'Locked' mobile phone handsets to be banned from sale in the UK

Lucy Harley-McKeown
·3-min read
Female hand using smartphone while working at desk in office
Unlocking can be a complicated process which sometimes costs around £10 ($13). Photo: Getty

Mobile phone companies will be banned from selling ‘locked’ handsets under new rules from Ofcom which will make switching handsets simpler.

Some companies, including BT/EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone (VOD), still sell phones that can’t be used on other networks unless they are unlocked.

Unlocking can be a complicated process which sometimes costs around £10 ($13).

Ofcom’s research has found more than a third of people who decide against switching do so because their handset is locked.

Also, more than half of people who have tried to unlock a phone struggled to do so. Issues with this include codes that do not work, a loss of service or even that they did not realise the phone was locked before they tried to switch.

“We know that lots of people can be put off from switching because their handset is locked,” said Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s connectivity director.

“So we’re banning mobile companies from selling locked phones, which will save people time, money and effort – and help them unlock better deals.”

Ofcom says the rules, which implement the new European Electronic Communications Code, will be brought into force in December 2021.

Despite the fact the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, with a transition period until 31 December 2020, during the transition period, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK remains under obligation to implement EU directives into domestic law.

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Another part of the code Ofcom is looking to implement is making switching broadband providers easier and more reliable.

Ofcom said it would shortly consult on more detailed proposals for a new simpler switching process for all broadband customers.

It also pledges to make sure disabled customers have equivalent access to information about their communications services.

The ban has been in the works since last year. It follows reforms introduced in July which now allow people to start the process of moving network by sending a single, free text message.

Of the ban, Natalie Hitchins, head of home products and services at Which?, said: “We know that some customers who stay with the same provider for long periods of time are more likely to be overpaying than customers who switch, so this ban on selling locked handsets should make things easier for customers looking for a better deal.

“If you think you might be out of contract, check your phone bills as you could potentially switch to a SIM-only deal and depending on the network you might find that you can already switch elsewhere and save money right away.”

Responding to the announcement, Mark Evans, CEO of O2 said: “We fully support Ofcom’s decision today. At O2 we started selling unlocked handsets to customers a number of years ago – and we still maintain the best loyalty in the industry.

“Offering value and flexibility is a much better way to win trust, and as an industry we should be working to give customers the best of both.”

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