Tales of trying to unlock a phone

December 12 2012 by Ellen Roseman

It pays to ask up front if a mobile device can be unlocked, as my column says today. Many people find they can’t get their phones unlocked when they try to do so later.

I’m posting stories below about readers’ difficulties in asking their carriers about unlocking. Some are quite funny in relating the hassles they encountered along the way.

Is it an abuse to have phones locked to a carrier’s network? Some people say Canadians have the most expensive wireless networks in the world and pay the highest fees for international data roaming.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre wants to shrink our inflated data roaming rates. Here’s one way to do it:

Canadian wireless providers should be required to implement a monthly bill limit for data roaming to safeguard consumers against bill shock. The monthly limit would be chosen by the subscriber or default to $50, in addition to the subscriber’s monthly fees.

In addition, wireless providers should temporarily suspend data service when the subscriber incurs roaming fees exceeding this limit.

While the CRTC isn’t ready to regulate yet, it held an online consultation to prepare for the mandatory implementation of a wireless code of conduct. Here’s a link to the top 100 “liked” comments.

The three-year contract attracted the most complaints in the CRTC discussions. And as many readers point out, unlocking a phone doesn’t help much when you’re still locked into a long-term commitment with your carrier.

Law professor and Star columnist Michael Geist makes this point clearly in a 2010 entry:

The issue of locked cellphones has long been a source of consumer fear and frustration, since some wondered whether unlocking phones that were rendered unusable when switching wireless providers was legal. In certain respects, this was an odd question to even have to ask.

No one would ever question whether consumers have the right to tinker with their car or to use the same television if they switch providers from cable to satellite, yet the wireless industry somehow convinced the public that unlocking their phones – consumers’ own property – was wrong.

Finally, blogger Darryl Moore argues that preventing carriers from locking phones is the first step. We also have to talk about the way that smart phone manfacturers stop you from “jailbreaking” in order to run different software.

Not only do we need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific cellular networks. We need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific manufacturers, allowing them to decide what software will run on your phone or not.

Indeed without this prohibition, the first one is sort of useless, as there is nothing stopping the manufacturers from acting like a proxy for the network providers and imposing the same or similar restrictions on your phone that the network providers no longer can.


  1. Charles in Vancouver

    Dec 12 2012

    Hi Ellen, just a note about locked iPhones that some readers may not be aware of.

    When you buy a carrier-locked iPhone at an Apple store, they don’t actually have stock of different iPhones for each carrier. Instead, they just have non-carrier iPhones that permanently lock to the first carrier on which they are activated.

    This makes it easier to deal with stock, as they can keep (say) 100 iPhones in the back room that aren’t attached to a particular carrier. These are distinct from actual unlocked iPhones that do not ever lock to a carrier.

    Over the various years that iPhones have been available in Canada, the Apple stores have not always sold purely unlocked units in person. Sometimes they have only been available through the online store.

    I am guessing that what happened with GC and DR above was, they walked into an Apple store to buy a full-price iPhone, but what they walked out with was a non-carrier lock-once iPhone – NOT an unlocked iPhone.

    As a result, Apple locked the device to the first carrier they activated it on.

    So this is something consumers should be wary of: If you are going to buy a full price iPhone, make sure Apple is actually giving you a bona fide permanently unlocked device, and not just a non-carrier lock-once device.

  2. Charles in Vancouver

    Dec 12 2012

    PM: Since you say you ordered an unlocked iPhone, I presume that you mean it came from an Apple store? I am making that assumption because Bell themselves does not sell unlocked iPhones.

    In that case, it’s Apple that made a mistake, and you need to go to an Apple store, and show them your proof that you intended to buy an unlocked iPhone but what they gave you was not what was on your receipt.

    It should be Apple’s responsibility to remedy this.

  3. Rob S.

    Dec 13 2012

    First off, let’s be clear on what these subsidized phones are. You are buying the phone over time. Once you’ve paid it off, it should be yours free and clear – and unlocked automatially without charge.

    The carrier should be able to lock you in until the phone is paid off; otherwise people could walk in, put $100 down on a $700 phone and then disappear. That much I get.

    It’s like financing a car; the bank gets a lien on it until the loan is paid. Perfectly reasonable, particularly with such a portable device as a cellphone.

    However, what seems to happen is that after your contract is up and/or you’ve paid off the phone, you don’t get any reduction in price.

    Nobody seriously believes that the carriers are giving these phones out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re charging you perpetually for these phones, on top of the service fees.

    The changes I would like to see are not onerous;

    1. Force carriers to separate phone purchase payments from service fees, showing it as a separate line item on the bill with the residual payout value listed. That charge stops when the phone is paid in full.

    2. Once the phone is paid, it’s unlocked automatically and without charge. (This could be automated, at virtually no cost to the carrier.)

    3. Allow any customer to bring their own device and register it without locking it.

    None of this would stop the carriers from making a reasonable profit on their sales and services. It would, however, force them to compete on service, instead of essentially holding customers against their will.

  4. Rob S.

    Dec 13 2012

    I’m speechless at some of the things I’m hearing here, particularly that I can buy a phone outright, bring it to a carrier, and they LOCK it to their network, then want to charge me to unlock!!!!

    On what planet does that make sense? It’s flat out extortion!

    Imagine taking your car to a mechanic, then being told that the last mechanic has locked the engine compartment, and you’ll have to go back to him and pay him $75 to unlock it so the second mechanic can work on it. Same thing.

  5. Charles in Vancouver

    Dec 13 2012

    “Here’s what I’d like to know. Why does Apple stock these non-carrier lock-once devices? Why not sell all the iPhones unlocked in Apple stores, as they are online?”

    Because Apple also sells subsidized contract iPhones in their own stores. Instead of stocking separate locked units for Bell, Telus, Rogers, Fido, Koodo, Virgin… They have lock-once units that can be sold on any carrier contract.

    If it was a Bell proof of purchase, not Apple, then there is no question: the phone would never have been sold unlocked out of the box by Bell.