If you live in the US and have unlocked a phone in the past to use on a different network, unlocking a cell phone is now illegal. January 26, 2013, marks the end of the 90 days window set in October 2012 by the Librarian of Congress. The Librarian of Congress is in charge of overseeing exemptions and changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress ruled that unlocking a cell phone was a violation of the DMCA and that 90-day countdown began.

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Why unlock a cell phone in the first place?

Unlocking a cell phone allows a user to utilize that device on multiple networks. Perhaps, one phone is in a color or style you want but that phone does not work on your cell phone network. You have the phone unlocked or do it yourself so you can have the phone you want. Unlocking a phone isn’t as hard as it used to be, and most can do it from home watching a video online or following a written tutorial.

What does this mean for everyday cell phone users?

If you buy a phone that is unlocked out of the box by a cell phone provider, this is perfectly legal. However, if you buy a locked cell phone and jailbreak it to unlock, this is now illegal in the US under the DMCA.

Many cell phone providers in the US sell unlocked phones at a much higher cost to the buyer. Verizon, for example, offers the iPhone 5 unlocked for full price as does Apple. Google sells an unlocked version of the Nexus 4 for around $300. AT&T is the only network at the moment that publically supports unlocking phones after a contact with them is finished.

T-Mobile is the only cell phone company in America that openly encouraged users to bring unlocked phones to their network. There’s no telling how they will broach this with customers who saw that as a big selling point of heading to T-Mobile.

How about jailbreaking? Is jailbreaking illegal now, too?

Jailbreaking is not illegal, nor is it anywhere close to what unlocking a cell phone does. Jailbreaking allows you to run additional software and processes on a phone, but it does not make it possible to use the phone on another network. While many developers and cell phone makers don’t like the idea of jailbreaking, they know it’s popular and helps make breakthroughs in mobile technology.

After January 26, be weary of unlocking a cell phone without the permission of your carrier. Ask first, don’t risk finding yourself in a legal bind now that unlocking a cell phone is illegal in America.