You could be forgiven for thinking that phone contracts go something like this: buying the phone outright will give you the ability to switch networks with ease, while getting the device on contract means you're locked to the provider.
While that is true to some extent, it definitely doesn't tell the full story. A locked phone will prevent you using your minutes, texts and data with a new SIM, but once the contract is up you're probably free to do as you please.
In the UK, networks are no longer allowed to sell locked handsets. UK communications regulator Ofcom has introduced a new set of rules that will prevent any networks from being allowed to sell a phone that isn't unlocked, which came into force in December 2021.
Still, if you bought your phone before that cut-off, there's a chance that it may still be locked.
Just to clarify, we are referring to phones that may be locked to particular service providers. If you are locked out of your device as a result of forgetting your password, PIN or swipe gesture, check out our guide here.
Is it legal to unlock your phone?
If you’ve finished paying for your contract, it’s completely legal to unlock your phone. The same goes for any phone you purchased outright.
However, if you’re still in the process of paying off your initial contract you technically do not own the phone yet, meaning unlocking your phone to other providers may not be possible until the contract ends. Some carriers may have nothing against it, but it's definitely worth checking before you start the process.
Before you proceed, it's worth being 100% sure that your phone is already locked. Check out our dedicated guide to find out how.
How to unlock your phone
Unlocking a phone can be surprisingly easy once you know how.
1. First, you’ll need to contact your provider and request an unlock. This must be the original network, not the network of the new SIM you’re trying to use.
2. Once you’ve had confirmation that your phone has been unlocked by your provider, you can power down the phone, put your new SIM card into the SIM card slot, and turn the phone back on.
3. Now, try making a call to find out whether or not the unlock has been successful. If you’re able to connect a phone call over the new network, the unlock has worked. If not, get back in touch with your network provider for further assistance.
If you don’t have the original SIM card, you may need to reset the phone before it can be unlocked.
Contact your network provider
Taking a closer look at step one, we’ve listed each of the popular network providers in the UK to help you find out how to go about unlocking your phone. Find your carrier from the list below and follow the instructions provided.
Visit EE's phone unlock page
To unlock your EE phone, you must be the account holder for the device and number, have had the device for at least six months, have paid your bill up-to-date and have not reported the device as lost or stolen.
While EE used to charge to unlock certain handsets, such as those still under contract, it will now unlock any device for free. The only thing you'll need is your phone's IMEI number, which you can usually find on the original packaging, or can discover by dialling *#06* on the phone's keypad.
EE aims to unlock your phone instantly, but it can take up to seven days in some cases.
You can find out more about unlocking your EE phone and contact EE directly by clicking here.
Giffgaff is a bit unusual in that it offers an ‘unlockapedia’ that you can use to search for your phone make and model to find out how to go about unlocking it.
O2 will unlock your phone at any time for free. However, you'll need to continue to pay for your contract until it ends.
Phones purchased via Sky should already be unlocked, so you won’t need to get in touch with the company to unlock your phone. Instead, try your new SIM and it should work.
If you’re using an iPhone, you may need to go into Settings > Mobile Data > Mobile Data Options > Mobile Data Network > Reset Settings.
If you’ve got a phone with Tesco Mobile, it will be free to unlock whether you're in a contract or not.
You just need to submit an unlock request, and have your IMEI number handy.
It can take up to seven days to unlock a phone on Tesco Mobile.
Three has an online unlocking form available, but if you purchased your phone from Three after 1 January 2014 your device will already be unlocked.
Most Virgin Mobile phones will already be unlocked, so you should have no trouble here. Just try the new SIM card and it should work without requiring any further action.
You’ll be able to use Vodafone’s online unlock request form. It may take up to 10 working days to receive an unlock code from the company. You’ll need to be up to date with your bills, too.
Using a third-party unlocking service
We would always recommend checking with your network provider before you resort to a third-party unlocking service, but sometimes it can be much quicker and easier.
It’s important to watch out for third-party unlocking services that sting customers with extra bills at the end of the process, so be sure to read the small print before you hand over your money.
We’ve tried and tested Doctor SIM, which promises a refund if the unlock is unsuccessful and didn’t surprise us with any hidden fees. It could be an option if you’ve tried the methods listed above.
We wouldn’t recommend paying anything more than £25 to have your phone unlocked. If someone is trying to charge you more than that, they are trying their luck.
If you have more than one phone, you may also need our guide on how to unlock an iPhone.