Factory Unlocked vs Network Unlocked: What’s The Difference?

Unlocked phones can either be factory unlocked or network unlocked. What’s the difference?

Factory unlocked means the phone was bought directly from the mobile company or an authorized vendor pre-unlocked. It’s not carrier locked and can be used with any compatible carrier. Network unlocked means it was bought carrier-locked and then unlocked by the carrier or by a third-party. 

What is the difference between factory unlocked and network unlocked?

A factory unlocked phone and a network unlocked phone are similar with respect to the end user: you can use the phone with any carrier.

There are, however, some key differences:

Factory unlocked

  • A factory unlocked phone means that you purchased it directly from the manufacturer or an authorized vendor – e.g. a Google Pixel phone from a Google Store
  • The device comes pre-unlocked for the consumer and can be used with any carrier that is compatible with the device’s supported frequency bands
  • The device is not carrier-specific.
  • A factory unlocked phone doesn’t have features or software installed by a specific carrier
  • Factory unlocked devices are generally more expensive and have good resale value

Network unlocked

  • A network unlocked phone means that it was bought from a retailer or carrier (e.g. Verizon) and unlocked by the carrier itself or through an unlock code bought from a third-party website
  • The device is customized by a specific carrier so there may be reduced performance with other carriers when unlocked
  • A network unlocked device may have carrier-specific features that can’t be uninstalled
  • Network unlocked devices are generally cheaper with a lower resale value 

Is carrier unlocked the same as factory unlocked?

Carrier unlocked means that the phone was at one time locked to a carrier and now has been unlocked. 

Factory unlocked means that the phone was never locked to a carrier and was purchased directly from the manufacturer at the full retail cost.

Both types of devices can be used with any carrier SIM. 

How to check if an iPhone is carrier unlocked or factory unlocked?

To check if your iPhone is carrier or factory unlocked:

  1. Power off your iPhone.
  2. Take a SIM card from a different carrier and place it into the SIM card tray of the iPhone.
  3. Turn on the iPhone. Try to call any valid number.
  4. If you are able to connect and make the call, your iPhone is unlocked. 
  5. If an error message appears that the call can’t be completed, it means your iPhone is carrier-locked.

How are factory unlocked phones different from brand new phones?

Brand new phones that are not sold by a specific carrier are typically factory unlocked phones since you can use them with any carrier. 

Brand new phones sold by a specific carrier such as Sprint or At&T are also factory unlocked, however they are generally network locked (aka carrier locked). 

A carrier-locked phone is restricted to the use of a carrier’s network, while factory unlocked can be used with any carrier.

Second-hand phones, on the other hand, may be factory unlocked. Some are carrier-locked while others are carrier unlocked. 

What is factory unlocked vs software unlocked iPhone?

Here are some key differences between a factory vs a software unlocked iPhone:

Factory unlocked iPhone

  • A factory unlocked iPhone was bought directly from Apple or one of its authorized resellers and comes pre-unlocked
  • This kind of iPhone is not tied with any carrier and can be used on any compatible network without contract restriction
  • Factory unlocked iPhones are permanently unlocked 
  • Factory unlocked iPhones are generally higher priced 

Software unlocked iPhone:

  • Software unlocked iPhone means that the iPhone has been unlocked by the user to remove the carrier lock via software so that SIM cards from other carriers will work on it
  • This kind of iPhone often has a custom firmware installed that is used to unlock the device’s SIM port
  • A software unlocked iPhone can’t be purchased from Apple or an Apple-authorized vendor 
  • Software unlocking an iPhone is often temporary. If you subsequently update the iOS, the phone will be carrier locked again and you’ll need to software unlock it again
  • Software unlocked iPhones are comparatively cheaper

What is the difference between a factory unlocked and a Turbo SIM unlocked iPhone?

A factory unlocked iPhone is one that you buy unlocked from Apple or any official Apple-authorized vendor without being locked to a carrier. You can insert a SIM card from any carrier and use the phone without restrictions.

A Turbo SIM unlocked iPhone is one that has been unlocked using a Turbo SIM. It’s a small unlock chip that is put under the regular SIM card and inserted into your iPhone.

As a carrier-locked iPhone is locked to a particular carrier frequency, the Turbo SIM will spoof the frequency settings so that the iPhone works with any SIM card.

With a Turbo SIM, you also need to install a few networking profiles via the software provided with the Turbo SIM. The drawback is that when you reset your phone, the entire unlocking process needs to be redone.

It also requires updating the software after each iOS update. If not, the Turbo SIM will stop working due to an older software version. 

What is the difference between a GPP phone and a factory unlocked?

Here’s are some differences between a GPP phone and a factory unlocked phone: 

GPP phone

  • GPP phones are those devices that were initially locked to a carrier but are made to work with other carrier networks by using a SIM-cloaking chip known as GPP
  • This GPP chip is placed on the SIM tray on top of the gold-plated part of the original SIM card. The chip fakes the SIM card ICCID which identifies a specific carrier and allows you to access the network of any carrier on a locked phone
  • GPP phones are cheaper; the price of the GPP chip is very low (between $7-26)
  • GPP phones may not work after you update your phone to the latest OS version. When you do, you need to look for a compatible GPP chip that works with your device

Factory unlocked phone

  • Factory locked phones come pre-unlocked when purchased from the manufacturer or from an authorized vendor
  • These phones are not restricted to a carrier and can be used on the network of any compatible carrier
  • These phones are more expensive than GPP phones
  • No GPP chip is needed. The device can be used with any carrier, regardless of software updates

Can a GPP unlocked phone be changed into factory unlocked?

GPP unlocked phones are also called “semi-factory unlocked” phones. It’s generally not possible to change them to factory unlocked.

Even though the GPP phones will work with any carrier, once you update your OS, your GPP chip may become incompatible. Every time you update your phone, you may need to update the GPP chip as well.

Factory unlocked phones are permanently unlocked and come officially from the mobile company or some authorized vendor. This gives you the flexibility to use the SIM card of any carrier and install OS updates without restriction.  

Difference between a factory unlocked and GSM unlocked iPhone?

A factory-unlocked iPhone works on all carriers whether they use a GSM or CDMA network. The device was never locked.

In contrast, a GSM-unlocked iPhone means the phone may have been previously locked to a carrier but has then been unlocked to work with any GSM network.

All factory unlocked iPhones are also GSM unlocked. 

Is it better to get a factory unlocked phone?

Factory unlocked phones have grown in popularity over the years and have become the preferred choice of many mobile users worldwide. 

The following are the reasons why it is better to get a factory unlocked phone:

1. Freedom to switch carriers

Factory unlocked phones give users the freedom to switch among carriers without restrictions. The user can simply insert a SIM card from a different carrier into the factory unlocked device.

2. No need to unlock a carrier-locked phone

Factory unlocked phones avoid the hassle of having to unlock a carrier-locked phone, by contacting the carrier or paying money on a third-party website.

3. International travel

If you travel to other countries, a factory unlocked phone lets you use SIM cards from carriers in these countries so you can use the same device everywhere.

You also avoid international roaming charges when using your device in a different country with a local SIM. Roaming lets you make calls, send SMS, and use mobile data outside of your home carrier network coverage area but generally comes with high roaming costs.

4. No hidden costs

With a factory unlocked phone, users don’t need to pay the hidden costs carriers often charge for using specific services like mobile data. In contrast, users of carrier-locked phones are often faced with additional lock-in fees. 

What are the disadvantages of an unlocked phone?

An unlocked phone has certain drawbacks:

  • No support from the carrier if your device or network encounters issues
  • Unlocked phones may not fully support the carrier you use
  • You pay full retail price when purchasing an unlocked phone
  • You don’t get carrier-provided insurance on unlocked phones

Why are unlocked phones more expensive?

With an unlocked phone, you generally pay full price because the device price is not subsidized by a carrier contract. 

For carrier-locked phones, carriers provide support and subsidy on the device price to make the offer appealing to the customers so that they sign a contract with a carrier. This is the main reason locked phones cost comparatively less. 

How do I know if my IMEI is unlocked?

Here is how to check if your phone is unlocked through the IMEI number:

  1. Find your phone IMEI number. Your device package typically has the IMEI number printed on it.
  2. You can also find the IMEI number by dialing *#06# on the dial pad. The phone’s IMEI number will pop up on the screen. This works on both Android and iOS devices.
  3. Make a note of the IMEI number and browse to an online IMEI checker such as www.imei.info. Enter the 15-digit IMEI number into the field and start a check.
  4. You may need to solve a captcha to prove you’re not a robot. 
  5. The results will tell you whether your device is locked or unlocked, next to the “Lock Status”.