Factory Unlocked vs Network Unlocked Explained

Phones come as various different models, and the terminology we use to describe them can be confusing. One of the most commonly confused terms are factory unlocked and network unlocked.

They are often used interchangeably with one another, but actually they’re not the same thing. Here’s the difference between a factory unlocked phone and a network unlocked phone.

Factory unlocked vs network unlocked phones – How they’re different

Both factory unlocked phones and network unlocked phones are available to be used with any carrier or network – this is what “unlocked” means. However, the difference between them is how they’ve been unlocked.

As the name suggests, a factory unlocked device was unlocked when the factory made the phone. It’s whole lifespan the phone has been unlocked, and it’s never been tied to any one carrier.

In comparison, a network unlocked phone has been unlocked by the network later down the line. It may originally have been tied to a specific carrier, but now that it’s been unlocked, you can use it with any SIM card and network.

This means that practically both of these things mean the same, and the device will perform the same way. But, there a is a notable difference between how they’ve become unlocked.

There can be limitations on these devices too, but typically you can use them on any network – in the UK the so called “big four” networks are EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.

What is the meaning of factory unlocked devices?

Essentially all factory unlocked means is that the device has no limitations when it comes to the network carrier you can use it with.

With no carrier lock, there is no requirement for you to ring your network if you decide to move somewhere else – from O2 to EE, for example.

Many companies will manufacture and distribute their phones to retailers that are locked by the carrier to a specific network, meaning you’re stuck with them.

However, you have the option to get an unlocked iPhone or Android phone, whether by buying one directly from the factory or requesting a network unlock from your carrier.

What Does GSM Unlocked Mean?

GSM unlocked phones enable users to use any network with SIM cards from EE, O2, Three or Vodafone.

Yes, this pretty much means the same thing as factory unlocked and network unlocked (this is why these terms are very confusing, as they’re often used interchangeably with one another).

GSM stands for Global System for Mobile, which is an international standard that network providers are required to meet.

Benefits of Factory Unlocked Phones

When you get an unlocked phone, you can use it with any network from the very start. This means that you don’t need to stick with just one carrier, and you can find the cheapest deal available.

Locked phones can be a little limiting in this regard. You can use your device only with the network that you’re tied to, and you’ll have to submit an unlock request to the network if you want to move away.

Factory unlock basically means that the smartphone has freedom to be used on any network, which is always better than being locked to a carrier.

How to check if your phone is carrier-unlocked?

The unlock process involves getting an unlock code from your provider, which you can then use with your locked phone to make it unlocked – you can then use it with any network you like.

The easiest way to check if your device is unlocked is to remove your SIM card, and then test SIMs of different carriers in and see if they work – this will let you know the unlock status of the device.

You can also check the Settings on your phone – this works differently for Android and iOS users. For iPhone users;

  1. Open Settings,
  2. Tap General, then About.
  3. If you see the No SIM Restrictions message, this means that your device is unlocked.

For Android users;

  1. Click through to Settings.
  2. Select Connections, Network & Internet.
  3. Next, click on Mobile network or Cellular network.
  4. Then, select Choose Network or Automatically select network.
  5. If several carriers appear, your device is likely to be unlocked. You can also go to the Apple Store directly and ask whether your phone is locked to a carrier or not.

There are usually factory unlocked versions of each model released to the public, and carrier locked phones can be worth less.

So if you want to ensure a high resale value, when you buy a new device try to ensure that it’s unlocked.


In conclusion, phones can be used with any network that you like – providing that your network carrier unlocks it for you.

Your phone can already come factory unlocked when it’s released, or it can later be unlocked by your network provider if you need.

Either way, if you want to switch networks then you’ll need to get your phone unlocked. This can help to save money by making sure you’re always with the cheapest carrier.

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Edward brings years of experience in a variety of different fields including online marketing & No-code app development, and he's been investing in stocks and cryptocurrency since 2016. Outside of work you'll usually find him watching movies at the local cinema or playing games in the Apple Arcade.

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