Mobile unlocking

Many mobile phones are locked to the network they were bought from. If you want to switch provider, you may have to get it unlocked. Find out how.

Many mobile phones are locked to the network they were bought from. If you want to switch provider, you may have to get it unlocked. Find out how.

Holly Niblett
From the Digital team
minute read
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Posted 13 JANUARY 2021

What does it mean when a phone is locked?

Mobile phones are sometimes ‘locked’ to the network you bought the phone from. This means the handset will usually only work when used with that particular provider. If you want to switch to a different provider but keep your existing mobile phone, you may need to get it unlocked.

Will my phone definitely be locked when I buy it?

No, different providers have different policies – and it can also depend on the phone or device.

For example, all mobiles bought from EE, some of those from BT Mobile and most of the handsets from Vodafone are sold locked to their networks. Tesco Mobile also locks most of its pay-as-you-go handsets and some of its pay-monthly handsets. Sky, Three, Virgin Mobile and O2 handsets are sold unlocked.

How do I find out if my mobile phone is locked?

The easiest way to find out if your handset is locked is by trying a SIM card from a different network in it. Maybe ask a friend or family member on another network if you can try their SIM in your phone to see if it works, or get a free SIM card from another carrier. If you get an error message and you can’t make any calls, it’s possible your phone is locked.

Ask your mobile phone provider if you’re still not sure.

How do I unlock my phone?

If your phone is locked, it's important to know that it doesn’t automatically get unlocked when your contract ends; you’ll have to ask your provider to unlock it for you. Phones that have been reported as lost or stolen will not be unlocked.

Mobile providers have different policies and processes for unlocking phones. For example, some will only unlock your mobile phone after a certain amount of time has passed and will charge a fee. Others will happily unlock your phone at any time for free.

And, if you’re on a pay-monthly contract and are outside your minimum contract period, don’t worry – most providers will now unlock your phone for free.

Some mobiles can be unlocked relatively speedily. For other handsets, unlocking may take longer. This may be because your provider has to contact the handset manufacturer to get the unlocking code. If you’re changing providers, remember it could take up to two or three weeks to get your phone unlocked. It could be best to do this in advance of swapping mobile providers so you’ll be ready to go straight away. You’ll be able to continue to use your phone with your existing provider until you’re ready to swap.

Details of your provider’s mobile-unlocking procedure should usually be on their website. You’ll usually need to know your phone’s IMEI number and the personal details you used to register with the provider so they know it’s you.

How to find your phone’s IMEI number

  • On Android phones you can usually find the IMEI by dialling *#06#.
  • On an iPhone Go to Settings > General and tap About – you may need to scroll to find the IMEI.
Provider Locked/unlocked policy
BT  Some of the models locked to the BT Mobile network include: the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S9 range, the iPhone X range, Motorola G7 Power and Moto G6 Play, and the Huawei Mate P20 Pro and P30 range. You can’t unlock a locked mobile from BT for six months. If you unlock your mobile between six and 24 months, you’ll pay a fee of £8.99 (price correct December 2020) and if you’ve had the contract for more than 24 months, unlocking is free.
EE – guide to unlocking and ee device 

All devices sold by EE are 'locked' to EE. You must have a device for six months before you can unlock it. It costs £8.99 if you’re in contract or is free if you’re out of contract for pay monthly. It’s free for pay-as-you-go if bought direct from EE, £8.99 otherwise.

iPads, iPhones and Google Pixel phones will also unlock automatically, for free, after a certain amount of time – 18 months for iPhones. You can check if your Apple phone is unlocked by texting UNLOCK to 150 to see your unlock status.

GiffGaff  All phones are sold unlocked. There is an unlocking guide for phones from other providers.


O2 no longer locks most devices to its network. Since 1 Aug 2018, Apple devices bought directly from O2 are no longer locked. And almost all new devices shipped after January 2019 are now unlocked, with Huawei dongles being unlocked since April 2019.

Alcatel and Doro devices are still locked.

Tesco mobile Tesco don’t charge to unlock Tesco Mobile pay monthly phones or pay-as-you-go phones over 12 months old. If you have a pay-as-you-go phone that’s less than 12 months old, you’ll need to pay £10.
Three  If you bought a device from Three after 2014, it should already be unlocked.
Virgin mobile  Mobile phones from Virgin are unlocked.
Vodafone  Unlocking most Vodafone phones is free.
For other providers you’ll need to check their website for information.


Some independent phone shops offer an unlocking service, which they’ll charge for. If you’re very tech savvy you may be able to find a code to unlock your phone for free and maybe even the right software. But both these methods could invalidate any warranty you have, so you’d need to be careful. It’s much safer to get your network to sort it out for you and, as it’s generally free or under a tenner, the DIY approach probably isn’t worth the risk.

Why is it worth getting my phone unlocked?

There are a few reasons:

  • If you’re on a pay-monthly deal and have paid off the costs of your handset, you may well find a cheaper SIM only deal. If your phone isn’t locked, you can choose from the whole market to find the best one for you.
  • An unlocked phone is likely to fetch a better price if you want to sell it. It might sell faster too.
  • You might want to use a SIM from an overseas network abroad so you pay local charges and not roaming charges when you use your phone.

What’s the difference between unlocking and unblocking a mobile?

Unblocking your phone is different from unlocking it. If you’ve blocked your SIM by putting in the wrong PIN too many times, you’ll need to get a PUK (Personal Unblocking Key) code. If you kept the packaging for your SIM you may be able to find it on that. If not, you’ll have to contact your network provider or you may be able to get the PUK by logging into your online account.

If my phone’s been stolen, can someone else get it unlocked so they can use it?

Phones that their owners have reported as lost or stolen will not be unlocked. So, make sure you report your missing phone as soon as possible to prevent misuse and fraud.

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