What is an Unlocked Phone and How Does It Work?

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If you're in the market for a new smartphone, you may come across the term "unlocked phone" during your search. The phrase can sound a bit strange if you've never heard it before-and you may find yourself wondering, what is an unlocked phone? And how does it differ from any other smartphone? Even if you do know what an unlocked phone is, you may have questions about whether or not they're safe and secure to use. Here, we'll explain what an unlocked phone is, how you can tell if a phone is unlocked, and provide a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages of buying an unlocked phone. Keep reading for the need-to-know. 

What Is An Unlocked Phone?

An unlocked cell phone is a phone that can be used with any mobile carrier. Most of the time, when you purchase a new phone, you buy it from your carrier or an authorized retailer who will sign you up for a monthly contract when you purchase the device. An unlocked phone, however, doesn't require a contract-when you buy it, you're just purchasing the device itself. In order to get service, you'll need to buy a SIM card from your carrier of choice (like Optimum Mobile), which you can insert into the phone for mobile access (unlocked phones can, however, connect to WiFi without a SIM card). 

What’s The Difference Between a Locked and an Unlocked Phone?

The primary difference between locked and unlocked phones is that the former can only be used on a specific carrier network, while the latter can be used on any network. Locked phones come equipped with a software code that prevents the device from being used on another network-so if you buy a phone from, for example, T-Mobile, you can only use it on T-Mobile's network. An unlocked phone, by contrast, either does not have the software lock or has the lock disabled. Once a smartphone is unlocked, you can remove the SIM card and replace it with a new one to continue using it.

Another difference between locked and unlocked phones is how much they cost. When you purchase a locked phone from a carrier, you're usually getting it for far less than you would if purchasing directly from the manufacturer (thanks to various promotions and seasonal incentives). Unlocked phones, however, are usually purchased at full price-which can be notably more expensive. 

How Do Unlocked Cell Phones Work?

Because unlocked phones aren't linked to any specific carriers, they can be used with any carrier you choose. This gives you complete control over how frequently (or infrequently) you shop for new phones or plans and also provides you with a greater range of options to choose from since you're not limited to choosing a phone from a carrier's inventory. At Optimum Mobile, for example, customers with eligible devices can bring their own phones-we'll get you set up with an Optimum Mobile SIM card, so you can start using your data right away.

Unlocked phones are particularly advantageous when it comes to international travel. When you have a contract with a specific carrier, it's typically restricted to a specific region (like one country). That means if you're traveling abroad, you'll have to pay roaming fees in order to access a mobile network. When you have an unlocked phone, however, you can purchase an international SIM card and insert it into your phone to gain access to a mobile network in your destination country.  

How Do You Put a SIM Card Into an Unlocked Phone? 

In general, installing a SIM card requires little more than removing the old one and inserting the new one or installing an eSIM (though the exact instructions may vary depending on your phone model). That being said, it's much easier to install a new SIM if your phone is unlocked. You'll start by choosing which carrier you want to use, then purchasing a SIM from them. If you're transferring an old SIM card from another phone and want to transfer SIM data, you'll need to back up the data from the previous phone first before removing the SIM. If you're not sure how to back up data, contact your phone manufacturer-they can provide specific instructions for your device.

After the data transfer is complete, you can remove the old phone's SIM card and transfer it to the new phone. Then, all you have to do is set up your new phone, which will sync with your SIM's carrier information. Make a test call to one of your contacts to ensure that your SIM is activated and that you have reliable network connectivity.

Can You Put Any SIM Card Into an Unlocked Phone? 

When you have an unlocked phone, you can use any SIM card. Prior to the invention of 4G LTE, networks were split between GSM and CDMA operators. Now, since the introduction of 4G LTE phones, new iPhones and Android devices are compatible with both GSM and CDMA networks. This means we no longer have to worry about whether our phone is GSM or CDMA or whether it will accept a SIM card. Basically, every unlocked iPhone after the iPhone 5 and any unlocked Android phone released after 2013 should be SIM card compatible.

What Are the Benefits of Buying an Unlocked Phone?

While they're typically pricier than locked phones, there are distinct advantages to purchasing an unlocked phone. Ahead, we'll reveal three worth considering.

Greater control of your plan 

When you purchase an unlocked phone, you're paying, in part, for the freedom to choose the plan and pricing that best suits your needs. Some carriers lock you into plans at a higher price point in order to sell you a better phone at a discount. With an unlocked phone, however, you typically have more freedom to add or remove services as needed-and you can switch between plans with no penalties. 

No long-term contracts

Another advantage of opting for an unlocked phone is that it's not bound by a contract. You are not required to stay with a single carrier for more than two years or to adhere to your contract's restrictions and data allotments.

More freedom when traveling internationally

Unlocked phones are often easier (and more affordable) to use in other countries than locked phones. You will have to purchase a SIM card from an international provider during your trip-but once you do, you'll have access to the international network, typically at a lower price than a US-based provider would charge for international roaming. Because of this perk, unlocked phones are in high demand, so if you ever decide to sell your device and purchase a new one, you may get a good price for it.

What Are The Disadvantages of an Unlocked Phone?

Though unlocked phones do have notable advantages, there are drawbacks, too. Understanding these potential drawbacks can help you make an informed decision next time you decide to purchase a new phone.

Less carrier support

Carriers will allow you to use unlocked phones, but they may not be able to provide as much help in the event that something goes wrong. You may be on your own if your phone stops working, the network goes down, or you have any other technical troubles. The manufacturer has a support team, but their expertise in carrier network technology is confined to their products.

Must be paid for in full 

When you purchase an unlocked phone, you have to pay in full-without the middleman (in other words, a carrier), there's no way to pay for your device in installments or secure a discount. If you're on a budget, this may not be a feasible option, as new smartphones can go for well over $1,000. Even older models can run in the upper hundreds. 

By now, you should have a better idea of what "unlocked" means in the context of phones. Remember, even if you have paid off your phone and fulfilled your contact duties, the phone is yours to keep, and you should be able to swap at any time. Ultimately, the choice of a locked versus an unlocked phone is yours, and hopefully, our guide will help you navigate finding your next phone.

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