Sunday, August 10, 2014

Adventures in Unlocking Samsung Galaxy S3

I remember the thrill of unlocking my first smart phone – an AT&T Go Phone – the LG Thrive.  At that time, you could purchase unlock codes commercially and do it yourself.  I had purchased my code on eBay for 99 cents and although I never changed carriers or traveled abroad, I experienced the liberating feeling of becoming unlocked.  Since that time, a court ruling has made this practice illegal and you must go through the phone’s carrier to perform an unlock.  Each carrier has different policies that they apply in their decision to unlock your device.  For those not familiar with the practice, cell phones are commonly locked to a specific carrier which makes them unusable on other networks.  The justification for this practice has its roots in the past common practice of providing an expensive flashy phone for little to no upfront cost, but carrying an obligation to subscribe to a “plan” for a specified period of time.  Of course nothing is ever free and as should be expected the actual cost of that expensive flashy phone was subsidized by the anticipated payments under the obligated plan.

Shortly after purchasing my used S3, I got the itch to investigate unlocking my device through AT&T.  A quick Google search identified AT&T’s unlock policy (policies for other carriers can be easily found through the same strategy.  After reviewing their policy, I wasn’t clear whether AT&T would grant an unlock as was using a plan type phone (the S3) with my Go Phone account and the policy for Go Phones was that the device has to be active for 6 months (and I had just activated it under my account so I did not know whether the activation history of the prior owner would count).  Fortunately, the process for requesting an unlock is relatively simple – fill out an online request and submit it.  This was the approach that I took thinking that I should make the request and put the burden on AT&T to say no and give a reason.  I was again pleasantly surprised to get a very quick response relating that my device was eligible for unlocking followed quickly by my unlock code and instructions.

My exuberance was short lived.  The first step of the instructions stated to power off the device and insert a non-AT&T SIM card.  That may be fine for young students who network at school where there are many adventurous others with different plans who wouldn't object to lending a SIM card for an unlock.  For us 50 somethings (or at least the 50 somethings like me), this is not a small task.  First off most of my immediate family were also Go Phone users so no non-AT&T SIM cards there.  An idea struck me that maybe my old Tracfone would do the trick.  Disappointingly when I pulled the back of the Tracfone off, I saw it was an old full sized SIM.  A bit of web surfing indicated SIM cards could be cut down so I thought, what do I have to lose.  I probably would never use the Tracfone again and even if I did likely Tracfone would provide a SIM card so I went at it.  There are templates that can be downloaded.  I decided to just go for it and using a razor utility knife and a board, I trimmed the full sized down to size using my AT&T SIM card as the template.  I thought I did a decent job and it fit nicely in the SIM slot, but when I powered on it was a no go – the message on the phone stated to insert a SIM card so it apparently was not reading the inserted SIM.  This particular SIM was from a very old Tracfone so it is possible that it may even pre-date standard SIM cards or it is possible that because it was not from an activated phone it didn’t register.  Regardless, this attempt was a bust.

Next I proceeded to search the web a little closer to see if there was a clean way to bring up the Unlock screen on the phone without using a SIM card.  I found a couple potential leads; however, these were not approaches that I deemed worth the risk.  In one instance, the instructions stressed that it would work only on the original factory operating system and I recalled the former owner indicating that he had upgraded to “Kit Kat” (a newer Android operating system) so I was not confidant in that approach.  Another approach had you dialing a code plus your unlock code.  Shortly after these instructions was information about Phone Freeze and what to do if you experience Phone Freeze… this did not sound good to me and gauging from my prior experience with AT&T, I did not expect that they would be much help if I needed to contact them regarding Phone Freeze after I applied a strategy that they did not provide.

As I have expressed in past posts, I have been extremely dissatisfied with AT&T and my motivation for unlocking on this occasion is partially motivated by a desire to have the greatest flexibility when my current subscription expires.  Thus, I thought maybe a competitor such as T-Mobile may be helpful.  After all they use GSM phones and would be a likely benefactor of a migration from AT&T.  Thus, it seemed that if I went to my nearby T-Mobile store on Wolf Road in Albany, NY and explained my case, T-Mobile may be willing to help.  I also thought that this may also give me a glimpse of the personality and customer service of this carrier as their plans looked interesting on line, but I did not have a good outcome calling their toll free number to get additional information.  Despite the sincerity of my story, I received no help from the Wolf Road T-Mobile, nor did I receive any warm fuzzies to endear me to look harder at their offerings.  The only option offered by this T-Mobile store was to purchase one of their SIM cards for $20.  Upon asking for other suggestions, they indicated that perhaps one of the kiosks in the mall may help.

Sadly, for most of our 50 somethings, work is our source of greatest networking interaction so I geared up to tap my work network.  First, I approached a contact in IT (information technology) – my contact related that computers were her thing, but admittedly she did not know a lot about cell phones.  She did check a couple of devices that she had access to for a potential SIM card, but related that SIM cards are generally cut up as soon as they get them and we had no luck on this occasion.  My IT contact suggested that I go to the AT&T store as “they gave you those directions so they should have a way to do it”.  I also checked with a co-worker who felt comfortable pulling her phone apart; however, her phone is a Tracfone with a full sized SIM and there was no way I was going to cut up her SIM card.  Likewise, I was very sensitive regarding relationships and comfort level of other co-workers and didn’t encounter any other likely candidates to loan a non-AT&T SIM card in my workplace.

My next move was to go to the AT&T store.  While my co-worker had provided a logical explanation, I was more skeptical as I did not anticipate an AT&T store having a non-AT&T SIM card.  My skepticism proved well founded as they did not; however, they suggested that I call their customer service number for assistance in unlocking as they had referred other customers to this route and “they had not come back so it must work.”  I will remark that the AT&T store rep was very helpful and dialed me through to their customer service on their store phone.  I related my issue to the telephone rep who took my information and after the appearance of researching the issue related that using a non-AT&T SIM was the only way with my device.  The AT&T store rep did suggest that I also give the Sprint store a try as they were right next door so there was little to lose.  Given this logic, I walked to the Sprint store and briefly explained my dilemma to which the rep responded that their devices use the CDMA protocol and do not use SIM cards, except for their iPhone and long story short they would not be able to help me.

Since the mall that T-Mobile had referred me to was near my home, I also thought that I had little to lose by their suggestion to check with the kiosks.  At the first, I struck out completely.  On the second, I engaged in more of a conversation with the owner and operator.  The operator, a younger gentleman went above and beyond by checking his iPhone 5s, but quickly identified that this model uses the SIM nano sized card.  The older owner related that he believed that he may have some inactive T-Mobile SIMs at home; however, he also related that he believed that the process would require an activated SIM.  He kindly offered to bring some in the store should I wish to come back in a couple of days.

As it happened, I had an opportunity to make a pass at Crossgates Mall.  I had identified that there was a T-Mobile store in the mall and while I had some skepticism due to my previous experience with the Wolf Road T-Mobile, I felt I had nothing to lose.  Upon parking, I was reminded of the Best Buy also at this location.  Applying the same logic of having nothing to lose, I stopped by the Best Buy.  While the Best Buy associates were very polite and helpful, they clearly related that they were not able to loan me a SIM card to attempt my unlock.  The associate that I spoke to related that he also had AT&T.  This suggested that he considered the possibility of pulling the SIM from his personal phone if it would have helped.  The friendly Best Buy associate also provided direction to the T-Mobile store and I proceeded on my way.  On the way, I passed the mobile Best Buy further which appears to be a separate store down the hall in the mall from Best Buy.  I considered a stop, but elected to proceed to T-Mobile first.  Upon approaching T-Mobile, I viewed 2 reps and no customers.  After giving my spiel, I was shocked when they didn’t respond with an immediate “no” as I had encountered previously.  Instead, they took a look, found a micro card and the unlock was on!  I pulled apart the phone.  The rep inserted the card.  I restarted the phone and entered my 4 digit pin and BINGO – the unlock window appeared.  There was minor suspense when the rep apparently mis-entered the unlock code (you only get 5 attempts and then this phone is permanently locked), but on the second attempt, the sweet message of success.  I was elated, hearing the voice of Martin Luther King in my head – “Free at last; free at last…”.  I will also note that in addition to this assistance, the rep also reviewed their pre-pay options - good for both T-Mobile and good for me so that I'm well informed of my options.

Here are my tips and lessons learned should you find yourself in a similar situation.

  1. Always be polite – remember you are asking for a favor and with the exception of your existing carrier, others do not have an obligation to help you.
  2. Print the unlock message from your carrier and bring it with you.  This helps to establish legitimacy so it is clear that you are not asking anyone to do anything illegal.  Also, by printing you don’t risk issues of erroneously copying your unlock code or issues of legibility.
  3. Be persistent – as demonstrated by my experience, many are likely to be unable or unwilling to help you.
  4. If you are going to approach a retailer, select a time when they are not busy.  Simply stated, they are more likely to be willing to spend time with you (a non-paying customer) when they do not have paying customers with immediate needs.