Is It Illegal To Unlock My Phone So I Can Use It Internationally On My Travels?

February 7, 2013 by Anil Polat  

unlocked iphones

Many mobile phones, particularly in the United States, are locked to prevent you from using them on other carriers. Those locks are software based, and like most anything, there’s a hack to unlock your cell so you can use it on any mobile service provider; simply by switching out SIM cards. Recently however, on January 26th 2013, legal protection of unlocking phones expired in America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Section 1201 [PDF].

Why Would I Want To Unlock My Phone?

Well, for starters, if you’re not living in the U.S. (or Israel or Singapore, the only other two countries in the world with legal restrictions against unlocking) you don’t have anything to worry about, legally. Everywhere else in the world, phones are either sold unlocked, or can legally be unlocked by mobile phone shops or hackers feeling feisty on the weekends. So if your phone does happen to be locked (e.g. you purchased it from AT&T and now want to use Orange during your trip to England) unlocking it lets you do just that.

Gray Hat Travel Tech 101: Everything You Need To Know About Unlocking Your Mobile Phone – Laws don’t apply to you or you don’t care? This guide is for you.

An unlocked phone allows you to avoid expensive international calling and messaging fees when you travel internationally. And not only that, if you want to switch from a carrier within your own country to another, unlocking gives you that option as well.

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tokyo airport security lockersWhat Unlocking Is Not

It’s easy to confuse “unlocking” with jailbreaking or rooting. Jailbreaking and rooting your mobile phone essentially opens it up to 3rd party apps – effectively getting you around the Apple App Store and Android Market. (“Rooting” is the term used for Android devices and “jailbreaking” refers to iPhones; but for the rest of this article I’ll stick with the term jailbreaking for brevity.) Typically a jailbreak of a mobile device will unlock it as well.

  • According to the DMCA ruling, jailbreaking your mobile phone is not illegal through 2015. However, it is no longer legal for tablets.

However, that same DMCA ruling has made the laws around unlocking mobiles a little less clear.

Your Unlocked Phone Might Be Breaking The Law

Unlocking your phone isn’t illegal according to the DMCA if you’ve already paid off the phone and the original contract you purchased it with (for subsidized pricing). Once you’ve paid off your phone and the original contract expires, you’re legally allowed to unlock it all you want. Also, if you didn’t bother with a contract in the first place and bought your phone for full price, unlock away without a hint of guilt.

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Everyone one else to whom the DMCA applies, unlocking your phone or having an unlocked phone is illegal and carries penalties up to $2,500 in a civil suit of $500,000 or 5 years in prison for criminal cases. (WTF America?) Yet it’s still very unlikely anyone is going to come after you with a lawsuit because you’ve got an unlocked phone…especially if you’re traveling around the world with it.

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  1. viaimages says:

    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! 17 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!

  2. Let’s just hope they have bigger fish to fry/better ways to spend their time than chasing after travelers who wish to remain connected on a device they’ve already paid for.

    • Anil Polat says:

      According to the companies (depending on the contract) until you pay full price for the phone, either upfront or through a contract, it’s theirs. Allowing them to place even dumb rules on them.

  3. The Guy says:

    I’m not 100% sure on the legal issues but in the UK if you’ve honoured your contract you can call your network provider and ask them to unlock the phone for you. They do that quite happily and we’ve done it before.

    I’m not too sure on in-contract phones but there are plenty of people in the town centre with stands offering to unlock your phone for you so I assume it is okay.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Yea the US sucks with all that, good thing I live on Miami Beach and it’s full of Israeli phone stores that jail break stuff all day long!

  5. Mike says:

    seriously? unlocking my phone can be considered illegal? urgh..that’s absolutely odd..!