How (and why) to unlock your phone

Plus: Even more travel tools, Android 13's best feature, and easier MacBook repairs

  Jared Newman  |  August 23, 2022  | Read online

While I'm glad to be back from last week's break, my brain is still firmly planted in vacation mode after spending 10 days out of the country (and contracting a serious case of jetlag as a result).

It's only fitting, then, to discuss one of the best decisions I made ahead of the trip: I finally unlocked my iPhone 13 Pro Max, allowing me to purchase a prepaid SIM card and stay connected overseas for a fraction of what AT&T charges in roaming fees.

Unlocking your phone means opening it up to use with any wireless carrier, beyond the one that initially sold you the phone. And in the United States at least, doing so costs nothing if you meet the carrier's criteria. Going through the process was easier than I expected, and made me wish I'd unlocked the phone sooner.

Why unlocking is worth doing

Unlocking your phone has a few key benefits:

International travel: While AT&T and Verizon both charge $10 per day for their international travel plans, I was able to cover my entire trip with a $30 local SIM card, which provided 100 GB of data (including mobile hotspot use) and unlimited talk and text. Chances are you can even pick one up at the airport when you arrive.

Switching to a cheaper carrier: Even if you're not going anywhere, having an unlocked phone opens up new options for wireless service without needing a new phone. Once you're free of any phone payment plans or contracts, you can try a cheap alternative carrier such as Google Fi or Visible, or even get free calling and texting from TextNow.

Unlocking your phone wasn't as useful for carrier-switching in the past, when AT&T and T-Mobile used a different communication standard (GSM) than Verizon and Sprint (CDMA). But with those older standards being discontinued in favor of 4G and 5G, most newer phones can handle any network without issue.

Test-driving T-Mobile: Last year, T-Mobile started offering a version of its "Test Drive" service for unlocked iPhones, letting you try T-Mobile's data network for 30 days while still using your existing carrier for calls and texts. If you have an iPhone XS or newer, and are using a physical SIM card for your main carrier, you can just download T-Mobile's app to start testing via the phone's eSIM feature.

Better resale values: If you're looking to sell an old phone instead of trading it in for a new one, you might get more money by unlocking it first. The website Flipsy, for instance, lists a buyback price of $331 for an unlocked iPhone 11, versus $294 for one that's locked to AT&T.

(Just note that you might not get away with this for Android phones, whose carrier models can come with different firmware and pre-loaded software even after you've unlocked them.)

How to free your phone

Now that all the major carriers are pushing monthly installment plans for new phones, you might think that unlocking isn't allowed unless you've paid for the phone in full. But at least for Verizon, that's not true:

Verizon unlocks all of its phones automatically after 60 days for accounts in good standing, even if the phone is on an installment plan. Just open your phone's SIM tray and pop in a SIM card from another carrier, and you should be good to go. (You might also try asking Verizon for an exception if the phone is less than 60 days old and you're about to head overseas; I know this has worked for some folks in the past.)

AT&T will only unlock your phone if it's paid off in full and your account is in good standing. If you meet those requirements, you can visit AT&T's unlock portal, click "Unlock your device," fill out your account into, and enter your device's IMEI number, which you can look up through the Settings menu or by dialing *#06#. Your phone will likely be unlocked within minutes.

T-Mobile and Sprint also will only unlock phones that are paid off in full unless you're active military serving overseas, and even if you pay full-price up front, you'll still have to wait at least 40 days to unlock it.

The upside is that T-Mobile's Magenta Max plan offers free high-speed data in many countries, and its travel passes are more reasonably-priced than AT&T's and Verizon's, so you may not need to unlock the phone for travel anyway.

Once the phone's paid off, you can unlock it directly through the settings menu on Android devices, though iPhone users will have to call T-Mobile or Sprint to request an unlock instead.

Enjoy your newfound phone freedom, and let me know if I've left any unlocking questions unanswered.

Correction: I previously wrote that you can unlock a phone on AT&T even if it's not fully paid off. AT&T's official policy states otherwise, and I've heard from a couple folks whose unlock requests were stonewalled by customer service.

So why was I able to unlock my iPhone 13 Pro Max, which still has about two years of monthly installments left to go? I frequently switch between phones for testing and review purposes—simply moving my AT&T SIM card to whichever phone I'm using—and this somehow seems to have tricked AT&T's system into thinking the iPhone is fully paid off. I'm not sure if this happy accident can be replicated. In any case, I regret the error.

Three more travel tools

While I've still got travel on the brain, here are a few more tools that were invaluable on my trip: Every Time Zone is a free website that does exactly what it says on the box, displaying the current time in every major time zone. By moving the time zone slider around, you can quickly look for potential meeting times with folks in other parts of the country or world.

The site also offers a "Customize" button to control which time zones appear in the list. Just sign in with a Google account, and you can remove time zones or add ones that don't appear by default. Those changes will then appear on any device where you've signed into the same account.

I like Every Time Zone because of how fast and simple it is, and because "" is a pretty easy web address to memorize. As such, I'll be using it for all my time zone conversion needs to come.

The Google Translate app: While you may be familiar with Google Translate on the web, the iOS and Android app's visual translation tool is where the real magic happens. Just tap the little camera icon near the top of the screen, and any text that appears in the viewfinder will switch to the language of your choosing.

The hardest part is getting over the social awkwardness of pointing your phone at a street sign or food stand menu.

Apple Card: Though I seldom use my Apple Card in the states, it got an extensive workout overseas. Any store that accepts Apple Pay should also accept Apple's credit card by extension, and unlike my other credit cards, the Apple Card has no foreign transaction fees. Being able to track my vacation spending in real-time through the Apple Wallet app was just an added bonus.

Even more travel tips: For more ways to travel like a techie, check out this newsletter from late May.

Need to know

Android 13 arrives: Google has released a new version of Android on Pixel phones, and its best new feature is lifted straight from iOS: Apps must get your permission before they can send notifications. Every time I switch back to Android, I'm reminded of how annoying it can be to install an app and immediately get bombarded with alerts. Requiring opt-in consent is a long-overdue improvement.

Other major Android 13 features include a handy floating clipboard tool, the ability to make app icons match your wallpaper, spatial audio support with head tracking, and slicker media playback controls in the notification tray. Esper's Mishall Rahman has a delightfully dense list of all the changes. As usual, the update is hitting Pixel phones first, with other devices to follow in the months ahead.

Samsung's new foldables: Samsung has revamped its foldable smartphone line with the Galaxy Z Fold4 and Galaxy Z Flip4, which use flexible display tech to fold in half. The Fold4 costs $1,800 and unfurls from a thick phone into a small tablet, while the $1,000 Flip4's clamshell design can snap shut like an old flip phone. Compared to the third-gen Fold and Flip, the new phones have better cameras and more efficient processors, addressing some of the key complaints with last year's models. (The Flip4 has a slightly larger battery as well.)

I'll be getting my hands on both phones soon and plan to write up some impressions over at Fast Company. In the meantime, I like The Verge's review of the Fold4 and 9to5Google's review of the Flip4.

Samsung also announced the Galaxy Watch5, though the hardware is nearly identical to last year's Watch4, with a temperature sensor as the main difference. With the older model routinely selling for under $200—versus $280 and up for the Watch5—it may be the better smartwatch buy for Android users at this point.

Mac repair parts: Apple is now selling genuine MacBook repair parts directly to consumers, including speakers, batteries, trackpads, displays, and more. Parts are currently available for the M1 MacBook Air (from 2020) along with the 13-inch, 14-inch, and 16-inch M1 MacBooks Pro.

While Apple's iPhone self-repair program has gotten the most attention (and controversy), the MacBook program seems like a bigger deal to me. Laptops are easier to repair at home than phones—recent MacBooks included—and are more like appliances that you want to keep for as long as possible. Having access to genuine parts will help by making do-it-yourself repairs cheaper and easier.

Google Meet improvements: The Google Meet website now has better background blur and lighting correction, so you can more effectively hide the office clutter on your next call.

To turn on background blur in Google Meet, tap the button in the menu bar, select "Apply visual effects," then choose from one of the two blur levels. If you're against a bright background, you can also head to Settings > Video and enable "Adjust video lighting."

Around the web

Spend wisely

As expected, the major U.S. carriers are all offering deep discounts on Samsung's latest foldable phones when you commit to a long-term payment plan. A quick rundown:

  • AT&T: Get up to $1,000 off the Flip4 or Fold4 with a three-year commitment and device trade-in. Click "See additional terms > Eligible Devices" on this page.
  • T-Mobile: Magenta Max customers get $1,000 off the Flip4 or Fold4 with a three-year commitment and device trade-in. Other customers get $500 off instead. Click the green tag at the top of each product page and select an offer to see eligible trade-in devices.
  • Verizon: Get up to $800 off the Flip4 or Fold4 with a three-year commitment and eligible trade-in. Click "Details" in the offers section to check trade-in values.

Other notable deals this morning:

  • Google's new Pixel Buds Pro are already $25 off, at $175, while the Pixel Buds A-Series are selling for $69.
  • Get an unlocked Pixel 6 Pro for $649, down from $899.
  • The Blue Yeti desktop USB microphone drops to $78.
  • Woot has Apple's MagSafe charger for $30, a $9 discount.
  • Anker's fancy wall charger (65W output, built-in 10,000mAh battery) is on sale for $80 when you clip the on-page coupon.
  • The version with 140W output and a 24,000 mAh battery is also on sale for $119.
  • Microsoft's comfy Surface Earbuds are being cleared out for $100, half off the list price.

Thanks for your support!

I appreciate you all bearing with me last week, as I rested up ahead of what will likely be a busy fall for new technology. If you've got any questions about anything you've read here, don't hesitate to reach out.

Until next week,


Previously: Vacation link dump

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