Raise your hand if you wish you could relinquish yourself from your current service provider, but keep your phone. If you’re raising your hand, then you’re in luck because, here, you’ll find a solution for unlocking your phone, and that includes a solution for non-customers.

You see, when you buy a phone you’re usually locked into that phone’s carrier; try swapping your SIM card with a different network and you’re going to be disappointed. If you buy a phone from Verizon, you’re locked into Verizon. The keyword is “usually.” First, you need to figure out which category your phone falls into: CDMA or GSM?

Carrier Technology

Take a look at your smartphone. Is it Verizon or Sprint? Then your smartphone probably falls under CDMA. Is it AT&T or T-Mobile? Then your smartphone probably falls under GSM. They’re both examples of carrier technology.

CDMA, or “Code Division Multiple Access,” is more restrictive on your choice of carriers. You aren’t going to have much luck unlocking and transferring a smartphone under a CDMA carrier. On the other hand, with GSM smartphones, or “Global System for Mobile Communications,” (it’s a good thing acronyms were invented, right? What a mouthful.) you can remove the SIM card, find the carrier you really want and pop it in, but it has to be compatible with the device.

You’re probably starting to the picture: CDMA comes with a lot of restrictions. You’re tied down to one carrier and if you want to switch, well, you’ll most likely need a whole new smartphone. And the worst part? If the next network you switch to is CDMA, there’s still a chance you’ll need a new phone. CDMA, with all its flaws, is still a-okay to use. You’ll never notice the restrictions using the smartphone from day to day, especially if you like your carrier.

GSM is looking pretty nice, yeah? GSM isn’t without its own restrictions, sadly. For starters, both carriers work better in certain locations. If a GSM has poor coverage in your area, but better coverage with CDMA, you’ll have no qualms choosing a CDMA for everyday use.

The second restriction GSM phones typically come with is frequency bands: 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 are the most common. Your phone needs a compatible frequency band if you’re interested in switching carriers.

Lastly, you should be sure the SIM card you’re buying is actually compatible with the smartphone to begin with if you choose GSM.

Both carriers have their own ups and downs. CDMA may seem “worse,” but really, you can buy a CDMA-based phone and be none the wiser. The smartphone will work as intended, with all the bells and whistles and your favorite apps. This isn’t to pick on CDMA. Both are great for normal use. However, as a suggestion, GSM is perfect as a traveling phone. The next time you visit another country, you can simply buy a compatible SIM card and dodge racking up a big phone bill.

However, if you’re an individual who doesn’t like being forced into a rigid one way street, CDMA isn’t the way for you.

The Legalities of Unlocking your Phone

With all that being said, you’re probably wondering if this is all legal. When you hear the phrase “unlocking a phone,” it almost sounds like you’re jailbreaking or rooting your smartphone. Fortunately for you, that’s not the case. Rest assured, it’s perfectly legal. Your carrier can even offer it as a service.

You’re not breaking the phone. In fact, the FCC, or “Federal Communications Commission,” actually favored the side of the consumer (for once) and ruled it was perfectly legal to unlock your phone. There are some caveats to understand though.

FCC makes it clear, “after you have fulfilled the applicable service contract, completed device installment plan or paid an early termination fee.” As soon as you meet those qualifications, you’re good to go.

In other words, if you signed into a service contract, and it hasn’t met its deadline yet, then you aren’t eligible for the unlocked phone service. Essentially, you must honor your deal, or terminate the contract, before you can unlock your smartphone.

The FCC sides with the consumer, yet again, when they mandated carriers to unlock phones, at the request of the consumer, at no cost to you. However, there is a way to bypass having to worry about fulfilling contracts or other qualifications. Simply purchase a GSM phone right off the bat. In fact, any phone you pick up has a good chance of having different carrier models. Find the phone you want and double-check that is supports both GSM or CDMA.

So, after all that, how do you start unlocking your phone? Here’s what you can do to get started.

Head over to your Service Provider

Visiting your service provider is surely the most straightforward path. As mentioned before, the FCC ruled that you, as the consumer, can get the service for free if your phone falls under the rules of eligibility. However, another caveat, you must be an existing customer or former customer of theirs. You’ll be paying a fee if you aren’t a customer of a specific carrier.

It should be mentioned, though, the FCC states, “Participating providers may not charge existing or former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked. Providers may charge a fee to unlock eligible devices for non-customers and former customers.” It’s unclear where former customers stand. It may depend on the carrier to decide how they handle former customers. It’s best to contact the carriers and discover for yourself where former customers stand.

You’re in luck if you’re a current customer, not so much if you aren’t, unfortunately. However, there’s still an out for non-customers.

Websites Offering Free Codes

If you aren’t having much luck getting your carrier to provide an unlock code, you can always visit various websites that offer the same service. However, the websites you find can be incredibly sketchy. There are dozens of reviews of customers not getting their codes.

At first, that may not seem so bad. You didn’t lose money, right? Well, some websites advertise as “free,” but then ask for payment if you want your code. The aforementioned reviews are customers that paid for a code, got duped out of their money and were left empty handed.

The same can be said about software. There are a handful of, presumably, legitimate software programs that can generate a code for your model, but again, it’s a third-party program. You’ll never know for sure if it’s safe to use or not. It’s possible the software could contain malware, only making matters worse.

It can’t be stressed enough how unsafe this option is. You’ve been warned.

Bottom Line

The most surefire way of getting your phone unlocked is through your carrier. If you’re a customer, they’ll do it for free, absolutely no charge to you. And if they do, the FCC will be breathing down their neck.

Software and websites are an option, but it isn’t recommended at all.

A third option, that isn’t free, is buying a GSM-compatible phone. If you’re strapped for cash, there’s always the option of buying a far more cheaper phone. It’s not a bad idea to have a backup GSM phone, anyway, if your primary phone is CDMA.