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US wireless carriers now required to unlock phones

As of February 11, all major US wireless carriers must unlock phones for customers if asked, which gives more freedom to switch carriers.

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File - Customer holds an Apple iPhone 4G from AT&T, left, and Verizon Apple iPhones at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif.

Paul Sakuma

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As of this week, all major US wireless carriers must fulfill requests to unlock off-contract and prepaid phones, as long as certain guidelines are followed.

President Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law last August, and CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless communications industry, committed to having all carriers obey the new rules by February 11, 2015.

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Unlocking a phone allows a consumer to take a device to another service provider, such as switching your existing iPhone 6 from AT&T to T-Mobile. Prior to this agreement, Americans essentially had to choose between sticking with a carrier or buying a new phone.

While most wireless carriers had policies regarding unlocking off-contract phones, the ultimate decision was left to the carrier. Now, once a device is paid off in full, wireless companies must comply with consumer requests within two business days.

“Carriers upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee," state the guidelines from CTIA. “Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.”

In addition, the law requires carriers to inform consumers when a device is eligible to be unlocked and must unlock phones for deployed military personnel.

While US carriers are now required to unlock phones, there are plenty attempting to skirt around the new policies in small ways. Most notably, Sprint will only unlock phones for domestic use for models released after February 11. If you bought your phone the day before, Sprint will only unlock a phone for international access.

Not every phone will work on every network. For example, Verizon uses different wireless technology than AT&T, so even if your Verizon phone is unlocked, you cannot necessarily switch to America's second largest carrier with the same phone.