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Roam free every time you carry an unlocked cell phone

What is an unlocked cell phone?

When you have an unlocked phone, it isn’t tied to any one specific carrier. Previously, carriers would “lock” devices to their network and services when customers purchased them on term contracts. Because the phone came with a subsidy to reduce the upfront price, the term contract was meant to ensure carriers recouped the full cost.

Locked phones weren’t able to work with other SIM cards, including those in foreign countries when travelling. As of Dec. 1, 2017, carriers were mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to offer all devices unlocked, though contracts still come with subsidies. There are also cell phones you can purchase outright without a contract from a carrier.

No matter how you acquire an unlocked phone, it means you can use it with any carrier you like. That gives you some flexibility in choosing the service you feel best suits your needs.

How do you use an unlocked cell phone?

With your choice of carrier, you can use the services you pay for without having to worry about whether or not your phone is compatible. Even if you wanted to switch carriers, you can take your phone with you and join another one, often with a monthly rate plan discount for bringing your own device.

There may be rare cases where a phone may not be fully compatible with a certain carrier, though that is less likely with major carriers. Regional ones may have some restrictions, but they are increasingly less common with the latest phones.

You may have noticed terms like, “jailbreak” for iPhones, and “rooted” for Android phones. These are not the same as an unlocked phone. Jailbreaking an iPhone refers to removing restrictions related to media or app selection by installing unauthorized software to get past those limitations. While that is technically “unlocking” a phone’s capabilities, it has nothing to do with unlocking from a carrier’s network. If you do jailbreak or root a phone, you are also voiding any warranty, so beware of trying it.

Will unlocked cell phones work internationally?

Yes, unlocked phones are ideal for international travel because you only need to swap out your SIM card for another card from a local carrier to get service. This could be on a limited basis to cover the duration of your trip, or for a longer period if you will be staying to study or work in a foreign country.

Most countries support the GSM network globally, as do most cell phones, so compatibility is often not an issue. Certain countries may use wireless spectrum bands that are not in Canada, and that may result in your North American phone lacking some functionality. It’s best to do a little research before travelling to be sure.

Most Canadian carriers also offer roaming services that enable you to continue using your phone while abroad for a special daily fee. Phones don’t have to be unlocked to benefit from that, but when it is unlocked, you can choose between that or buying a local SIM card to get the best deal for yourself.