September 20, 2023

What exactly is an “unlocked phone?”

Written by kevin-c

Tips & Tricks

If you’ve looked into using our TextNow SIM, you’ve almost certainly come across the term “unlocked” with regards to phones that can use our SIMs.

If you find this term confusing, you’re not alone. This article will hopefully sort out what we (and other carriers) mean by “unlocked.”

The Basics

In order to make sure that you use the phone purchased from a certain carrier with that actual carrier, they may sell it to you with built-in software that prevents the phone from working with a different carrier. Note: even if you buy the phone from, say, BestBuy, it may still be locked to a certain network/carrier (just check the fine print.)

All this software does is prevent it from connecting to any other network bands, so even if you pop in a T-Mobile SIM card into a phone you bought from Verizon, that phone will simply not be able to connect to T-Mobile's network and give you any service. It will only connect to Verizon's network with a Verizon SIM card.

The good news, though, is that this isn't really a problem anymore.

Every carrier, by law, is required to unlock a phone upon customer request. You can read the details about unlocking right from the FCC site, here:

Granted, some carriers make it easier than others to unlock your device. Some might require you to physically come into one of their stores to get it unlocked. And note that carriers will not unlock phones that still have any money owed.

Confusion about “locked”

Much of the confusion about the term “unlocked” is due, I suspect, because the screen you see when you turn on your phone is also called the lock screen:

So, understandably, some people think “Sure, my phone is unlocked, I entered the PIN.” But, as explained above, what carriers mean by “unlocked” is different. A more accurate term for a phone that is not currently active on a network would be “carrier-unlocked.”

How can I tell if my phone is unlocked?

The easiest way to see if a phone is unlocked or not is to use our guide here, with instructions for both Android and iOS. We also have a carrier-specific guide, with links to each carrier’s instructions for unlocking.

How is this different than checking if my phone is compatible?

Checking if your phone is compatible with a carrier checks for different factors (certain bands, software system, etc.) that would be needed in order for the phone to work with the service. Most phones nowadays are compatible with any carrier, and the factors that usually rule them out are if they were originally from another country (which may use different bands for their own local networks that aren't compatible with what we use in North America), or if they are much older (if they don't even have apps). It's important to run both checks – if your phone is unlocked, and if it's compatible – before purchasing a SIM.

Once you've verified your phone is unlocked, you can check its compatibility by running its IMEI number with our phone checker.

To find your IMEI, simply follow these steps:

For Android:  Go to Settings > About Phone > Status

For iPhone: Go to Settings > General > About

Unlocking in a nutshell

So, to quickly review:

  1. You need a carrier-unlocked phone to use a TextNow SIM card.

  2. You can find out if your phone is carrier-unlocked with our device checking tool.

  3. Unlocking your phone’s lock screen is different from unlocking your phone from a carrier.

And, of course, #4: Use your carrier-unlocked phone with a TextNow SIM card for free phone service!