Unlocking your cellphone when you travel

When my son went to Oxford University for a summer program in 2006, he had his cellphone unlocked. This allowed him to slip another SIM card, the memory chip that stores mobile numbers, into his phone in England and avoid high roaming charges.

Rogers Wireless, our provider, refused to help. It has a policy of locking cellphones, which helps cover the discounted prices paid by customers up front. However, a Rogers store sent us to a nearby kiosk at the Eaton Centre with a big sign, “we unlock cellphones.”

I did a column recently about Douglas Santala, who didn’t understand Rogers’ policy and got into trouble when he took two cellphones with him and his daughter to Europe. He wants Rogers to put warnings on all packages and pamphlets, letting people know their phones are locked.

While I was away, there was some good news about Verizon Wireless moving to open up its network to a wider selection of cellphones. This is part of a more open approach in the United States, but details have not been announced yet and consumer groups were wary of sky-high prices. Still, Consumers Union said it was a step in the right direction.

Do you think unlocking is inevitable? What’s your experience with using cellphones when you travel? What about having to buy a new phone when you switch from one carrier to another? Here are some opinions from my readers.

Author: Ellen Roseman

Consumer advocate and personal finance author and instructor.

31 thoughts on “Unlocking your cellphone when you travel”

  1. Locking is completely pointless. Just go to Toronto’s PacMall (or any Asian strip mall in your neighbourhood) and you’ll probably find a mobile shop that can unlock your phone for a nominal fee. There’s no way for GSM companies to tell if you’ve unlocked your phone, or to tell if you’re using an unlocked, third party phone.

    For Bell and Telus (who use the “CDMA” system) it is possible for them to prevent this, and this is one of the reasons why it can be expensive to move to a different telco.

    The government should mandate that all telcos must sell phones that accept an “R-UIM” card. It’s basically like a SIM, but it works in both GSM and CDMA phones:


    This way you can take your phone unit (as well as number) and move to a different provider, and all the new one would have to do is give youa new card which you could plug into your phone.

  2. There are several issues here

    1. GSM/CDMA. Doug says “Telus, Fido and Bell do not sell SIM phones.” Telus and Bell use a different technology (CDMA) so their phones won’t accept SIMs. BTW Fido does use GSM so their phones will accept SIMs.

    2. Locking. Rogers and Fido sell locked phones and are reluctant to unlock them for the reasons mentioned. In addition to getting your Rogers/Fido phones unlocked, you can also buy new unlocked phones from places like http://www.puremobile.ca/ and http://www.tigerdirect.ca/applications/category/category_slc.asp?Sort=4&Nav=|c:1809|&Recs=30 then use any SIM you like.

    3. Bands. GSM networks operate on four bands. In NA they operate on 850 and 1900 MHz while in Europe and Asia et al they operate on 900 and 1800 MHz. Most GSM phones sold by Canadian wireless providers operate only on 850/1900 so even with a local SIM (i.e. one from a Dutch wireless provider) they won’t work in Europe. If you buy a quadband “world” phone from Rogers it will be locked. You’ll be able to use it in Europe but you’ll pay Rogers’ rapacious roaming fees (something like $2.50 per minute.) If you get an unlocked quadband phone you’ll be able to use it in NA with a Rogers (or Fido (or US T-Mobile or AT&T SIM)) and in Europe (or Asia, etc.) with SIMs from the local wireless suppliers. In that case one phone will work everywhere that GSM is supported and by using local SIMs you’ll pay reasonable rates.

    In addition, if you’re a light cellphone user you can get an unlocked GSM 850/1900 phone (a basic but functional Nokia 1600) for free when you buy $100 worth of airtime at your local 7-11 convenience store. See http://www.speakoutwireless.ca/

    The most popular discussion forum on cellphones in the world is http://howardforums.com/ based in Toronto. You can find lots more information there about related issues.

    If you want more information on GSM prepaid phone plans and coverage around the world see http://www.prepaidgsm.net/ They also have a forum.

  3. To answer Ellen’s specific questions:

    > Do you think unlocking is inevitable?
    Yes, but Rogers and Fido will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it. Maybe the new entrants who win the current wireless spectrum auction will be the impetus.

    > What’s your experience with using cellphones when you travel?
    I bought a quadband GSM phone that I use with SpeakOut in Canada. Overseas I use either of two so-called “international” SIMs from http://www.mobalrental.com/gsm/sim.asp and http://www.united-mobile.com/ as well as country-specific SIMs. Each has its pros and cons.

    > What about having to buy a new phone when you switch from one carrier to another?
    By getting an unlocked phone from the outset this is a non-issue for me. (I do have a collection of locked Bell and Telus phones if anyone wants them 😀 )

    BTW http://www.thetravelinsider.info/2002/0308.htm also has a wealth of information on using GSM phones around the world. See also this NY Times article.

    There. That’ll keep everyone occupied for a while [evil grin].

  4. Someone above said SIM cards are expensive. This is not necessarily true.

    In November, I bought an unlocked new phone on eBay and bought two SIM cards for it. My (Toronto) Fido SIM cost $30, but my (England) Virgin Mobile SIM was *free* – I only paid for the preloaded airtime.

    Finally, the Virgin SIM worked fine in Germany, except that it was considered roaming since it was a UK number.

    As noted above, it is truly weird that Rogers/Fido won’t unlock their phones but they will happily sell you a SIM for their network.

  5. GSM phones are the world standard and work almost everywhere. The American standard frequencies for GSM are different, being 850-1900, as opposed to 900-1800. So your Rogers phone, which uses the American frequencies, will not work elsewhere, unlocked or not.

    If you can get a triband (850-1800-1900), it will work almost everywhere if unlocked. Unlocking is easy. In many cases, you can get the code and do it yourself on the internet for free. In other cases, shops will unlock it for you.

    Unlocking will not harm the phone, but different companies have different features. You cannot always get all of company A’s features on company B’s SIM card.

    I have a European phone, unlocked, triband (900-1800-1900), which I use in Europe and in Canada with no problem. They cost about half of what they cost here. In Canada, I use the 7-11 prepaid SIM Card, the credit on which last for one year.

    In Europe, I mostly use Vodaphone and some others. The SIM cards are mostly free. That is, if it costs 20 euros for a card, that card comes pre-loaded with 20 euros credit. Sometimes, you pay 20 euros and get 30 euros credit.

    Rogers is being silly or misleading with its information.

  6. Hi, I run a small-time cell unlocking company in Toronto. What I can tell you is that Rogers *WILL* unlock your phone, but you pay a heavy price – $250, I believe. The same service can be done at my shop or Pacmall for $20.

    What is truly crazy, though, is that if you want to use your Rogers phone on Fido (its sister company), they won’t unlock your phone for you!

    The problem is, indeed, lack of consumer knowledge.

    Then again, this is how I got through college 🙂

  7. Why bother with all this unlocking stuff? Just go out and buy an unlocked phone. There are many places that sell them. In fact if you are a real tech nut, you can buy a real unlocked Blackberry for less than $80. Then all you do is go to Rogers or The Source and buy a SIM card. Last I checked, the cost was $25.

    If you are traveling abroad, all phones are available unlocked. Just buy one and when you come home, get a SIM for Rogers. You do need to have access to the GSM network, but Rogers SIM will allow you a pay as you go account.

    If you want a nice brand new phone, try http://www.cellularabroad.com/travelphone. They will get you a phone and sell you a SIM for any place in the world.

  8. I can empathsize with many travelers who are in this predicament with their subsidized phone. I used http://www.unlockcellphone.com to unlock my phone and they are a very professional firm with excellent support. When I traveled to Italy, I can use a local SIM and pay 0.20 euro per minute for local versus the $1.50 roaming price.

  9. Would someone please tell me which companies in Italy use SIM cards. I’m looking for a company which also works in England

  10. All the cell phone networks in Italy use SIM card: Vodafone Omnitel, WIND, Tre, and Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM). They all work in England as well.

  11. Jimmy – I have a Quad Motorola SLVR L2. I had it unlocked when i bought it new. I have at the moment a Fido SIM card.

    Will I be able to by a local SIM card when I am in Italy next month and be able to have it work there? Do I need to fill my local FIDO SIM card before heading to Italy?

  12. I bought two cellphones, used the plans later (I didnt get any money credited for paying full price) and still they won’t unlock my phone. How do I unlock the phone??

  13. Theres a lot of talk about unlocking phones, sourcing phones and Rogers…Missing in this discussion is Bell Mobility who can’t meet customers needs let alone “expectations”> Why? Because this forward looking TeleTitanic only saw inwardly and saw the center of the world as Canada….pity. These dunderheads like Sabia and other “very important people” couldn’t forcast there own demise after the fact. Watch and learn children…time for the Russian dirge (durge) funeral music.

  14. Hi, I work with Fido at the Eaton centre in Toronto.

    Whenever customers ask us to unlock their phone, our manager says it is policy that we can’t. So I always refer them to an online company that unlocks cellphones with unlock codes. You can do it from home.

    The site is http://www.FreeYourCellphone.com.

    Thought I would share. Cheers, mates.

  15. I paid full price for my Blackberry Curve 8330 from Telus, under the impression that I owned the phone outright and that I could switch to another provider that supported the CDMA format such as Bell or Virgin Mobile, if I chose to do so.

    But when I called to get my subsidiary unlock code, they basically told me that they wouldn’t give it to me, even though I purchased the phone without a contract just for this reason.

    Is there any way I would be able to get this code from them, considering I did pay close to $800 for my phone brand new, even kept my service for close to a year and paid it every month too?

  16. Hi Mario,

    What you can do is go on http://www.bell.ca webpage and look for the instructions on how to program the phone…

    After you press ## you should be inquired to enter your “Master Lock Number”.

    Call customer service at Telus, tell them you don’t have any way to visit a store and ask them to program the phone with you on the line. Be careful what numbers they ask you to imput after ##.

    Also ask them what the number represents. You might get a rep who will tell you it’s the master lock number or you figure out by yourself after entering ##.

    After you get the Master Lock Number, tell them you gotta go or drop the phone call conversation. This way you won’t get charged for the programming of the device and you get what you want.

    Tell me if my advice helps you!!


  17. Rogers are selling just sim cards now. But why do rogers still prefer locked phones for them? It’s better for them to make more money if more people get unlocked cell phones. That way, they will have more customers for them. They only need to have a better service from there competitors, then people will go with there service. If you need unlocked phones, you can get a $40 unlocked phone here: bestcellphones which is really cheap, good traveling to change the sim card.

  18. Rather than take your own phone, I find it simplest to rent both the SIM card and the handset and then I know that the handset is going to work.

    I don’t have to worry about unlocking or any of that stuff. Plus, if the handset gets damaged, it’s not my phone!

    Previously I’ve used Cellhire. They have office in the US (see http://www.cellhire.com) and also the UK (http://www.cellhire.co.uk), so you can review either site and see which one gets you the best deal based on the exchange rate.

    They’ll rent you the SIM and handset and they have local SIM cards for most countries. But if you’re going to several countries, remember to pick a roaming SIM card (e.g. http://www.cellhire.co.uk/countries/europe-sim-card.aspx). Incoming calls are free on all the solutions I’ve ever taken.

    The best point, though, is that they offer something called “FollowMe” which forwards your own mobile on to the new SIM so your friends don’t have to remember a separate number. It’s much lower cost than doing the forwarding yourself too.

  19. If you travel to Europe or Asia, don’t bother to bring your phone. Buy one overseas, since they are unlocked. Buy a SIM card, very inexpensive, and buy minutes. Do your homework before you leave, and learn what the providers are offering.

    I went to Indonesia in 2009. Got myself and my wife the latest Sony-Erricson, much cheaper than the Canadian price, and UNLOCKED! Got a SIM card there for about $0.50 (not a typo), and bought minutes.

    The SIM card seller will help you install the card and register your phone. Very simple.

    A one-minute long distance call from Indonesia to Canada? Try $0.0675 (not a typo). The provider? Telkomsel. They tell you how to make international calls in their website.

    Talk about being honest. This was the way in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Germany, etc. Quality of calls? Excellent! Dropped calls? Never!

    Then, bring that phone back to Canada and find a provider that will sell you a SIM card.

    Better still, tell the government not to coddle the phone companies any more and give the Canadian customer a fairer chance.

Comments are closed.