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Unlocking Your Phone Is Now Illegal

Monday, February 11th, 2013 by | Filed Under: Android, Computer Terms, iOS

Did you know that unlocking your phone is now illegal in the United States? According to the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress, the exception they permitted for unlocking cell phones has now expired. What is unlocking? Why would you want to unlock a phone? Why is it illegal if you own the phone?

Let’s start by explaining what it meas to unlock a phone. Cell phones come preprogrammed by the carrier to only work with that carrier’s network. The reason for locking devices is most people purchase phones at a substantial discount in exchange for a contract which locks them into using that phone with a particular carrier. For example, Verizon advertises the iPhone 5 starting at $199.99 with a contract, but the unlocked version of the phone starts at $742 on The contract alone, the phone companies argue, would not be to prevent people from taking the discount and then switching to another carrier. Almost all phones in the US come with software preventing them from working on a compatible competitor’s network. Unlocking a phone allows the phone to be used on any network the phone’s radio chips are compatible with.

There are many reasons you might want to unlock your phone. One reason cellular carriers cite is that you could purchase a phone for a steep discount, not pay the bill and use the phone instead on a competitor’s prepaid network. Then the phone company would be stuck with the bill for a very expensive phone. You may also want to unlock a phone to use it after your contract has expired on a competitor’s network. You might even want to unlock a phone to use it in an international location where your carrier either charges very high roaming rates or does not provide service.

Why is it illegal if you own the phone? Well that’s the really interesting thing, because according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the law that makes this activity illegal, unlocking the phone itself is not illegal. Circumventing the encryption used to lock the phone is the illegal act. But since you can’t unlock a phone without circumventing the encryption, it makes the entire activity illegal. The U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress  issued an exemption for phone unlocking, but this exception was not renewed. As of January 26, 2013 it is illegal to unlock your phone.

In my personal opinion, this is a very questionable use of a law designed to prevent piracy and the exemption should be reinstated or the law rewritten to better reflect the “intent” of law which was to prevent movie and software online piracy. You can read the full statement by the U.S. Copyright Office by clicking here.


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8 Responses to “Unlocking Your Phone Is Now Illegal”

  1. Carl Russo says:

    The link to the text from the Copy-Right Office isn’t readable with my Accessability Software. PDF files disable ZoomText® making it unavailable.

    The only reason I have for unlocking my phone is to either edit my contact list or getting my pictures off of my phone without haveing to email each one individually. TracFone is nice and economical, but a PAIN(guess where) in this matter.

  2. Mark says:

    Nice article, good info. Thanks.

  3. Steve says:

    More Government intervention in our Lives.

  4. Poly Tien says:

    If this illegal issue bothers you, and you want to have the option to be able to unlock a device you believe you paid

    for and own, then sign this official Petition and pass it along:
    There’s still time! 10 days left to get 100,000 minimum signatures.. At present, there is 66,000 sigs.. Please pass this petition link around to help make a difference! And, btw you don’t have to reside in the USA to sign, and if u need to create an account u don’t have to put any identifying info in it

    • William Killips says:

      If my contract is up for cell ph. service,Ive paid for the phone and it,s my property and I,ll do what I want withm it.Put my name down against the proposed legislation.Thank you

  5. Nona Evans says:

    I should be able to unlock my phone or purchase an unlocked phone.

  6. Muraleedharan Balakrishnan Vaidyar says:

    Unlocking does not always means shifting from one contact to another. My Carrier is Vodafone. I am pleased to use there services. Though I have unlocked my phone. I am using vodafone network.

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