Differences Between Unlocked and SIM-Free Mobile Phones?

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What Are the Differences Between Unlocked and SIM-Free Mobiles and Smartphones?

Various terms are used to describe the SIM card status of new and used mobiles and smartphones. A frequently encountered term is unlocked, though SIM free is also becoming more commonly found.

Choosing Unlocked and SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones

The two terms mean slightly different things, though somewhat confusingly can also be sometimes used interchangeably. When buying a mobile phone, be sure to clarify the SIM card status as this can affect how the phone can be used. The following sections outline the differences in unlocked and SIM free mobiles and smartphones.

Network Restrictions

Both unlocked and SIM free phones do not usually have a SIM card included with them. The purchase only includes the phone and accessories. However, beyond this there may be differences in how the phones can interact with different networks.

Network Restrictions on Unlocked Mobiles and Smartphones

The major point about unlocked phones is that they can be used on any network. They have had all restrictions tying them to a particular network removed – or those restrictions were never in place in the first instance. For example, an O2 handset originally tied to having an O2 SIM card will have been modified so that it can take any SIM card. This applies to both contract and pay-as-you-go SIM cards.

Network Restrictions on SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones

Unlike unlocked phones that can be used on any network, SIM free phones may still be tied to a particular network. This is a vital point, and one that sometimes needs reiterating, as many customers believe that SIM free automatically means the phone can be used on any network. It is important to read the small print and check that using the phone is not dependent upon using a specific SIM card, even when the card is not included. Often this is not the case, though, and the phone can be used on any network and with various types of SIM card, including both contract and pay-as-you-go SIM cards. Indeed, it is becoming more common for networks to offer SIM card only contracts, in which only the SIM card and the contract is provided by the network, while the customer provides their own handset. The attraction here, possibly besides price, is that there are fewer restrictions on the way in which the phone is used. There are some instances when a SIM free phone will not be compatible with any SIM card.

Network Branding and Potential Issues with Functionality

Phones that have been tied to a specific network may have certain features in place that remain from the original network. This may include logos as well as welcome messages and even the entire menu system.

Network Branding on Unlocked Mobiles and Smartphones

With unlocked phones, the menu system is still typically branded to a certain network, with all features and functions designed for use by that network, and a particular SIM card. This does not mean that an unlocked phone cannot be used by other networks, but it can affect functionality. Certain features on the phone may not work as intended, or they may be difficult to access or not be available at all. This can be an important downside to consider. It is worth checking out how particular phones work when unlocked, and this kind of information is often available from mobile phone forums and help sites.

Network Branding on SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones

The lack of restrictions commonly encountered with SIM free phones also applies to network branding. With SIM free phones that are not tied to a network, there are usually no logos and the welcome messages and menu system will not be network branded. Instead, they will have the manufacturer’s menu system on them. This can make SIM free phones easier to use than unlocked phones, and all the features and functions should be easy to access and use.

Older and Newer Phone Models

Newer phones are always coming onto the market, and many people prefer to keep as up to date as possible when it comes to the latest handsets and technology. This can affect whether they would prefer an unlocked or SIM free phone.

Age of Unlocked Mobiles and Smartphones

Unlocked phones are often older models, because they have been through the process of being tied to a network and then unlocked and sold on. This can be an advantage from a price perspective, but it does mean that the phone does not include all the latest apps and up to date technology.

Age of SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones

In contrast, an advantage to buying SIM free phones is that newer phones are frequently available in SIM free forms before they are linked to any networks.


The prices of both unlocked and SIM free phones can vary considerably. Largely, price is dependent upon the model and age of the handset, but there are a few general considerations when it comes to weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of unlocked and SIM free phones.

Price of Unlocked Mobiles and Smartphones

Unlocked phones are sometimes more expensive than SIM free phones. This is because of the cost of the unlocking process. However, they can also be cheaper. This is because the cost of the handset may have been subsidised through its connection with a particular network, which isn’t always the case with SIM free phones. When selling a phone tied to a network, manufacturers and network operators can make the handset cheaper because they know the cost can be recouped through monthly contract charges. Longer contracts usually offer the handsets at lower prices than for shorter contracts for this reason.

Price of SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones

If the SIM free phone is not tied to any network, the cost of the handset has not been subsidised and may, therefore, be more expensive than unlocked or SIM included phones. However, this consideration may not apply if the phone is tied to a network.

Other Considerations

Another consideration to be aware of is that unlocking phones can invalidate any warranty. This can be checked with the manufacturer or network provider if necessary. This also applies to SIM free phones that are tied to a network as well as locked phones provided with a SIM card.

Find Unlocked and SIM Free Mobiles and Smartphones on eBay

To find listings for unlocked and SIM free mobiles and smartphones on eBay, begin at the left hand side tabs on the homepage. Follow the Electronics & Technology tab to the Mobile Phones & Communication page and then the Mobile & Smart Phones page. There are thousands of listings on this page, which can be refined considerably by selecting Unlocked and/or SIM Free phones. The option to do either of these can be found under the heading SIM Lock. After making these selections, other criteria can also be specified; these may include, for example, particular brands, phone models, operating systems and special features such as sat-nav and touchscreen functions. Another way to find unlocked and SIM free phones is to search directly using the search function at the top of the screen. Depending on whether or not a particular phone brand or model is required, use general terms such as “unlocked smartphone” or “SIM free mobile” or more specific terms such as “unlocked BlackBerry Curve 8520” or “SIM free Samsung Galaxy S III”.


Unlocked and SIM free are two terms used to describe phones that are not provided with a SIM card. The major difference is that unlocked phones have had any restrictions removed so that they can work with any network, whereas SIM free phones are simply not provided with a SIM card and they may or may not be tied to a network. Unlocked phones may still have the original network’s branding and menu system, which can affect functionality, and they are often older than SIM free models. SIM free phones often have the manufacturer’s menu system and may be available in the latest models. Being tied to a network can reduce the cost of a handset, while SIM free phones can be expensive if they are not linked to a network. Phones may be described as both unlocked and SIM free, and these can be used on any network.

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