Android

What it means to buy an unlocked phone

unlocked phones vs. locked phones

Photo by Phillip Artisanbread

You may have heard of the term “unlocked” before when shopping for a new or used phone, but didn’t know what it meant. Don’t feel bad, a lot of people are still learning what an unlocked phone is and why they should care about it. This article will explain what buying an unlocked phone means and how it can save you a ton of money.

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You may have heard of the term “unlocked” before when shopping for a new or used phone, but didn’t know what it meant. Don’t feel bad, a lot of people are still learning what an unlocked phone is and why they should care about it. This article will explain what buying an unlocked phone means and how it can save you a ton of money.

What is an unlocked phone

If you don’t have an unlocked phone then you likely have a phone that is locked to your carrier. Phone compatibility with certain carriers depends on network bands, the cellular frequencies the phones and networks use to communicate. Many phones have the hardware ability to connect to many networks (they have broad band compatibility), but they are locked to a particular network by the software installed on them.

Some phones are unlocked and are able to work on any network their hardware is compatible with, including overseas carriers. If a phone is locked, then it can only be used on the original network it was released for. (Not to be confused with an iPhone lock or network blocked phone.) An unlocked phone can be used on any network it has compatible technology with.

How can a phone be unlocked

A phone can be factory unlocked, meaning it’s originally sold as unlocked. Or a phone can be carrier unlocked, meaning it’s originally just for one carrier, but is then unlocked by that carrier to be taken to other carriers. This is most common with AT&T phones.

Of the big 4 networks, Verizon and Sprint are both CDMA networks. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM networks. The details and differences of CDMA and GSM technology don’t much matter here, but it’s helpful to know when it comes to referencing GSM unlocked phones.

The most popular kind of phones are the GSM unlocked phones which can work on AT&T, T-Mobile and also with most MVNOs like Ting, Net10 and Cricket Wireless. You’ll want to check out our blog post on MVNO’s to learn more about these carriers and how they can save you money.

There is a large selection of GSM phones that you can choose from. They are generally more broadly compatible than CDMA phones, so you’ll see a lot of GSM unlocked phones. That’s why we gave them their own category on Swappa.

Why you want an unlocked phone

Now that we understand a bit more about how phones are unlocked or locked to a certain type of network, you may be asking, why would I want an unlocked phone? Maybe you’re looking for other carrier options or you want a phone that you can use internationally. Maybe, you want more options in devices or plans? An unlocked phone gives you the freedom to make choices across all of these things: devices, carriers and plans.

At Swappa, we believe in making buying used mobile devices more affordable, more convenient and more safe. Buying an unlocked phone from Swappa is just one way you can make owning a great device for far less than retail a reality.

To learn how to save even more money, read this article on how to drastically cut your mobile phone bill with an MVNO + BYOD combo.