Handset Unlocking Policy of AT&T Wireless

Late last month, I decided to do some research into mobile phone carriers' handset unlocking policies. I did this because I keep hearing from Operation Gadget readers who are frustrated by their inability to take their phones with them when they switch carriers. In many cases, it's because their handsets have been electronically locked by the carrier that subsidized the phone's purchase.

My wife uses a Nokia 3360, a TDMA phone that runs on AT&T Wireless. Since we have been AT&T Wireless customers for several years, I decided to call Customer Care, express interest in upgrading to AT&T's Next Generation Network (GSM/GPRS), and ask if my wife would be able to use a local pay-as-you-go account in Switzerland when we travel there later this year. The purpose of this question was to get a customer care representative to tell me what AT&T Wireless' handset unlocking policy is.

You probably know that most electronically-locked handsets can be unlocked by typing in a numeric code. So, if AT&T Wireless would provide that electronic code for a GSM phone, then I could replace the SIM chip with a chip from any other GSM carrier that I chose, and the phone would bill to that carrier.

The customer care representative from AT&T Wireless told me that they refer to electronic unlock codes as restriction codes. AT&T Wireless recommends that I leave my phone restricted to their network. They will not help me to unlock my phone under any circumstances.

Although AT&T Wireless' contract with me does not prohibit the removal of the electronic handset lock, the warranty provided by AT&T Wireless is voided if I attempt to unlock the handset.

In case it isn't clear, I believe that mobile carriers should allow their customers to remove the electronic lock from their handset after a reasonably short period of time. That would give customers the flexibility to use their phones on other carriers' networks, provided the same fundimental technology is used.

I would have been happy if AT&T Wireless had said, because you are are a good customer, we will upgrade you to GSM at the subsidized price, and let you unlock the phone after 90 days. This is pretty much T-Mobile's policy for existing customers.

Instead AT&T Wireless told me that if I want to upgrade, I will get a locked phone that will stay locked unless I unlock it without their help. And, if I don't successfully unlock the handset and it becomes unusable, they will not provide repair service to me.

I refer to this as AT&T Wireless' "Just Say No" Handset Unlocking Policy.

I'm not saying that handset unlocking policies should be the only factor in choosing a wireless carrier. But, they are a very good indication of how customer-friendly a carrier is. As a result of this experience, I will strongly urge my wife to switch from AT&T Wireless to T-Mobile if she needs to upgrade or replace her mobile phone in the future.