A couple weeks ago, Tim O’Reilly forwarded a posting about mobile phone interoperability in Europe from the Interesting People mailing list to ORA’s editorial discussion list. It seems that travelling abroad with a tri-band GSM phone isn’t enough, according to UCSD professor Sid Karin:
… I can’t resist relating my own experience with Vodaphone last month in Europe. I bought a Vodaphone pay as you go phone in London and ran out of minutes in Switzerland. As it turns out
there doesn’t appear to be anyplace in Switzerland that you can
go to to to top off a Vodaphone phone. I went to an Orange store
to see if they could help. They tried, but no luck. It seems that
Vodaphone modifies the Nokia phones that they sell so that
competitor’s SIM cards won’t work. So much for interoperability
Well, this was a familiar story. I recently visited the UK, thinking I would obtain a local network SIM for my Nokia 3650 - which *is* a tri-band phone,
after all - so that I could make calls in country without paying AT&T’s
exorbitant international roaming *and* long distance fees while there.
Needless to say, the phone immediately rejected the European SIM. Then
I proceeded to visit a sequence of cell phone service/repair shops in
London, each of which assured me that they could programmatically unlock
my phone, before returning within ten or twenty minutes to confess that
they could not om fact do it. Most independent mobile service locations in the
UK have, apparently, a Windows
application, that allows them to somehow modify the firmware on phones like mine
– but they need some kind of access code to do it, and the repair shops
in the UK just didn’t have the necessary code. “Which provider do you
use in the US?” I was asked by one. “AT&T? That’s not on my list.”
So much for getting a local SIM abroad. Rumor had it that AT&T would unlock my phone over the air for a fee, so, after I got back to the States, I called their customer service to inquire about it. “Oh no, that phone can’t be unlocked, it’s been locked by the manufacturer,” I was told. Uh huh, right. A call to a local retail location yielded the response, “Yes, the phone can be unlocked, but we aren’t trained to do it, and we don’t recommend it. You might damage your phone.”
Well, I’ve never been one to let a little warning like that stop me. After all, I paid for the phone, and I want it s full capability. Granted, AT&T gave me a hefty rebate on the phone, but as far as I can tell I’m under no obligation to keep the phone that I already paid for in any particularly half-crippled state.
Enter O’Reilly editor Brian Jepson, who remarked in response to Tim’s forward that:
If you want to do it yourself, recent Nokia phones are pretty easy to
unlock (download some freeware to generate a code); Sony Ericsson phones need a special cable (usually best to send it
out to someone to have it done). IANAL, but from what I’ve read, it’s not
illegal to unlock, but it is sort of cheating. If you want to avoid the
problem, just buy an unlocked phone (but you’ll pay a lot more).
Unable to resist a challenge (and not wanting to repeat this month’s phone bill the next time I go abroad), I called AT&T again to inquire of their customer service department - hypothetically, of course - if there was anything in my service contract that would leave me liable for termination of service or legal action if I did unlock my phone. I was told, first, that nothing in my service contract with them prevents me from unlocking my phone; second, that AT&T has no way of knowing if I have unlocked my phone; and, third, that unlocking my vendor-locked phone was illegal. When I pressed for details on the illegality of SIM unlocking, I was told they couldn’t provide me with any further information on that subject. And, of course, I’ve never been misled by an AT&T representative, heavens no.
So I decided to go ahead. This information is provided for educational purposes
only, and you should understand that acting on this
information may irreparably damage your SIM and/or
your phone. As far as legalities go, check the contract
from your service provider, as some contracts may
prohibit this activity. O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.
disclaims any liability for any consequences of using
I started by googling for nokia unlock software, and, lo, and behold, I found unlockme.co.uk, which has a substantial section on unlocking Nokia phones, including freeware downloads and a walk-through tutorial. I couldn’t get the Win32 unlock code calculator from unlockme.co.uk to run under wine on Linux, but at Brian’s recommendation, I also visited unlocksmith.com, which offers a self-extracting, freeware Nokia DCT4 unlocking suite. (Don’t ask me what the difference between DCT3 and DCT4 is - the aforementioned sites will tell you which one applies to your phone.) When I installed this package in
wine, I found a command-line tool called
wine executed with no trouble at all:
DCT4NCK by jozso v0.0a ---------------------- Usage: dct4nck locktype imei provider [boxserial]
locktype, according to unlockme.co.uk, is usually 2, unless you’re on a 3650 or 7650, in which case it’s 5. The
IMEI is the hardware serial number of your phone, which you can read off the inside label underneath the battery, or retrieve from the phone itself by dialing
*#06#. Finally, you’ll need the
provider code, which is a 5-digit number you can pull from this network provider code list. Unlock code calculators give you seven different codes, at least one of which should unlock the phone when entered with the SIM removed, but you only get five tries, before the phone locks you out. So, you really want to double-check your work before entering would-be unlock codes into the phone.
Undaunted, I ran DCT4NCK using the appropriate locktype, IMEI, and provider code for my phone, and got back seven 22-digit codes. Following the recommendation of the unlockme.co.uk tutorial, I took the SIM out of my phone, turned it on, and entered the seventh and final code listed, hitting ‘*’ consecutive times to get the ‘p’ and the ‘w’, but I omitted one of the digits, and got an error message from the phone. So I tried again, careful to enter the whole code, with the same result. Then I noticed that, a little further down, the network provider list shows special provider IDs for Nokia 3650s with particular IMEIs — which included mine! I generated a new set of unlock codes, and punched the last one into the phone. Same error.
Well, now I was starting to sweat a little. I’d gotten three consecutive errors, and I only had two tries left. So I went over the tutorial one more time, and found the following footnote: “For 3650 AT&T USA, always use code 1 out of the 7 generated!” Crossing my fingers, I tried the first code of the seven I’d generated instead, and voila — Success! A message popped up on the phone indicating that it had been unlocked. I put the SIM back in the phone, powered it up, and I was back in business, with no apparently harmful side effects.
So don’t believe the hype if your network provider tells you that your Nokia phone can’t be unlocked, or if a service location tells you that you need to pay someone for the privilege. Although your mileage may vary and you naturally do so at your own risk, with a little time and a little patience, you too can unlock your own GSM phone, and use it with a SIM from the service provider of your choosing. Power to the people!
NOTE (2005/04/30): Please don’t email me or post your IMEI here. I’m not an expert on this subject, and all the information I can offer on the subject has been given in this weblog entry. You also might try this site as well. My humblest apologies for any inconvenience.
Have you had any experiences with SIM-locked mobile phones? Is the ability to manually unlock a phone an abuse of the network provider or a consumer’s right?