Why That Jailbroken Phone Isn’t Nearly as Sketchy as It Sounds

Two people looking at a phone
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Mobile phone jargon can feel sketchy as heck.

You bought this phone with your money, so why is it in jail? You don’t know how to unlock it. You can’t even remember your passwords. Even if you haven’t attempted to jailbreak or unlock your phone yet, you might wonder if you’re about to get in trouble.

Mobile phones perform many useful functions, but their inner workings remain a big mystery to many of us.

If you’re wondering what it really means to jailbreak your phone, or to have it unlocked, look no further. We promise to keep the jargon to a minimum.

What Is Jailbreaking?

A jailbroken mobile phone can perform functions outside the rules of the phone’s operating system.

Jailbreakers work to find cracks in Apple’s code to open up iOS devices like iPhones for non-Apple software. They find vulnerabilities, use them to increase the range of functions their phones can perform, and then plug the security holes behind them.

Writer and activist Hannah Simpson has been jailbreaking and unlocking phones for more than a decade. She explained that early jailbreaks allowed you to change the way you got notifications on your iPhone or tether your computer to your phone to access Wi-Fi. More recent ones let you spoof your location or cheat at Pokemon Go.

Over time, Apple has added many of the features that jailbreakers developed or improved.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game with Apple,” Simpson said. “Every time they release a software update, they fill in whatever holes the last people who made a jailbreak used.”  

The result: “Jailbreaking has to be done each time you do a software update for a phone, which can get tedious,” said Chanelle Henry, a user experience researcher and writer, by email.

A lot of the apps you can download once your phone is jailbroken are fake. “So it can be a waste of time just to change the theme of your iPhone for a couple of weeks,” she admitted.

The Android version of jailbreaking is called rooting.

It’s easy to find manufacturer-provided instructions for rooting an Android phone. “Google is more interested in letting people open their phones to do things,” Simpson said.

Then, with a little know-how, you can customize the way your phone works.

“You’re giving yourself more administrative access to your phone,” Simpson said.

Is Jailbreaking Legal?

Man browsing his phone
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Jailbreaking has been legal since 2010.

But Apple has said jailbreaking voids your warranty and that it can’t predict how a jailbroken phone will function, Simpson said.

Still, it’s not hard to “unjailbreak” a phone before you bring it in for repairs.

“It’s easy enough to reverse [a jailbreak] by reinstalling and updating to the latest software,” Simpson said.

It’s not as difficult as it once was to jailbreak a phone, Simpson said, so some of the excitement around it has faded away. If someone wants you to pay to jailbreak your phone, it’s often a scam, she warned.

What Is an Unlocked Phone?

Your phone’s SIM card holds the information about your phone number and carrier. Many phones are sold as “SIM locked,” meaning you can’t switch carriers and continue to use that phone. If you bought the locked phone from AT&T, you couldn’t switch to a Verizon plan, or vice versa.

In the past, you had to jailbreak your phone to unlock it. Now you can skip a step if you want to unlock your device.

“If your phone is paid off, your carrier has to, without complaint, unlock your phone in a reasonable amount of time,” Simpson said.

Both Apple and Android phones can be unlocked. Unlocking your phone can help you escape a high-cost cell phone plan. It can also save you money when you travel outside the U.S. by making it so you don’t have to use your carrier’s roaming packages.

“Unlocking is tremendously useful,” Simpson said. “If you plan to resell your phone or travel, it’s essential.”

You can usually request to have your phone unlocked online, Henry said. It’s permanent.

If you’re a loyal customer, your carrier may agree to unlock your phone even if you’re still making payments on it, Simpson said. “They just don’t want people buying unlocked phones en masse and selling them overseas for a markup,” she said.

If your carrier approves your request, it’ll unlock your phone for free.

If you plan to unlock your phone so you can switch carriers, you still need to make sure your phone will work with your new carrier.

Simpson said that some carriers use different network bands. If your phone is unlocked but doesn’t have the correct antenna installed to pick up the other bands, you may still have to trade your phone in for a new one with a new carrier.

Is Unlocking Your Phone Legal?

Man browsing his phone outside
Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

Keep in mind that this type of unlocking is different from what’s been discussed in the news about law enforcement accessing your phone. That refers to using your fingerprint or passcode to access your phone’s contents.

Unlocking your phone without your carrier’s knowledge was illegal between 2010 and 2014, until President Obama signed a law that exempts unlocking your phone from being a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

In short: It’s totally legal, unless your plan is to unlock a boatload of phones so you can resell them. If you’re doing it for your own use, unlock away!

“The only phone that cannot be unlocked, unless with a receipt, is an iCloud-locked iPhone, which are usually stolen,” Henry said.

What Does It Cost to Unlock My Phone?

If you request that your carrier unlock your phone and you own the device outright, it won’t charge you for the service.

If you don’t have a spotless payment record with your carrier or you pay for your phone in installments, your request may be denied. If you’re committed to unlocking, you can head to a third-party service.

“You will usually never find a store that is an authorized seller, such as Best Buy, Target, Walmart, that will unlock a phone,” Henry said.

Instead, you’ll have to find a reputable third-party online service. Henry recently unlocked an iPhone X on iPhoneIMEI.net and said it cost about $50.

You can expect prices for unlocking to range from $20 to $50 for a phone you own outright. If you’re paying for your phone on an installment plan, you could pay between $85 and $150 for the service. The process can take a few days up to a few weeks; if you want it done fast, you might have to pay more.

“When I’m trying to find a good tool, I always make sure it’s recent and not a scam,” Henry said. She uses Reddit, Quora and the Better Business Bureau to check out services before she buys.

Can I Save Money by Buying an Unlocked Phone?

Woman browsing her phone outside in the city
Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

Retailers must sell unlocked phones at the same price as carrier-locked phones, but beyond that, you won’t save much upfront on an unlocked phone.

The financial value of an unlocked phone is in what you’ll save or get back later.

If you take your phone on international trips and buy a local SIM card when you arrive, you’ll be able to make calls and use data for a fraction of what your American carrier is likely to charge for the convenience of its roaming package.

An unlocked phone can garner more if you plan to resell your phone, too. When we calculated the Gazelle sale offers for an iPhone 6s with the same specifications, the unlocked phone was worth $15 more. Similarly, Gazelle valued an unlocked iPhone 8 at $25 more than its AT&T counterpart.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.