In the past, one of the most obnoxious things about buying a phone on contract was how carriers could allow or deny requests to unlock it, even after you paid it off. But starting today, once you've paid off your contract or owned a pre-paid phone for a year, all major US carriers have to unlock your phone for you if you ask.
Carriers also have to tell you when your phone is eligible to be unlocked, and they have to unlock phones for deployed military personnel.
This is great news. It means that if you bought an iPhone on contract with AT&T a few years ago, finished your contract, and now want to take the phone on a trip to Germany, AT&T can't refuse to unlock a post-paid phone. (AT&T has been the most difficult to deal with about unlocking phones.)
It's been a long time coming: Today is the deadline for an agreement reached between the Federal Communications Commission and wireless carriers back in 2013.
Here are the relevant parts of the agreement:
Postpaid Unlocking Policy. Carriers upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee.
Prepaid Unlocking Policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.
Rules around locking and unlocking phones have gone back and forth in the past few years. For a while, it was illegal to unlock your phone without express consent of your carrier. In 2014, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act made it legal again. And this latest deadline is another win for people who want the freedom to use their phone on multiple carriers, since providers like AT&T and Verizon can't say no if you ask to unlock a phone you've already paid for.
While most major carriers already have policies that oblige requests to unlocked post-paid phones, before now, it's been up to them whether or not to unlock them. So this change gives power back to the people who just want the phones they own to be unlocked.
Let me know in the comments if you're going to take advantage of this, and whether you've had trouble getting carriers to unlock your phones in the past. [Ars Technica]