Before December 2017 most cell phone purchases in Canada were made through the major mobile carriers such as Bell, Rogers and Telus. These carriers partnered with phone manufacturers who would lock the phones to only accept their sim cards. If you wanted to change carriers, you had to pay your current provider a fee to unlock your phone.
Starting December 1, 2017, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) Wireless Code of Conduct requires that all new cell phones sold be unlocked by default. Phones purchased before that date can be unlocked for free upon a customer’s request to their carrier.
In this article, we explain what unlocking means and how to go about it in Canada.
What is an unlocked phone?
An unlocked phone has had the SIM lock (or carrier lock) restricting its use to a particular mobile network operator such as Bell or Rogers removed, allowing it to work on other carrier’s networks such as Koodo Mobile or Public Mobile.
Unlocking your phone allows you to shop around and compare cell phone plans offered by all providers in Canada (as long as your phone is compatible with their network and they have coverage in your area) and switch to them without much difficulty.
Note: This method refers to SIM unlocking your cell phone. Lock screen/pin bypass methods are not covered here.
Why do I need an unlocked phone?
You want to switch carriers
You’ve completed the 2 year agreement you have with your current carrier or another carrier is offering limited time promotion that is better than your current plan and you want to switch to it. If you own a locked phone, switching carriers to take advantage of a deal isn’t possible unless you get it unlocked or buy a new phone.
You are traveling outside of Canada
Some carriers offer international roaming packages and call plans, but they are often expensive compared to the rates charged by prepaid SIM cards. With an unlocked phone, you can get a prepaid SIM at your travel destination.
You bought a used phone and it’s locked
You bought a used phone to save some money, but found that it doesn’t work with your carrier because it’s locked. The chance of the seller using the same carrier as you was small and they either didn’t know or chose not to tell you it was still locked.
You plan on selling your phone
Selling your phone will be quicker and easier if you can boldly proclaim that it is “unlocked” in the listing since the buyer won’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll be able to unlock the phone – so you can probably charge a bit more money.
How do I unlock my phone for free?
To unlock an iPhone, you must submit a request to your carrier which will then submit a request to Apple. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days for Apple to process the request, after which your carrier let you know the unlock has been completed.
To unlock an Android or other smartphone, follow these steps:
1. Find your phone’s IMEI number
The International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number is your phone’s unique ID number.
- Dial *#06# and the code should come up on the screen of the phone
- Check the About or About Phone section in your phone’s settings
- From the owner’s manual found on the manufacturer’s website: Apple, Samsung
2. Call your carrier
Call your carrier (the company you pay for your monthly phone bill) or take it to one of their physical locations and ask them to unlock it. They must do so upon request in accordance with Canada’s Wireless Code of Conduct.
Most carriers require you must meet the following conditions:
- Your account with the carrier is in good standing (no unpaid bills)
- Your phone was locked by the carrier you’re submitting the request to
- The phone is not reported lost or stolen (if concerned, check here)
- One exception is that for members of the military, they will unlock a phone with proof of deployment
They may also require the following information:
- The name of the account holder your phone is on
- The account number your phone is on
- The account holder’s security password
- The IMEI of the device
Carrier contact information
3. Confirm SIM card from another mobile carrier
You will need a SIM card from a different mobile carrier to test if the process request was successful. Using a SIM card from a carrier that is a subsidiary of the same parent company may not give you an unlock code. The upside is that you don’t have to unlock your phone to switch between brands under the same parent company.
Here are the brands owned by the major carriers:
|Parent Company||Brands and Subsidiaries|
|Rogers Communications||Fido Mobile, Chatr Mobile, Cityfone, Primus Wireless, Zoomer Wireless, SimplyConnect|
|BCE Inc||Virgin Mobile, Bell Mobility, Solo Mobile, Bell MTS, Lucky Mobile|
|Telus Corporation||Koodo, Public Mobile, Telus Mobility|
Option #2: paid third-party unlocking services
Prior to the CRTC’s changes to the Wireless Code of Conduct in 2017, most Canadians made use of third party unlocking services. However, this required paying a fee between $7 to $20. Although the new law makes it easier for cell phone users to unlock phones without paying, there might still be situations that require a paid service. In that case, the following services may be able to help:
While using these services might feel a bit strange, these sites have been around for years and often get their unlock codes from the manufacturers and carriers for resale. In addition, unlocking your phone is completely legal in Canada. Under Canadian law, once you buy a phone it is your right to use it on any carrier in Canada at any time.
Regardless of the service you choose, the process is typically as follows:
- Enter the phones make and model, the carrier and/or its IMEI number
- Select from the available unlocking options
- Enter payment information
- Receive instructions via email within a few hours or days
To keep your personal information safe, we recommend avoiding services that:
- Say they’ll do it for free
- Want to install software on your computer or phone
- Don’t have a refund policy in place
- Don’t have a phone number available to provide support
- Don’t have secure (SSL) checkout pages
Option #3: software unlocking (last resort)
Using unauthorized software or flashing a custom ROM to “unlock” your phone (known as “rooting” for Androids or “jailbreaking” for iPhones) can add additional features such as installing apps that are not on the Play/App stores, but may put your phone’s security at risk (the software could include a virus), may void the warranty and might render it completely unusable.
Jailbreaking will not network unlock a phone and there is no guarantee that rooting will work. It is a complex approach that should only be done by advanced users. Try searching for SIM unlock and your phone’s model on the XDA forums and you’ll likely find a guide outlining the process.
What if I didn’t purchase the phone from a carrier?
Third parties such as Apple, Google and retailers such as Best Buy or Amazon are not able to help you. You should contact your carrier to help you unlock the phone.
Can I unlock a phone if I’m not the original owner?
Before you buy a phone from a private seller, confirm that it has already been unlocked. If it hasn’t been, then insist on it. Carriers may not approve the unlock request if the original owner cannot be contacted. They may also refuse your request if you aren’t their customer.
How to tell if a cell phone is locked or unlocked?
The simplest way to check if your phone is locked or unlocked is by turning the phone off and inserting a SIM card from a different network provider. Turn the phone back on, check if it has a signal and try to place a call. If it goes through, then the phone is unlocked. If there is no signal or it asks you to enter a code, then it is likely still locked.
For iPhones, check the iTunes device information page or the phone’s Cellular section (you should see Cellular Data Network, if you don’t the phone is locked).
What is a factory unlock?
Factory unlocked phones do not come with a carrier or SIM card which allows users to choose the exact carrier and plan they want. Phones purchased outright directly from manufacturers such as Apple’s iPhones, Samsung’s Galaxy series and Google’s Nexus and Pixel phones come factory unlocked.
What to read next
- Your consumer rights for mobile phones – CRTC
- CRTC bans locked phones and carrier unlocking fees – Mobile Syrup
Over to you
We’re interested to know – when did you buy your phone and what carrier are you with? Let us know in the comments below. And after you’re done unlocking, let us know how the process request goes. Good luck!