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27 Oct 2020

Mobile providers to be banned from selling locked phones

Locked handsets can put customers off switching, says the telecoms regulator

Mobile phone providers won't be allowed to sell phones locked to their network from December 2021, telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced.

While many phones are already sold unlocked, allowing their owner to switch providers with ease, several providers still offer locked handsets. Owners of these devices often have to pay to have their device unlocked in order to switch to a different network.

Ofcom says banning locked phones will make it easier for customers to switch networks, saving them time, money and effort as well as giving people access to better deals. The change will mean that customers of popular networks such as EE will be able to switch providers without incurring a fee.

Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?, saidu201cWe know that some customers who stay with the same provider for long periods of time are more likely to be overpaying than customers who switch, so this ban on selling locked handsets should make things easier for customers looking for a better deal.

u201cIf you think you might be out of contract, check your phone bills as you could potentially switch to a SIM-only deal and depending on the network you might find that you can already switch elsewhere and save money right away.u201d

Discover the best and worst mobile providers in the UK.

What is the problem with locked mobile phones?

If your phone is locked, it means you can only use it with the mobile provider you're currently with. To switch, you'll have to get it unlocked which can cost around £10. Some customers have found they are left without service because they have switched providers only to discover their phone is locked to their original provider.

As well as requiring a fee, getting your phone unlocked can be complicated - you need a code from your provider and some will only allow it after a set period of time.

Customers have also had trouble getting the correct code - Ofcom research found that almost half of customers who try to unlock their device experienced difficulties doing so. This could include a long delay before the unlock code is sent through or the code being incorrect.

Which mobile providers lock the phones they sell?

BT, EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone all sell locked mobile phones. iD Mobile also locks iPhones.

Other networks such as Giffgaff, O2, Sky Mobile, Three, Utility Warehouse and Virgin Mobile do not lock their devices.

However, some of these providers locked phones previously meaning that customers who have been with the same provider for several years may also have locked phones. Three stopped locking devices in 2013, while O2 locked devices prior to 2018.

How to switch mobile provider

In the past year, Ofcom has taken steps to make switching mobile provider easier by introducing 'text to switch' - but if you currently have a locked handset, you'll still have to get it unlocked first.

This will usually involve establishing a unique identifier - your phone's IMEI number. You can usually find your IMEI in the 'About' info in your phone's settings, or by typing *#06# into the keyboard of your phone app.

You'll then need to contact your provider to ask them to unlock your device - how long this takes differs by provider. Some will do it free of charge, but in other cases it will involve a fee.

Once your device is unlocked, switching is very straightforward. You'll need a porting authorisation code (PAC) from your provider, but getting this is as simple as texting PAC to 65075. Once you have the PAC, simply share it with your new provider to make the switch.

For more info on changing networks, read out guide on how to switch mobile provider.