Bonnie Cha

Recent Posts by Bonnie Cha

PSA: Unlocking Phones Without Carrier Permission Becomes Illegal on Saturday

The practice of unlocking cellphones without carrier permission so you can use a device with another network will be illegal starting on Jan. 26.

The new law, which applies to devices purchased after today, came about in October when the Library of Congress’ Register of Copyrights, which determines exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), ruled that unlocking cellphones and tablets without carrier permission should be illegal.

In its decision (PDF), the Copyright Office said there is now “a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers,” so reversing the unlocking policy would not have an adverse effect. At the time of the ruling, the Copyright Office provided a 90-day grace period, which ends tomorrow.

Unlocking a cellphone usually requires entering a code or using some third-party service to remove restrictions on a phone that lock it down to a specific carrier.

Once unlocked, you can use a handset with any compatible network. Aside from the freedom of being able to move between providers, it’s also useful for those traveling overseas, who can simply buy a local SIM card and pop it into their phone — a cheaper alternative to a domestic carrier’s international roaming charges.

It should be noted that the new mandate doesn’t do away with unlocked devices completely. Some carriers, like AT&T, will unlock your cellphone once your contract is over. Verizon offers the iPhone 5 unlocked right out of the box. You can also legally purchase an unlocked phone, such as the Nexus 4, at full retail price.

Still, it’s a blow to consumers who want to unlock handsets to avoid signing long-term contracts. There is even a White House petition asking the Librarian of Congress to rescind the decision.

It could also negatively impact various service providers that allow customers to bring their own device in exchange for lower monthly plans. T-Mobile, for example, has a “Bring Your Own Phone” program, which it plans to continue to offer.

“Increasingly consumers are looking for choice and flexibility in the way they purchase wireless,” said a T-Mobile spokesperson in an email to AllThingsD. “They want the freedom to bring their own device without having to compromise on value, which is why we will continue to make it easy for consumers to bring unlocked, GSM-compatible devices to T-Mobile. T-Mobile recommends customers contact the device manufacturer or AT&T directly to request the unlock code for their device.”

It’s not clear how the new law will be enforced; a request for comment from the U.S. Copyright Office on the matter was not immediately returned.

For now, if you want to unlock your phone the legal way, you’ve only got a few hours left to buy one, so you better act fast.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle