Since cell phones are designed to use a SIM card (Subscriber Identification Module), or microchip issued by the cell phone carrier, usually the card itself will activate any phone into which it is inserted. However, if the phone is locked, it will only recognize a SIM card from that particular wireless service provider. When a cell phone is "unlocked" it is no longer necessary for it to be serviced by a specific carrier, and can recognize SIM card data from any provider. The lock itself is just a software setting, installed by the service provider that keeps the cell phone "loyal" to that carrier.
How do I get one?
In the United States and other areas, where carriers often offer deeply discounted cell phones in exchange for an exclusive agreement with a carrier, that phone will often be locked so it will not work with another carrier. Why do the wireless service providers feel the need to do this? Well, they claim it is necessary for subsidizing the cost of the equipment. However, after a certain period of time, some carriers will agree to unlock the phone upon the customer's request, which sometimes results in a fee.
One proven way to buy an unlocked cell phone without the proprietary software is to buy it new, from a 3rd party vendor, in its original state (before ever being locked in the first place). The only downside to this is that the price of these phones is often close to retail, making them too expensive for many consumers. As a result, some services are now available where you can get your cell phone unlocked for a fee. While some of the proprietary settings may still remain, and it is important to have this done by an expert, it can be a much less expensive way to purchase an unlocked mobile phone. Retailers can also find reputable web sites where wholesale unlocked cell phones are available.
How do I activate an unlocked phone?
Once you own an unlocked mobile device, activating it should be quite simple. Just remove the SIM card from the former phone and place into the newly purchased unlocked phone. If the original phone was lost or stolen, you may request a new SIM card from your mobile provider's store. Or, if you have a CDMA network phone, look for the ESN number associated with your phone, which is usually under the battery. This number needs to be within your provider's database in order for your new phone to be activated.