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What does unlocked cell phone mean

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Almost any cellphone can be unlocked
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What does unlocked cell phone mean when you are shopping for a smartphone?

With the prices of smartphones seemingly going up every day, we are hearing more and more about the elusive unlocked phone. People who work in the industry tend to toss the term around like everyone around them knows exactly what they are talking about, but the fact of the matter is, most people are left asking, "what does unlocked cell phone mean?" 

It isn't a situation where you have to pick a lock in order to use the phone or open the ancient clamshell devices that are getting so much rarer.

So what does unlocked cell phone mean? Boiled down to a nutshell, an unlocked device is one that can be used on many different cellular carriers.

If you think cell phone prices are getting more expensive, then you should see what some of these phones cost if you don't have a contract. Cellular providers tend to work out price point deals with the makers of different phones and in turn offer them up to their customers at discounted prices. Usually these discounted prices come with a catch in the form of a contract (usually two years).

These phones also come with a special kind of encryption that tethers the phone to that specific wireless carrier. By doing this, the company knows you aren't buying a phone and then immediately turning around and using the phone on another carrier's network. This is one of the reasons it was such a big deal when it was reported that Apple finally allowed Sprint to carry the iPhone after initially only allowing AT&T and then Verizon.

So what does unlocked cell phone mean? It means that you can indeed buy an unlocked phone from AT&T and use it on the Sprint network (at least in theory, at the moment there's a reason why you can't I'll explain in a minute.) This is actually good for you, because you can usually buy an unlocked phone without having to tell one carrier or another you will only use their service for the next two years. Not locking into a contract usually means saving some big bucks on cancellation fees.  

The Key To the Unlocked Phone

Ok, you say, I've got the gist of what an unlocked phone is, but how does it work, what makes it different from a regular cell phone?

The key to an unlocked phone is all in the Subsciber Identity Module (SIM) card. The SIM card is the tiny little microchip looking card that is usually at the back of your phone under the battery cover. This is removable and when you do remove it all sorts of information comes with you.

Removing the SIM card and putting it into an unlocked phone will transfer not only data like music and contacts but it will also tell the cellular network to send any calls or texts to whatever phone contains the SIM card. Unlocking and moving from one network to another is really this simple.

Can Any Phone by Unlocked?

This is where unlocking gets a little tricky and why the example of using an AT&T phone on the Sprint network doesn't work. There are actually two different kinds of major cellular phone technology. 

The first kind is the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) and in the United States is currently used by AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile, Boost and Cricket. Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) is another kind of phone that is used most often by Sprint, Verizon, Virgin Mobile and Alltel. So while both GSM and CDMA phones can be unlocked, they are not interchangeable. If you bought a phone that is CDMA and you attempt to unlock it, you will still not be able to use the unlocked phone on wireless networks that operate with GSM, and vice versa.

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