Switching phone network is about to get easier than ever

Young woman using smartphone in Sydney
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Changing network to get a better phone deal will soon be easier than ever after mobile operators in the UK were banned from selling locked handsets.

Although consumers have a legal right to have their phone unlocked, it can be an inconvenient process. If an unlock code is delayed or doesn't work, then there is a potential loss of service, while some people might be completely unaware their device is locked at all.

Several providers, including O2, Sky, Three and Virgin Media, already offer unlocked handsets as standard. However under the new rules, from December 2021, others such as EE, Vodafone, and Tesco Mobile, require customers to pay a fee to unlock their mobile phone.

Locked phone ban

Ofcom has decided the additional costs and actions required to unlock a device are unacceptable and incompatible with its desire to drive competition in the UK mobile market and make it as easy as possible to change providers.

"We know that lots of people can be put off from switching because their handset is locked," said Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s Connectivity Director. "So we're banning mobile companies from selling locked phones, which will save people time, money and effort – and help them unlock better deals."

Last year, the communications regulator introduced landmark legislation that allowed customers to leave their network simply by sending a text message to their operator. 

It believed its latest actions will eliminate another barrier to switching. Essentially, from next year, it will be possible anyone send a text and use any phone immediately on a new operator. 

Research suggests out-of-contract mobile phone users are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds a year by not switching to a better tariff – especially a SIM-Only deal that allows customers to use their existing smartphone.

"We know that some customers who stay with the same provider for long periods of time are more likely to be overpaying than customers who switch, so this ban on selling locked handsets should make things easier for customers looking for a better deal," added Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at consumer watchdog Which?

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.