Is It Legal to 'Unlock' Your Cell Phone? - Law and Daily Life
Law & Daily Life - The FindLaw Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

Is It Legal to 'Unlock' Your Cell Phone?

Unlocking a cell phone can be a big deal when switching between wireless carriers, and many mobile users may be wondering if unlocking is even legal.

There have been various changes in "unlocking" laws in the last five years, but it's still technically illegal to unlock your phone in many cases. Here's why:

DCMA Prohibits Unlocking

Modern cell phones are indeed smartphones. They have at least as much computing power and storage space as the PCs of the last decade, and are priced accordingly.

For these reasons, it seems more important than ever to ensure that you can use your smartphone on any cell carrier if you decide to switch. However, most cell phones purchased through a cell provider in the United States come "locked," making them unusable on networks other than the one that sold it.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) was updated in 2012 to prohibit unlocking cell phones. Federal lawmakers reasoned that consumers could still buy "unlocked" phones and that the mobile market would provide enough alternatives for this unlock ban to sit just fine.

But if you know anyone who's tried to get any cell carrier to unlock an iPhone while still on contract, you know it isn't that simple.

Potential Changes in DMCA Coming

The DCMA is set to be revisited by the Library of Congress every three years, but the U.S. House of Representatives is already moving to try to change the "unlock" policy. H.R. 1123, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, would repeal the current ban on unlocking for all mobile devices.

The bill would also allow the DCMA to still prohibit unlocking devices for "bulk resale," which the Electronic Frontier Foundation claims will cut against reuse of electronics -- consigning more locked smartphones to the trash. However, individual owners could still unlock and sell their phones.

After passing the House, H.R. 1123 was pushed to a Senate committee, and there's no telling when, if ever, it will become law.

Carrier Can Unlock for You

Most of the major carriers have agreed to unlock mobile devices:

  • No more than a year after purchasing a pre-paid device,
  • After fulfilling service contract, or
  • After paying an early-termination fee.

This is a voluntary commitment on the part of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular, meaning there is no law prohibiting a change in policy any time soon.

Related Resources: