What happens when a smartphone is officially “locked” and how long have they been able to do this?

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What happens when a phone company “locks” a phone and is it something only that can be done to “contract phones”?

How “locked” is the phone and is it still possible for criminals to circumvent this and make the phone useful to sell on the black market or does it essentially turn the phone into a useless brick?

How long has this ability to lock a phone been available?

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When a phone company locks a phone that phone is tied to that phone company…if you try to use it on another phone company’s network, like by swapping out the SIM card, it won’t work. Note that this is different than roaming…that’s when your phone is talking to some other phone company’s network but your account/bill is still with the original phone company.

Yes, it’s possible to circumvent, at least in theory. There’s a constant cat-and-mouse game of hackers figuring out how to unlock the phone (often called or related to “jailbreaking”) and phone companies and phone makers figuring out how to defeat the lastest hacker tools. There’s always some risk that an unauthorized unlock or jailbreak will brick the phone.

This ability has been around at least as long as there have been SIM card, which was when you were first able to move one piece of phone hardware to another phone network. I had to unlock a phone in the early 2000s, so at least that long…possibly much longer.