Unlocking Carrier Branded Cell Phone Now Deemed Illegal in USA

| January 26, 2013 | 70 Replies

Nokia-Interop-UnlockOne of the few advantages of living in Jordan is that no carriers brand and lock cell phones to their network. A law passed by the Library of Congress 3 months ago deemed it illegal to unlock a cellphone branded to a carrier in the US (think Lumia 920/900 on At&t).


However it is still perfectly legal to have your carrier officially unbrand the cellphone, provided they agree of course. This does make it more difficult for people on other networks to get devices such as the 920, especially with the exclusivity deals Nokia has been striking.

Thankfully there seems to be a variant of the Lumia 920 heading to Verizon soon, still it must suck to have even more to worry about next time you buy a phone.




Category: Lumia, Nokia, Windows Phone

About the Author ()

Hey, my name's Ali- Currently a fifth (and final) year Dental Student from Chicago; studying in Jordan. I love all sorts of gadgets almost as much as I love my cookies! Be sure to follow my Twitter handle @AliQudsi and Subcribe to my Youtube for the latest videos - no pressure. Thanks.
  • Brian

    I’m obviously a bit thick because I don’t really understand what the point is of unlocking a “carrier branded phone”. Regardless of whether or not you use it on that carrier you still pay through the nose for the 24 months (or whatever the period is) of your contract.

    Once the contract is up then again if you want to unlock the phone and use it on another network why were you dumb enough to pay several times the cost of the sim free phone in monthly contract charges in the first place?

    • Hexpoll

      There are a number of reasons.
      1) Traveling internationally
      2) Switching carriers, perhaps to a pay-as-you-go plan. In these cases you pay an early termination fee, but your own property (your cell phone) is now useless to you and you are banned from unlocking it.

      This has to do with property rights. In the USA now, you don’t actually own your phone. AT&T does.

      • That’s just plain retarded, I wouldn’t rent a phone. Never, what I use I own. Without any restrictions.

        It made sense when carriers actually subventioned phones, like they payed for a certain portion of the device price and expected you to bring in more revenue than that in the timespan of the imposed SIM lock.

        While people in the USA seem to rent their device for the same price, they could actually buy it unlocked AND accept a SIM lock. That’s just lazy and well stupid? Am I mistaken?

        • *subsidize

        • incognito

          Everybody using an iOS or WP device, and to some extends even Android – rents his phone. Sure, if it’s not carrier-locked you can take it to other networks no questions asked, but still a corporate head decides what you can and what you cannot do with ‘your’ device.

          Carrier lock-in of today’s smartphone is like paying a double rent, or rather it’s like renting an apartment in a mafia controlled neighborhood – you pay the property owner to let you in, and you pay mafia pawns for ‘protection’.

        • Viipottaja

          And where do you/ does one get the service and do you pay less per month than those who got the phone with the contract on that same service provider?

          • shallow ocean shoal

            Tmobile value plans!! Bring your own device.

            • Viipottaja

              LTE on my 920?

              • shallow ocean shoal

                If it’s Rogers or Dev unit, 100%

                If it’s an unlocked AT&T, yes if you are in a “refarmed” area. There’s a map online of them somewhere, a bunch of big cities already done.

              • shallow ocean shoal

                Sorry for the long list everyone, found this list on tmonews

                Currently live locations of 1/11/13:
                •Kansas City, KS
                •Las Vegas, NV
                •Baltimore, MD
                •Houston, TX
                •Washington, D.C.
                •Miami, FL
                •Ft. Lauderdale, FL
                •Phoenix, AZ
                •Mesa, AZ
                •Tucson, AZ
                •Silicon Valley, CA
                •San Francisco, CA
                •Oakland, CA
                •Stockton, CA
                •Modesto, CA
                •Atlanta, GA
                •Seattle, WA
                •Minneapolis, MN
                •Chicago, IL
                •Sacramento, CA
                •Fresno, CA
                •Reno, NV
                •Anaheim. CA
                •New York, NY
                •Newark, NJ
                •Boston, MA
                •Cambridge, MA
                •Springfield, MA
                •Providence, RI
                •Philadelphia, PA
                •Detroit, MI
                •Warren, MI
                •Dallas, TX
                •Fort Worth, TX
                •Austin, TX
                •San Antonio, TX
                •Tampa, FL
                •Virginia Beach, VA
                •Denver, CO
                •Los Angeles, CA
                •San Diego, CA

                • sunnyvale

                  You forgot one.

                  San Juan, PR.

                  in fact, there’s now LTE in most of the cities in the metropolitan area, not only San juan

    • DesR85

      “I’m obviously a bit thick because I don’t really understand what the point is of unlocking a “carrier branded phone”. Regardless of whether or not you use it on that carrier you still pay through the nose for the 24 months (or whatever the period is) of your contract.”

      It makes sense if you happen to be an overseas student. A number of my friends who went overseas, particularly Australia, do this before coming back for the year end holidays.

  • american nokia user

    FYI I am using Red Pocket(AT&T MVNO) on my locked AT&T Lumia 920.

    • Viipottaja

      Why? How much do you pay and do you get full lte etc?

      I am trying to find a cheaper alternative to at&t proper so appreciate any tips.

      • american nokia user

        I have used H2O mobile, Straight Talk, and Red Pocket(currently using). Straight talk is $45, H2O is $60, and Red Pocket is $54.95.
        For 30 days, all have unlimited talk, text. H2O has 2G, Straight Talk is unlimited(rumor that they throttle use if abused), and Red Pocket is 1G. I use Red Pocket because their customer service is better and their website is better, I don’t use that much data. If your 920 is unlocked and you live in an refarmed T-mobile city, Solarei and Simple Mobile both offer unlimited talk,text,and data for $50. T-mobile has unlimited everything for $70. Hope this helps.

  • Are you referring to SIM lock or a branded firmware (bloatware or whatever)

    I can’t believe the latter to be possibly illegal to remove unless you don’t own the device, because even if you do and hey say bla bla you only license the software (OS and whatnot) it’s still soo essential for the device to be considered a device at all that altering it to your liking must be legal!

    A SIM lock though is something different and intends to lock your device to the carrier you bought it from.

    Branding and SIM lock are never dependent on each other.

    Cheers and please enlighten me to what you refer Ali 🙂

    • Carbontubby

      I thought in a lot of cases, especially in the US, sim lock = branding?

      If you buy an AT&T branded Lumia 920 for $99, AT&T pays the full $700+ price to Nokia, then you pay the usage fees + the phone price to AT&T divided up monthly over the total contract period. You’re effectively leasing the phone with an option to buy it outright and unlock it at the end of the contract period. Unlocking it before that term would be a breach of contract so you would have to pay the remaining phone price and some extra fees.

      I wonder how the smartphone market in the US would survive if everyone had to pay the full $600-800 price for their iPhones. The rest of the world goes by that model and people are free to use their unbranded, unlocked phones on any carrier.

  • Andrew_b

    The land of the free, really? US mobile phone users are surely tied over a barrel with their pants/trousers down now.

    Is there any free competition in the US mobile phone market? I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come over here in the UK. EE have been trying it on with their head start in the 4G spectrum, but people have been staying away in droves.

    • Carbontubby

      Ironic that US mobile phone users don’t mind paying through the arse on a 24-month contract to a de facto monopoly like AT&T, yet they balk at paying the full price on a smartphone and being able to change their carrier and plan at any time.

      Hell, I doubt Apple would be able to move many iPhones if people had to pay the full price on those.

      • Pasanen oli hieno mies

        Nokia was so arrogant in the US that they didn’t want to work with carriers and they failed to sell phones in US.

        I guess Nokia should try to learn from Apple.

        • Deep Space Bar

          NO NOKIA SHOULD HAVE STAYED WITH THE EUROPEAN MARKETING plan instead and sleeping with carriers like how the USA is when it comes to phones/plans and carriers

    • shallow ocean shoal

      Oh my god, did you seriously just start crapping on Land of the Free. You people need to get out more.

      The CEO of Softbank, the huge Japanese cell phone carrier says:

      “The U.S. is very open — the most open country, and the most fair country for challengers,” Son said. “Whatever’s good for the consumers, the U.S. government tends to accept that — for the interests of the consumers, not for the interests of a particular company.”


      • Andrew_b

        Except in this case, legislation appears to have been passed purely to further the interests of the mobile phone companies and those interests are diametrically opposed to their customers’ with regard to phone unlocking and freedom of choice for service providers at the end of a contract.

        This law makes it almost pointless not to take a new device and renew the service contract every two years in the US.

        The situation in the UK is FAR SUPERIOR and offers true freedom of choice where consumers can arrange equipment and service either jointly or separately according to their needs. Many US consumers (not you SOS) have no idea how badly they are being butt-shafted compared to those in the UK.

        • shallow ocean shoal

          Why are you turning this into a UK vs. US thing? What is wrong with you? Hey happy 4th of July.

          Everybody knows the DMCA sucks. Let’s work on fixing it. Thankfully we have the EFF.

          • Andrew_b

            I’m not wanting to start a US vs UK war on this in the slightest, but we do seem to have a far more deregulated market and this clearly seems to benefit the consumer with regards to choice and cost.

            If US consumers were aware of how much they are being controlled and ripped off by the the carriers, they might do something about it. The problem is that they don’t seem to be aware that there are other workable business models

            I’m not anti-US, I’m anti big business ripping people off, making too much profit, paying shit wages and then avoiding paying tax.

            • shallow ocean shoal

              Sad to say, they are just giving what the public wants: phones that you pay for over time.

              The market is dictating.

              Plenty of other folks who want to buy outright can and do.

              • Janne

                Many markets offer you real pay as you go option. U.S. model in reality forces it (elsewhere you pay less if you bring your own phone, not so in U.S.) while charging ten times as much as abroad for that pay as you go (U.S. carrier pricing is hugely expensive and not in anyway in line with a reasonable payment plan for a device).

                U.S. model is not about pay as you go benefit, it is about pay through your nose benefit.

                • shallow ocean shoal

                  TMobile usa offers exactly what you are speaking of, they are called “Value Plans” and how they are getting iphone customers without selling an iphone outright

                  USA has CEX cell exchange, ebay, and everything else.

                  I think you guys are misunderestimating what is reality.

                  Yes AT&T and Verizon charge through the nose, and people are suckers.

                  But there are alternatives for us brainiacs.

                  • Janne

                    Sure, I know about T-Mobile. In reality even that pales with the policies abroad. Cellular plans in Europe are often 10 times cheaper and include pay as you go devices option for very reasonable part-payment terms. You can do whatever with the device, you just pay the installments like any credit, they just get charged via your phone bill. Once the phone is paid, you pay only for service. Service e.g. in Finland is around $10 for unlimited data and lots of call/SMS included per month.

                    Many things in U.S. are very cheap. This is not one of them. Thank the carrier history…

                    • shallow ocean shoal

                      And some 3rd world countries even cheaper…

                    • shallow ocean shoal

                      Oh and PS.

                      I pay $1.99 a month for HSPA+ unlimited internet on an old grandfathered Voicestream plan…

                    • Janne

                      What applies to Finland applies to many other markets in the EU, so I’m not discussing third world here. It was just my example from the home of Nokia. And these are current options on major national carriers.

                      The reason why U.S. and most of Europe are so different in this goes to the history of our carriers and the standardization processes in various countries.

                      Are you rally arguing U.S. isn’t backwater in this particular sense?

                    • shallow ocean shoal

                      No, but my point is now twisted to into something black and white. And I’m saying it’s a lot grayer than that.

                      I was simply correcting people that think it’s not possible in the usa to buy off contract, pay as you go, or have different cost plans depending on bring your device or not. All that exists. I never said it was cheaper than Finland, did I? And I wouldn’t expect it to be.

                      I agree EU countries are on average cheaper for cell phone service. Russia cheaper than that. India cheaper than that. Etcetera.

                      C’mon, this is getting to be a little silly.

      • Janne


        What we have here, men, is failure to communicate…

        Don’t make this a national issues, for most of us were are citizens of the world on tech sites like this. We can discuss pros and cons of various markets. Let’s keep it a rational issue.

  • mike

    This formula is for existing customers. The only requirement when you purchase a Lumia 920 is a $30 data plan for 2 years. So given that you have a minutes plan $40 + $20 text plan for 2 years = 2160 + 99 for phone = 2259 for two years.
    If I buy the phone outright for 450 cheapest data plan I can get is $10 monthly +$20 text, $40 minute plan, so in two years this equals $2430. So its cheaper to actually pay for the subsidized phone cause assuming you are going to use your phone for two years.

    • uru-khai

      I did not quite understand the calculation here!

      30 (data) + 40 (450 min) + 20 (text) = 90 per month => 2259 for 2 yrs

      OR for prepaid (straight talk/ net10)
      $45 (per month all unlimited) = 1080 + 450 (handset) => 1530 for 2 yrs ?

      You actually get more value for money from the prepaid guys, as talk/text is unlimited and data is throttled after 2GB.

      The argument here is, if you paid outright for the phone , why would you still go for one of the plans by AT&T or Verizon , and not use a prepaid carrier (I know LTE, but apart from that??)

      • dansus

        Plus you can get new handsets cheaper than full price if you shop around and if your a long term customer with a carrier, you will often get discounted service.

      • Hypnopottamus

        What you are forgetting is that more and more now, people are starting to utilize family plans, which can be cheaper. The scenario you point out is true for individual plans.

        Take AT&T family plan, for example. The primary line will vary depending on the plan you choose. But each additional line is $10 and add 30 for data and you can have a family unlimited text plan, and you can very well have a much cheaper option with an on contract family plan, plus your phone is subsidized. Obviously your mileage will vary.

        • Janne

          Still, those dollar amounts are insanely large compared to prices in many EU markets.

    • incognito

      … and then you need to go abroad for a while where it’s cheaper for you to just pop-in a local SIM, but since you’re locked in you have to pay through the roof for roaming charges etc. Or some other carrier is having a better deal.

      Such model would never work in Europe, or any other sufficiently diverse market where within a few hours drive you end up in a different market and have 10s of carriers to chose at any point of time.

  • dss

    att’s service is very good .. I’ve been using them with unlocked symbian phones for over 7 years and I am satisfied with what I am paying for. I get unlimited text/web and 450 with rollover for 90 dollars.. Considering that i use over 4gb of data every month, and i send/receive thousands of text messages.. It works for me.. Also calling another att phone is free.

    Straight Talk is the only pre paid company i would consider, but they have a 2gb data cap and that is not enough for my joiku spot activities…

    • jake

      does this include the phone or just sim only? That is really expensive. Compared to the uk that would cost about $30. Or about $60 including a latest phone like lumia 920 for free.

    • uru-khai

      So, do you just take a brand new smart/cell phone from At&t every 2 years and sell it off? This way, you get what you want from the AT&T network and also save some money!!

  • shallow ocean shoal

    You guys are crazy. The title of this post is wrong. Please don’t turn into the piece of garbage that Slashdot has become. FROM THE SOURCE:

    “What’s happening is not that the Copyright Office is declaring unlocking to be illegal, but rather that they’re taking away a shield that unlockers could use in court if they get sued”

    Do you guys really think that random cell phone company is going to sue Joe Blow for unlocking his lousy cell phone? Helllllo McFly, some carriers are unlocking cell phones as a customers service for their customers, today.

    • Dr.Smart

      Why take the risk? 😉

  • stylinred

    only in america

    • Hypnopottamus

      Unfortunately, you are correct my friend. Politics is such in the US that industries are embedded into our political processes. In many cases, the agencies set up to regulate certain industries are being run by former CEO,s and/or former heads of those very industries they are suppose to regulate. Even worse, the laws keeping these industries in check are being written by the very same industries.

      This is a discussion for another time, but as far as Telecomms are concerned, the industry has been so deregulated that companies like Verizon and AT&T have literally monopolized the market….all of it legal!

  • Deep Space Bar

    this is why iSTILL and never will trust carriers and the USA

    for me unlocked,unlocked,unlocked the only way

  • kan

    The us market creates perverse incentives where you can get a new Iphone for little more than a Lumia.

    Making unlocking illegal is simply lobbying being more effective than actually facing competition.

    The US system is up for sale to the highest lobbyist – ask Jack Abramoff.

  • JGrove303

    This is mostly a bitch for the second-hand market. On Ebay or Craigslist you could pick up C7 Astound and unlock it for AT&T use or unlock a DROID 3 WCDMA and UMTS radios and use it on another carrier instead of Verizon. I used my N8-00 on AT&T for a year and a half with my unlimited data raking up 12 GB a month tethering through Joiku to laptop and desktop and trips, along with steaming internet radio constantly. So in that sense, I just about got my money’s worth on the contract price (though I was Month to Month).

    But unless you use prepaid here, there is no sense in any of that. Get your device on contract, get better service and coverage than prepaid is the way to go. If you want a new device yearly. You can pay the early out fee $325- $10 X full months of service that you have completed. Still equals less than paying full retail on a unbranded unlocked flagship. I think that’s what we’re gonna do with my fiancés line, an iPhone 4S she’s had for a year. So, when the new Lumia drops,maybe May? $325-$140=$185 plus probably $150 for phone on contract = $335 versus ~$700 for what the lot of you might pay, or $550+ probably. Then we can sell the iPhone on to a prepaid user for at least $200

    • shallow ocean shoal


      Also people are forgetting how dirt cheap the 920 was if they signed up on contract, then turned around and broke the contract and paid the fee. It was STILL CHEAPER than everywhere else in the world.

      • Carbontubby

        After breaking the contract, paying the early out and remaining device fees, would AT&T or Verizon or whoever unlock the device? I doubt profit-hungry US carriers would allow you to get an unlocked flagship device for half the full price, maybe they don’t mind you selling it off as long as it was locked to the original network. To unlock it you would have to pay another fee. God bless America 🙂

        • shallow ocean shoal

          TMobile doesn’t charge. AT&T doesn’t charge. You fill out a form and wait a week.

          Stop spreading FUD.

        • shallow ocean shoal

          And how would unlocking a verizon cell phone help anybody besides other verizon customers? I don’t think that you know much about US cell phone carriers.

          • Janne

            That is another issues with U.S. carriers, very loose national standards meaning interoperability of mobile phones between carriers is very bad. Contrast this to Europe or even Russia, where you have much more uniform network technologies/frequencies that make moving from carrier to carrier, even between countries, a breeze – add to that historical and legal reasons and that’s the major difference between these markets…

            U.S. is very advanced and cheap in many things, mobile operator situation just isn’t one of those.

            • shallow ocean shoal

              Janne, love ‘ya, but you have veered off course. We got your point in the other post above. All I was saying, this time, is that trying to unlock a verizon cell phone is a stupid comment because you can’t use it anywhere else (although recent iphone developments have changed that a little).

              Let me remind people here why the USA has different incompatible technologies, compared to the single GSM standard, which let me be clear to you that I prefer.

              The reason was one of good intent. To let the government stay out of the way, and let the different companies have at it and try to let the best technology win. Let them hash it out and the market decide.

              Of course we all know it didn’t play out that way, because spectrum is a limited resource, and customers were locked in with incompatible technologies, for a long time without the ability to port their phone number (since fixed), thusly a high friction to switch.

              I’m not happy with the outcome, but I prefer the way we got here. To each his own, and now we’re really off course of the original topic. Or are we.

    • uru-khai

      This logic is mostly good, but I think its still expensive compared to outright purchase and prepaid, as you have paid excessive monthly charges for the number of months you actually were in the contract, before you paid the ETF.

      I did not find coverage lacking when using prepaid anytime, on Straight Talk AT&T Sim card. Previously when I had AT&T GoPhone prepaid, their coverage was horrible, but with ST, I have found coverage to be on par with AT&T postpaid in places I visited in the last 6 months.

  • RVM

    I feel sorry for US citizens 🙁

    • shallow ocean shoal

      Don’t feel too bad

      • RVM

        don’t worry, i wasn’t really serious

  • viktor von d.

    so what. in the us laws are always made to protect companys interests and not that of the citizens. it happens in every aspect of their life. they are just sheep. the only right they have is to make money for their corporations. that is all

    • shallow ocean shoal

      Sometimes I think people forget that corporations are just made of people

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  • If your 920 is unlocked and you live in an refarmed T-mobile city, Solarei and Simple Mobile both offer unlimited talk,text,and data for $50. T-mobile has unlimited everything for $70. Hope this helps.

  • The logic is good. I did not find coverage lacking when using prepaid anytime, on Straight Talk AT&T Sim card.

  • If this illegal issue bothers you, and you want to have the option to be able to unlock a device you believe you paid for and own, then sign this official Petition and pass it along:

    There’s still time! 12 days left to get 100,000 minimum signatures.. At present, there is 60,000 sigs.. Please pass this petition link around to help make a difference!

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