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Unlocked cellular phones are mobile phones which can be used on any network, with any provider, assuming that the provider permits the use of unlocked phones on its network. In many regions of the world, providers are mandated by law to allow unlocked phones, under the argument that restricting consumer choice runs contrary to the principles of the free market. Many networks, however, attempt to discourage the practice of using unlocked cellular phones, because they view unlocked phones as a threat to business.
The idea behind making locked phones is that these phones enforce customer loyalty to the network, by forcing consumers to stay on the network associated with their phones. Phones can be locked in a variety of ways, with some phones being specifically designed for use on particular networks, while others can be reprogrammed to work on different networks. Experienced users can even program their own phones, although this often requires proprietary knowledge and software, and it is not advised for people who are inexperienced.
Locked cellular phones are a problem for consumers who decide that they want to leave the network while keeping their phone. Some consumers also like to have calling plan flexibility for traveling, using one provider at home, and another abroad. Unlocked cellular phones provide this flexibility, allowing consumers to take their phone to whichever network they feel like using.
People can buy unlocked cellular phones directly from manufacturers, or from third party retailers. Typically, the phone will be sold for full market price, in contrast with locked phones, which are usually steeply discounted as long as customers agree to sign a contract. Paying full price for a phone available at lower cost with a contract chafes in the minds of some consumers, but others feel that the price is worth the convenience. Some networks also offer unlocked phones as a way to lure customers.
Before purchasing an unlocked phone, it is a good idea to research service providers to find services which could potentially be used with the phone. If a service plan is particularly appealing, consulting the provider about using an unlocked phone is advisable, to confirm that the phone can be used on the network without any restrictions. Some networks may insist on loading proprietary programming onto unlocked cellular phones, which should only be undertaken if the programming can be reversed or removed in the event that the customer decides to leave the network.