This is a simple how to guide on how to unlock a UK mobile phone. Most phones purchased within the UK are locked, that is to say they only work with a sim card from the network from which the phone was purchased.

Why do companies do this?

The UK mobile phone market is very competitive due to the large numbers of both manufacturers and mobile network operators who operate throughout the country. Due to this competition there are various deals done to attract an individual to a particular network. Sometimes this involves a subsidised price for the mobile phone handset when it is purchased, which can in fact sometimes result in the phone being sold at a less than cost price, with the belief that the subsidy will be recouped by the network operator over the lifetime of the handset from call, text and other charges. There are also cases when there can be exclusivity deals which means that some handsets are only available on specific networks, of which the iphone only appearing on O2 is arguably the most famous example of this. The network operators lock phones so that they will only be able to be used on their network, allowing the company to recoup any cost associated with the subsidised initial price of the handset/the cost of the exclusivity deal. However, it is possible to unlock phones, and this is in fact a completely legal process.

Why would there be a need to unlock a phone?

Put simply an unlocked phone is able to work on any network in the UK, as well as working in many foreign markets. This has a couple of advantages for the owner of the phone. Firstly they can continue to use the existing phone on a cheaper tariff. It may be the case that the most economical tariff is available on a different network, and so an unlocked phone is a requirement if wishing to use the existing phone. Even if only planning to negotiate with the existing network operator for a better tariff, the ability to say to them that you have an unlocked phone and so are able to transfer to a competitor, improves the consumer's bargaining position considerably. Certainly, when I informed my network operator (Vodafone) that I was planning on keeping my phone but transferring to O2, I was offered a much cheaper tariff. Finally, even if you are intending to get a new mobile handset, since an unlocked phone can work on many networks and even abroad it can improve the retail value.

How can a phone be unlocked?

There are primarily two ways of unlocking a phone. The first is hardware based, and this involves modifying the hardware of the specific phone. The second is software based and involves entering a code into the mobile phone handset using the normal keypad. Depending on the phone, and network operator, it may be possible to unlock the phone in either both of these ways, or just one. It is probably often best to try the software based approach at unlocking the phone first, since this needs less tampering with components and therefore possibly less chance of individual parts being damaged. However, it is worth pointing out, that whilst unlocking a mobile phone in the UK is completely legal, in many cases doing so invalidates the warranty, regardless of whether it is done using the physical or code based approach.

How is the phone unlocked with a code?

For the phone to be unlocked with a code firstly a code needs to be found. This can be found in many ways, some of which are free and some of which cost money. The unlocking code depends on make and model, as well as a couple of other pieces of detail. Firstly find out exactly what make and model the phone is, it is important this is found out exactly, as there are often several slightly different versions of the same model phone. The existing network operator needs to be found, this should be known (basically who do you pay for using the phone) but if this is unknown it can be found by turning the phone on and there is often the brand name of the current network displayed on the screen, for example Orange. Finally the IMEI needs to be found. This is an international code which is unique to every mobile phone and to find out what it is for your particular one type *#06# into the keypad. Why it is that particular thing which needs to be known I have no idea, but it works!

Once this information is found it can then be possible to get an unlocking code off of the internet. A simple Google search should throw up a whole series of websites providing codes for unlocking popular older phones; however, for some makes there will be no code available online, in which case there is the need to contact the existing network operator directly. They should provide the code, however they may have some sort of charges for doing so, especially if the phone is relatively new or still under a contract period.

Once the code has been obtained, it is possible to use it to unlock the phone. It is a relatively simple process. Firstly turn the phone off and remove the sim card for the previous network provider and replace it with a sim card for the chosen new network provider. Once this has been done turn the phone on and some sort of message should appear. This will most likely say something like 'Invalid sim'. At this stage, type in code which was given, using the keypad on the phone. If done correctly, the phone should now work with the new sim card.

How can the phone be physically unlocked?

An alternative method of unlocking the phone involves unlocking it using a physical method. This involves using a simple cable to basically avoid the part of the phone which deals with locking. This can be a relatively complex procedure for those who have never done it before, especially since the method, and even the equipment needed, varies depending on make and model. As such, unless feeling very competent, I would recommend getting someone who knows how to unlock a mobile phone to do it. There are many such people with shops and market stalls throughout the country, who will generally do it for a very low price, often £5 or so. This low cost is a further reason for oneself not to touch the phone directly but to get a professional to do it.

What now?

Whether the phone has been unlocked physically or using the code is irrelevant - it is now an unlocked phone. This enables the individual to use whichever simcard which they like in their phone, whether British or foreign and also allows an individual to sell the phone as being unlocked, increasing its resale value.