How to Unlock Your Phone in Canada

26 October 2015

If you got your phone from a carrier, there’s a good chance you’ll need to get it unlocked if you want to use it on any other network. This is pretty easy to do, but it does cost money and require you to contact your carrier personally.

Before we get started

It's possible to take your phone and unlock it yourself, which can save you from paying the unlocking fee. However, doing this will also often void your device’s manufacturer’s warranty, leaving you 100% culpable for any faults that happen from now on. If your phone is still within warranty, it’s a good idea to follow official carrier channels and pay the unlocking fee, keeping yourself covered.

Why Unlock?

You might want to unlock your phone for a few reasons. Perhaps a friend or relative is passing on their old handset, but it's locked to a different carrier. If so, you'll need to unlock it if you want to stay with your current plan.

Alternatively, you may be about to pay off your Tab, or coming to the end of a 2 year contract. If this is the case, you can generally save yourself money by switching to a BYO Phone Plan. These tend to carry a lower monthly cost and offer more options in the number of carriers who provide them. They also operate on a month-to-month basis with no long-term contracts. That means you can switch between carriers in search of the best coverage, or sign up to a new contract at short notice in the future if you decide that you do want a new subsidized phone, after all.

Is your phone locked?

First, you need to know whether or not your phone is locked. It’s pretty easy to check. Get a same-sized SIM card from a friend, family member or colleague, and stick it in your phone. Reset the device if necessary, then try making call. If it doesn’t work, wait about a minute and try again. If it still doesn’t work, your phone is probably locked.

According to Bell’s own unlocking page, “most tablets, Android Nexus series devices, and Microsoft Nokia Lumia phones are sold unlocked from the factory”. iPhones sold from the Apple store and not attached to a plan at the time of sale should also be unlocked.

Once it’s unlocked, will it work on any carrier?

Probably, but not necessarily. These days, most phones are compatible with the more commonly-used 3G and 4G frequencies. There’s a good chance your phone will operate over any Canadian carrier network.

If you live further out and rely on 2G for messaging and calls, then the story is very different. Different carriers in Canada rely on two incompatible mobile network technologies when it comes to 2G: CDMA and GSM.

  • Rogers, Fido: GSM
  • Telus, Koodo: CDMA
  • Bell, Virgin Mobile: CDMA

If you’re not on one of the major 3, or one of its subsidiaries, a quick way to check your carrier’s 2G technology is by looking it up on Wikipedia. Do a search within its Wiki page for “GSM” or “CDMA” and see what comes up.

Remember: this is only particularly important if you live in an area with no mobile broadband reception, where only text and voice are supported.

Am I eligible for unlocking?

If your phone is locked, you need to check if you meet the eligibility criteria for your carrier. The good news is these criteria tend to be identical across most of the market.

The check list tends to be:
  • You need to have an active account with the carrier. If not an active one, then at least have been a past customer with no outstanding debts on your account.
  • If the device was purchased on a subsidized contract, or you received a rebate, it must have been active for at least 90 days on the network. If under 90 days, you are probably not eligible for unlocking.
  • If the device was purchased outright, for full price up-front, or if you grabbed it on a tab and have paid off the full tab, you should be eligible for unlocking.
  • If you have a prepaid account, you must have sufficient prepaid credit to cover the unlocking fee.
  • The device must not be reported as lost or stolen (obviously)
  • Your account must be in good standing

There are a few differences across carriers. Here are some of the more individual caveats.

  • Your account must be active
  • The account must be associated with the device
  • If you are no longer a current Bell customer, you will pay an excess fee
  • The account must be associated with the device
  • If you purchased the device from a 3rd party, it must have been registered through your account more than 90 days ago.
  • If you have a negative TAB balance, you must have been active on the Koodo network for at least 90 days
  • If you have a positive balance you can unlock any time

How do I get it unlocked?

This one is pretty standard across carriers: go in to a store or call the customer service centre. You can find this number on your provider’s website.

If you’re with WIND, you can handle the procedure yourself. Follow the instructions on the company’s website.

How much does it cost?

Unless you’re a special-circumstances case, it costs $50 to unlock from a major carrier.

WIND charges only $30.

Bell and Virgin will charge you $75 if you are an ex-customer with a device tied to an old account, or $150 for devices “under contract and subject to credit conditions such as a credit limit or credit deposit: $150 + applicable taxes”.



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