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Unlocked Cell Phones

An unlocked cell phone is a mobile device that will recognize a SIM card from any provider- rather than only the carrier that provided the phone. Often, free or discounted cell phones are locked phones- so that they will not operate in a competing carrier's service. Most manufacturers claim that cheap unlocked cell phones aren't possible for their company, but if you do not buy directly from you carrier, you can buy unlocked cell phones cheap. And if you do buy directly from your provider, there are other places you can go to get your cell phones unlocked so that they will work with other carriers.

A SIM card or Subscriber Identification Module card, is the microchip within certain kinds of phone that stores the user's data. One of the benefits of buying a phone with SIM card capabilities is that it can be transferred between devices and carry all of the user's information. When your phone is locked, it can only use SIM cards which come from that specific carrier, and many users feel that this defeats the purpose of the SIM card in the first place. Most consumers believe phones should always be unlocked, or at least be unlocked after their initial contract with the service provider expires. Complaints about this very inconvenience have led to a lawsuit in California which was filed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR).

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How to get unlocked phones

If you are looking to buy an unlocked phone without proprietary settings, the more common way to do so is buying it brand new in its original and unlocked state from a third party vendor. However, if you do purchase it that way, the downside is the price is usually quite similar to full retail and can be expensive. Consumers have to grapple with paying full price for the unlocked convenience, or getting a locked phone free with a service contract. But if you do choose to buy it through a third party vendor, it should operate perfectly with any SIM cards from any provider.

Cingular Wireless, now part of AT&T Wireless, and T-Mobile are the services that use the GSM network- the network which operates using SIM cards. Other major providers use CDMA phone network, which does not operate with any kind of data card in their mobile devices. Providers which use CDMA are Sprint PCS, Verizon and Virgin Mobile. The CDMA network carriers plan to start using data cards, called R-UIM, in the future, and are already in use in certain parts of the world.

Downsides to Unlocked Phones

Unlocked phones can be an excellent tool for users and have many benefits. However, there are a few cons to getting an unlocked phone. If you purchase a cell phone unlocked by a third party or brand new- then it won't come preconfigured with your provider. For example, if you purchase a locked T-Mobile phone, you will have automatic access to the T-Zones, or the T-Mobile sponsored area of email and media accessible by their phones. If you purchase and unlocked phone, it won't be automatically set up to do this. The good news is, if you are good at tinkering, you can probably set that configuration up without too much trouble on your own.

Another important factor is that unbranded, unlocked phones won't be able to host certain features which are installed directly onto a provider's handsets. T-Mobile, for example, has a feature called MyFaves which allows the customer to call up to five phone numbers without any minute limitations. Only a T-Mobile device can support this provider service, and an unlocked phone cannot host this program.

Of course the biggest drawback is the cost. If you are loyal to your provider and don't plan on switching companies, then it's a better deal to get a locked phone directly from your provider for free or at a major discount. If device flexibility is most important to you, however, then shelling out the extra bucks for the unlocked device might be worth it.