Finally, President Obama and the U.S. Congress have found something they can agree on — reducing the amount of e-waste in the United States. In a moment notable for its lack of controversy, the President signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act this month.

This bill allows individuals to unlock their current cell phones in order to change telephone service providers, eliminating the need to dispose of old cell phones and purchase new ones when switching phone companies.

Even better, the legislation permits phone resellers and e-cyclers to perform bulk unlocking so that old cell phones can be re-used rather than thrown on the trash heap.

Everybody wins

A full year of debate preceded passage of the bill. As many as 100,000 American consumers signed an online petition asking to legalize the unlocking of cell phones, while the Institute of Scrap Recycling lobbied hard for Congress to include bulk unlocking by e-cyclers and resellers. The initial version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives was worded to include only individual consumers, but the final bill signed by the President reinstates the right to unlock to phone dealers and e-cyclers as well.

The result is great news for everyone. Thousands of used cell phones will re-enter the global market each year via resellers and recyclers. And consumers — although they will still be limited by the terms of their service contracts — will be able to request an unlocking code from their cell phone providers and keep their current phones while choosing a new provider.

Tips for consumers

If you’re interested in taking advantage of this new law, it’s already gone into effect. Here are the guidelines for requesting unlocking codes from a few major companies:


Many of Verizon’s 4G LTE cell phones are already unlocked — check to see if yours is one of them. If you need an unlocking code for your Verizon phone, call them at 1-800-711-8300 to ask for the free SIM code to unlock your make and model telephone.


If your AT&T phone is fully paid for, was designed for use on the AT&T network and has not been reported as lost or stolen, visit the AT&T website for your unlocking code. The process is simple and quick.


Life isn’t quite as easy for T-Mobile customers looking to unlock a phone. The requirements are very specific: You must have met all the service time requirements, have made a minimum of 18 consecutive payments if you’re under contract, and have an account in good standing with a phone that’s been active on the T-Mobile network for a minimum of 40 days. If you’ve already terminated your account, it must be paid in full.

After you’ve met that list of requirements, call T-Mobile customer support at #611 and request your unlocking code.


Sprint’s requirements are very similar to those at T-Mobile, except that they require your phone to have been active on their network for 90 days. Call a Sprint customer service representative at 1-888-226-7212 to request your unlock code after you’ve checked to make sure you’re eligible.

It’s important to note that the new law has a temporary life span. Congress is due to revisit the issue of cell phone unlocking as it relates to copyright law in three years. But given that our contentious Congress has pulled together to produce legislation that’s good for consumers and good for the environment, this can only be considered a big win.