) necessary for the networks in the respective market they sell their devices, there'll be no need to purchase from carriers. Oh and also, once they can include wifi calling that works on the networks that support it, that'll be the nail in the carrier's coffin. Until then, I'll still be purchasing from T-Mobile 😔

      • Jason B

        It'd certainly be much more economical. Baseband locking is standard practice though. They should've included baseband unlocking in the bill.

        Technically, my VZW Moto X supports band 1/2/4/5/8+13/14 HSPA/LTE (and various CDMA) + quad-band GSM, but it's baseband locked to support only bands 4 and 13 on LTE.

        I still wouldn't be able to access AT&T's band 17 or the currently deploying T-Mobile and AT&T band 12 because my phone has a physical hardware limitation (no amplifiers for those bands).

        • Bonedatt

          I agree. Baseband unlocking should've been included. What are the carriers really concerned or should I say afraid of? They can compete on price, network quality, customer service etc rather than these silly restraints.

      • dude

        You highlighted the main benefit of the Nexus, that device support a ton of bands and even Sprint. But what we need now is more devices with VoLTE support.

    • István Szabó

      People are lazy. Especially Americans. Why would they go to two different places to get a phone they can properly use if they can do everything by going to the carrier? Locking the phone is a different matter. It really shouldn't be allowed.

  • someone755

    Tl;dr: US sucks if you like your phones to yourself, go live somewhere that isn't North America.

    • hp420

      Then you should have read, because you're wrong....and too long??? It's a 30second read.

      • someone755

        I was talking in general; every time you read something about phones and the US, it's bad news -- either the government or the carriers screwing with people.

    • Stoffers

      Or just buy your phones unlocked Iin the us?

      • patt

        or buy Verizon phones which are factory unlocked to use everywhere but Sprint :)

        • hp420

          Ummmm Verizon is CDMA. Last I checked you can't use a CDMA device on a GSM network.

          • patt

            I cannot believie so many people not know this..

            Almost every single Verizon 4G LTE comes factory unlocked. iPhone 5S/Galaxy S5/Note 3 all ARE factory unlocked.

            If you think I am lying do yourself a favor and google it.

          • Bonedatt

            Yea a lot of people don't realize that all Verizon LTE capable phone utilize a SIM card and come 🔓. I believe it was mandated by the government when Verizon was making some purchase (don't remember what exactly was being bought).

          • hp420

            It's funny....as soon as I found out LTE utilized a sim card, when the tech was still brand new, I said to myself "I'll bet there's a way to get this CDMA device running on a fully GSM network because of the presence of the sim card." I guess I was right!! ;)

          • hp420

            I did exactly that last night, but I didn't have a chance to post a reply until now...see above, please ;)

          • patt
          • hp420

            Wow...you are 100% right!! I NEVER knew that!! So now that opened the door for so many more device options for me....really, thank you so much!!!

            Here is a link where it states, directly from the horse's mouth, that almost all devices are unlocked/unlockable with absolutely no contact with or permission from Verizon. It states that all LTE, all prepaid, and MOST 3G phones are unlockable with the "master code" of 000000 or 123456. 3G global ready phones ARE locked, but are indeed unlockable. Entering the "master code" will unlock them with no contact with Verizon necessary.


            Seriously, this should be a sticky PSA on the homepage, left at the top for a full week straight. There are a TON of people who don't know this...I'd definitely wager a VAST majority of people here don't. And given the nature of this site, and the fact that so many people here use/want to use unlocked devices, it's definitely something that should be spread around as common knowledge!!

          • Jason B

            Verizon phones with LTE are GLOBAL phones that support GSM/UMTS frequencies, not just CDMA. If they were solely CDMA, how could they be using a GSM based technology like LTE?

            All band 13 LTE phones are REQUIRED to be unlocked per the FCC C-block agreement.

            So, yes, the gov't forces Verizon's hand, otherwise they'd be SIM locked.

          • dude

            Hello, can you confirm something for me. While Verizon phones are world phones, I have heard conflicting info about it. Will Verizon phones work with AT&T and T-Mobile in US as well, or will it only work with GSM carriers outside of US? Some people claimed their Verizon didn't work with AT&T or T-Mobile sim, I'm not sure if that's true.

          • Jason B

            I did try to use a T-Mobile SIM in an older Droid Razr with LTE, and it seemed to be locked to other US carriers or my area is still 1700/2100MHz on T-Mobile, which that phone can't support. Verizon legally can't lock the phone, but do try to make it difficult sometimes.

            I use a T-Mobile SIM in my VZW Moto X from time to time. The one issue it has is when it tries to connect to T-Mo LTE. The phone forcefully changes back to LTE/CDMA, so you can't make calls unless you lock out LTE. It also has the non-LTE APN preloaded and supercedes manually entered T-Mo LTE APNs.

            So, it's not a true walk in the park on all Verizon phones. I filed an FCC complaint against them for these actions

          • hp420

            My Nexus 4 does that too. It's how Tmo works. You can't use LTE and voice at the same time.

          • Jason B

            If the phone switches from GSM to CDMA when LTE is connecting, even though CDMA is locked out, then it's similar. But the N4 doesn't have CDMA.

            I can use T-Mobile HSPA+ for data/voice. Once I get into an LTE area, Verizon douchebaggery starts. It tries to connect to T-Mo LTE and fails because the APN is wrong and adding the 4G APN is just for show, as it doesn't switch over (trust me, I tried about 30 times). Then, it moves the phone over to CDMA and kicks me off T-Mobile GSM/HSPA while still trying to connect to LTE (so I have no signal at all). So I can't use LTE at all on T-Mobile with my VZW Moto X.

            That's what I meant.

          • hp420

            1. Nexus 4 does use WCDMA. If you open the phone testing menu you can select WCDMA only and HSPA+ will be the only network available when connected to Tmo. I've personally done this several times.

            2. I know you aren't using a Nexus 4...this zip is intended for a Nexus 4 http://forum.xda-developers.com/nexus-4/general/4-4-3-nexus-4-lte-lte-tethering-hotspot-t2416822 ...but it may give you the info you need. Try using some of the build.prop edits used in this flashable zip....especially the default network!!! This may actually solve your phone being bounced around from network to network. DO NOT flash the zip, for obvious reasons (honestly, it should error out if you even try, but to be safe, don't even try) just open it and find the initialize.sh file. make the changes to the build.prop manually, check to be sure your apn info is entered correctly, then reboot.

          • Jason B

            WCDMA /= CDMA. The VZW Moto X has both because WCDMA is incompatible with CDMA2000.

            And I'm unrooted, which is why I'm having the issue.

          • hp420

            Oh...well then root, make the necessary changes, and then you may unroot if you so desire after you're done. Honestly, that seems like a lot of hassle to go through just because it's not rooted. That would be the logical answer, to me....but I always root every android device I own before I even use it, so that's just a non-issue for me ;)

          • Jason B

            It's too much of a hassle to root 4.4.2 on the X, so I'm just using my VZW SIM for now and will get a GSM unlocked phone going forward.

          • hp420

            Honestly, an hour (at the most) of work to get it running properly sound like far less hassle to me than what you describe your phone doing above...but I guess to each their own ;) Honestly, I'd just buckle down, throw on a pot of coffee and spend a Saturday doing it...but like I said, rooting isn't even a question in my book.

          • patt

            that moment when you realize that complaint is BS lmao :)

      • someone755

        Because sooo many people does that already... /s

  • Gabriel Melo

    There are many areas (so so many) here in Brazil that suck in relation to the USA, price-wise mostly. But something that's simply much better here is this carrier thing.

    Phones here may be absurdly more expensive (the reason why lots of people bring phones from abroad), but here we are completely carrier-free nowadays. It's been quite a while people started having lots of SIM cards. Dual-SIM phones are a success in the market. There are even some triple-SIM models. I haven't seen branding in phones here in a while, and the prices here seem to be much cheaper in what concerns the data plans (not the phones themselves).

    For example, I pay only around US$14 (R$30) monthly to have unlimited 3G data, same-carrier calls and SMS. And if, for any reason, I decide to change carriers at any moment, I can just dump my SIM card and get any other one for $4 (R$10). No hassle. And I can keep my number.

    • Stoffers

      You don't have carriers but you change carriers?

      • Gabriel Melo

        Oops, I didn't see that interpretation coming. Sorry :)

        What I meant is "this carrier-locking thing".

    • Eric

      By "unlimited" you mean, 10MB per day. After that, it's unusable, 16 kbps?

      • dude

        If you don't live in Brazil and used their carriers, don't many stupid sarcastic assumptions. It doesn't help anyone.

      • Gabriel Melo

        not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity, or extent.
        "the range of possible adaptations was unlimited"
        synonyms:inexhaustible, limitless, illimitable, boundless, immeasurable, incalculable,untold, infinite, endless, bottomless, never-ending More

        • My1

          we know, but many times they say unlimited but mean that I wont have to pay extra for any amount of thata but it will become slow after some amount, so he was asking whether you meant real unlimited or the carriers' "unlimited"...

          • Gabriel Melo

            It's the plan mentioned above. TIM BETA. In their contract they even state there are limits, but actually I have already gone over that limits month over month and suffered no reductions in speed or extra charges.

      • http://mwinter.in/ Yan Gabriel Minário

        What about TIM BETA? R$ 0.25/day used internet that never gets slow. Never.

        • Gabriel Melo

          That's my plan, TIM BETA. I download torrents on my cellphone. I have already used over 12GB of traffic in a month with no reduction in the speed. There might be a limit, but if there is, it's not really reachable even under some pretty hard usage.

  • dogulas

    What about carriers that make it impossible to use their device on any other carrier (Verizon) using hardware constraints unique to their network? Will they be forced to make their phones compatible with other networks? I see many ways for carriers to dance around this anyway.

    • Stoffers

      Once LTE takes over entirely they won't be able to block them

      • Crispin Swickard

        Just because multiple carriers have LTE doesn't mean that you could use one phone on any of the carriers with it. There are still multiple frequency bands that each carrier use. Some phones are capable of using many of these bands, but normally not all of them. If all phones covered every band that would be wonderful, but this is not how things are.

        • Colin Richardson

          Come to England... Many Networks.. One Frequency.

        • hp420

          True, but many verizon phones are fully compatible with AT&T and Tmo's frequencies...enough so that the device is 100% operational.

      • dude

        There is something more insidious. They can still block the phone from activating on their network, such as the Nexus 5 being fully compatible with Verizon network, but not allow to activate on it.

        • hp420

          You don't have to activate an unlocked phone on a GSM network. You only have to for a CDMA network because of the proprietary binaries. They need to allow your specific device to use them in order to access their network....kind of like registering software (that is if your device even has them installed). BUT using an unlocked device with a Verizon sim should work, to some degree...any frequency they use that supports GSM will work....for example, if you have a Nexus device which is compatible with Verizon's LTE frequencies and you pop a Verizon sim card in, in theory, it should be able to use LTE. I only say 'in theory' because I haven't physically tested this myself...but that actually is how this works on every single other carrier. You will not be able to access any service which utilizes CDMA unless you've activated your ESN on their network. That's how CDMA is designed.

      • hp420

        As soon as LTE came into play this is exactly what did happen. It's literally BECAUSE of LTE that most of their devices are unlockable and function on other networks


    • hp420

      100% untrue!! http://www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/commitment/safety-security/device-unlocking-policy.html

      Verizon devices are unlockable, and most come fully unlocked.

      • dogulas

        Thanks for the info. So could I buy a Nexus 5 and use it on Verizon?

        • John Motschenbacher

          They will not be forced nor should be force to make their exclusive phones usable for other networks. You would need hardware to be installed on them to make them GSM capable and requiring VZW to make that happen is just silly.

  • http://thereviewpre.com David Sumner

    Glad to see this.

  • chubbycheese

    has any one found the voting record for this? I'd like to see how my senator did.

    • MeCampbell30

      It was passed by unanimous consent but sponsored by Patrick Leahy .


    • James

      I can't seem to find the Senate's roll call, but this is how the House voted back in February, if it is the same bill: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2014/roll064.xml. Not sure if that helps at all.

    • demios

      this is a brilliant question, we need one like it in every legal thread. When more people see what their senators are doing, maybe they will hold them accountable too.

  • Олександр Волощук

    lic rmk

    • Олександр Волощук


  • kettir

    Impress me, Congress--get me unlocked/unencrypted bootloaders!