What does SIM Free mean?
SIM Free Smartphones - What does it mean when you buy a phone "SIM Free"?
SIM-free means that the phone you are buying does not come with a SIM-card. Typically this means that you are buying the phone outright - it does not come with a pay monthly contract. There are some complexities to explain, though, so read on for a more thorough explanation.
Are you thinking of buying a SIM-free phone?
Buying a mobile phone is no longer as simple as it once was. Today you have more choice than ever, from the size of screen to the colour; the power is in your hands.
With choice comes complications and one such complication is understanding the differences between all the terminology.
One of the latest terms you may have heard or seen is ‘SIM Free’. Clove Technology is a retailer of SIM free smartphones and thus we try to provide as much information on the subject as possible. Below you can find our detailed explanation of what the term means. Before we get started, we'll also provide links to some of the related content that we've produced:
- The Ultimate Guide to importing a SIM Free phone into North America
- The advantages of going SIM free blog post
- SIM free vs Contract Video (embedded below)
So what does SIM Free really mean?
SIM free relates to a mobile phone, smartphone or tablet, that when purchased does not come with a SIM card included.
Understood? Yes. Great, job done...well not quite!
Whilst SIM free means no SIM card, the phone in question could still be locked to a network or unlocked for use on any network, which might not be quite what you are after.
JUST BECAUSE YOU BOUGHT IT OR IT WAS ADVERTISED AS ‘SIM FREE’ DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN USE IT ON ANY NETWORK
Let us explain in full so that by the time you finish reading this guide you will know and understand all the differences and be ready to face the world of mobile phone buying with a bit more confidence.
If you do not understand by the end, then let us know as we will not have done our job properly!
Please be aware that the term ‘SIM Free’ can also refer to tablets -- some of which now have cellular connectivity options and can act in the same way as a phone -- but for the purpose of the guide we will refer to just phones. However the principle is the same for a tablet with cellular connectivity.
A small word of warning: the terms used in this guide are what we would regard as the industry standard. However some, through force of habit and a misunderstanding of terms, may use them slightly differently. So, if you are unsure, then always question and ensure you understand fully before committing to a purchase.
In the interest of ensuring we understand each other, we make this guide as simple as possible to understand and wish to cause no offence by covering the basics.
What is a SIM Card?
A SIM card is a small chip that is inserted into a piece of hardware (primarily a mobile phone) that gives you an identity.
SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module and is equivalent to your national insurance, NHS, social security or employee number. It is a way of identifying you.
The small chip or ‘SIM Card’ as it is referred to has an integrated circuit in it that contains the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) and the related key to identify and authenticate your mobile device.
This therefore means that when you use a phone with your SIM card in it, your network provider knows it is your phone that is making the call and can then handle the call appropriately.
A SIM CARD IS A MEANS OF IDENTIFYING YOU
What types of SIM card are there?
There are a variety of SIM cards and this depends whether you are referring to the size or whether the SIM is associated with a contract or not.
In relation to the size of SIM cards, the most common is the mini-SIM (more commonly referred to as the standard SIM), but there are too micro and nano SIM cards now available.
As the name implies these SIM cards are of different sizes and have over time reduced in size to enable you to own smaller, slimmer and more practical mobile phones.
The above image was taking from the Wikipedia entry on SIM cards and shows from left to right: Full size SIM, Mini SIM (commonly known as a standard SIM), micro SIM and Nano SIM.
Older phones use the standard sized SIM cards whilst most new phones now use micro or nano SIM cards.
Aside from size there are Pay As You Go (PAYG) SIM cards and Pay Monthly or Contract SIM cards.
PAYG SIMS are cards that are topped up by the user as and when the available balance on the SIM depletes. The regularity of the top-up will depend on the users usage, service costs and top-up amount.
Contract or Pay Monthly SIMS are managed by a regular payment to the network provider for their services.
Contract SIM cards are for those who sign an agreement for a specified amount of minutes, text messages and mobile data every given month. This contract then lasts for a period of time, usually 12, 18 or 24 months. Each month, the user pays a fee for the services.
Pay Monthly SIMs are equivalent to a contract but the agreement rolls over each calendar month giving both the the user and the network the ability to cancel the contract with 30 days notice for increased flexibility.
THERE ARE 3 SIZES OF SIM CARD BOTH AVAILABLE IN PAY AS YOU GO OR CONTRACT OPTIONS
You should now understand the concept of the SIM card, what it does and the different types.
Now we come to look at the mobile phones or smartphones themselves.
What is an e-SIM?
The e-SIM or 'embedded' SIM came about in the late 2010s, initially for consumer 'wearable' products or other small/portable pieces of equipment requiring cellular connection that will never need a physical SIM to be changed.
There is no physical SIM card component to the e-SIM. Instead, the circuitry within the device contains all the relevant identifiers of a SIM card, such as the IMSI and related key, 'hardwired'. This information is designed to be immutable/unchangeable.
e-SIM gained popularity with wearable products such as smartwatches. Often, a cellular version of the product would be sold to consumers alongside a smartphone by a network provider who pre-registers the e-SIM credentials on their network.
Theoretically, any network provider can re-register the e-SIM credentials on their network, provided the original network provider releases them correctly. In the future, we could see all cellular devices incorporate e-SIM and eschew the physical SIM card forever. However, the logistics / timeframes involved for of re-registering e-SIM credentials to new network providers could be at odds with allowing consumer choice / competition in markets where people are accustomed to quickly and easily swapping out a physical SIM card to access a different network with their device.
What is a Locked Phone or a Network Locked Phone?
A ‘locked’ or ‘network-locked’ phone or tablet refers to a handset that will only work when a particular network’s SIM card is inserted.
The locked handset will only accept a SIM card from said network provider.
A handset locked to Vodafone would not function if an O2 SIM card was inserted: you would need a Vodafone SIM card in it for it to work.
Similarly, an O2 locked handset would not work if a 3 SIM was inserted, only if an O2 SIM card was.
The reason mobiles are locked in such a way is that they are usually given out or sold by a network provider and locking the handsets stops people using the SIM cards of rival networks. This means that the user is tied to the network that originally sold it.
LOCKED PHONES WILL WORK ON ONLY ONE PARTICULAR NETWORK
Can a Locked/Network Locked Phone be unlocked?
Whilst it is a little bit of a grey area in how the process is completed and whether it is legally or morally right, it is possible.
The phone is usually unlocked by entering a special code into the phone which is generated based on that particular handsets identity.
There are services both on the highstreet and online that offer the ability to unlock them either yourself or have someone do it for you. The cost varies, but it can be as little as a few pounds to do this.
Once unlocked, that handset can then be used with other network providers SIM cards.
There are some additional complications regarding this including the warranty and ongoing usability but more on that later.
PHONES CAN BE UNLOCKED - THERE IS NORMALLY A CHARGE
What are Unlocked Phones?
Unlocked phones are phones that work on any network be it O2, Vodafone or 3 or any other service provider.
All you need do is insert the appropriate sized SIM card for that phone and it will work.
However, there are unlocked phones that were once locked (as explained above), and truly unlocked phones that were never locked to one particular network.
Unlocked phones that were once locked are often older handsets and are more commonly seen when buying and selling second hand phones.
Truly unlocked handsets or ‘factory unlocked’ handsets are those that were made by the phone manufacturer and were designed to be used with any network providers SIM card.
You can buy unlocked handsets, for use on any network but it may come with a SIM card depending on the agreement at the time of purchase. Could use Three as an example but not sure if that is counter productive?
You can also buy an unlocked handset for use on any network without a SIM card.
UNLOCKED PHONES CAN BE PURCHASED WITH AND WITHOUT A SIM CARD
It is this latter arrangement of buying a factory unlocked handset without a SIM card that is becoming more commonly known as ‘SIM free’.
When you buy from Clove (unless clearly stated) all of our handsets are sold SIM free (with no SIM card) and factory unlocked for use on any network.
Hopefully that is now a little clearer and the differences between a SIM free, locked and unlocked handset are more understandable.
To recap though:
- SIM free is the sale of a phone without a SIM card
- A SIM free phone may be locked to a network
- Locked handsets only work with SIM cards from one particular service provider
- Locked handsets can be unlocked
An unlocked handset is either a handset that was formerly locked but has now been unlocked, or a handset that was truly ‘factory unlocked’ to begin with.
Most re-sellers of SIM free handsets are often selling phones that are SIM free and factory unlocked for use on any network - but do check!
With that in hand it is now necessary to understand a few more of the intricacies of the whole SIM free/unlocked scenario and better understand SIM free and whether it is right for you.
What SIM cards to use in SIM Free phones
The beauty of an unlocked handset is that you can use it with any network provider’s SIM card, whether it be a pay as you go SIM or a 24 month contract SIM or a 1 month rolling contract pay monthly SIM.
Simply ensure you are happy with the payment plan you choose and that the SIM card you have is the right size for the phone.
If the phone is SIM free but locked it will be able to use a PAYG, contract or pay monthly SIM providing it is from the network to which the phone is locked.
If it is SIM free and unlocked then you can use any PAYG, contract or pay monthly SIM from any network provider in it provided that the SIM card is the correct size.
Already got a SIM card from a previous phone? You can use it in a SIM free and unlocked handset.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SIZE SIM AND THE RIGHT PAYMENT OPTION FOR YOU
IF YOU ALREADY HAVE A SIM, YOU CAN INSERT IT INTO YOUR SIM FREE UNLOCKED PHONE
Buying, Selling, Importing and Exporting SIM Free Unlocked Handsets - BE AWARE
As a general rule, most newer SIM free and unlocked handsets will work in most parts of the world.
However, there are some exceptions and things you need to be aware of.
Certain countries or areas of the world use different standards and what is common in the USA or Europe may not be in ASIA, for example.
Thus a phone from the USA may not work on European networks. We have a guide here about importing a SIM free phone into North America.
Most handsets will allow you to make and receive calls as well as send and receive text messages but it is worth checking with your network provider or phone manufacturer.
Now, this is a big topic in itself and can be very complicated but the fundamental principles and things to know are as follows:
In different parts of the world, different frequencies or bands are used to transmit the radio waves that make it possible for us to make calls, send text message and browse the internet on our phones.
In the UK one network will use one band whilst another may use a different band. Each network provider may then use a different band for 3G or 4G data in comparison to normal GSM for making a phone call or sending a text message.
The phones have to have the hardware built into them to support these different bands.
Phones made for the UK market will support these bands, but may not have support the bands of the networks in other countries.
Phones made for the UK will normally work in Europe without issue, whilst phones made for the USA will normally work all across America.
Increasingly, phones are built with support for a greater range of bands, thus making it easier for you to travel abroad with your phone. However, it still remains important to check prior to purchase if it will be compatible for use abroad.
The biggest area of incompatibility currently is with the bands used for mobile data. If you have a mobile data plan here in the UK, it does not mean that when you take your phone abroad you will also be able to use mobile data. Your phone will have to support the band that the US network provider is using. If it does, then you have access to data.
BEWARE WHEN USING YOUR PHONE OUTSIDE OF YOUR COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE MAY INCUR ADDITIONAL CHARGES. DO CHECK WITH YOUR NETWORK PROVIDER
In the past and still today many budget phones have ‘dual-band’ or ‘tri-band’ support meaning less compatibility on an international scale.
More modern phones have ‘quad-band’ or ‘penta-band’ support, meaning they have more bands supported and therefore offering you greater international usage.
It is this addition of bands that makes it possible and more desirable to import and export phones as they will work often without restriction in other countries.
NOT ALL SIM FREE UNLOCKED PHONES WORK OUTSIDE YOUR COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE. BE SURE TO CHECK
Automatic or Manual SIM Card Settings
It is worth noting that each network provider has their own settings that are required on a phone to actually make it work.
When you purchase a phone direct from the network or with a SIM card these settings are usually already on the phone.
Factory unlocked phones normally have the majority of network providers details saved and configure the phone automatically based on the SIM card inserted.
If you buy an unlocked phone that was previously locked, the settings may not be programmed into the phone. In most cases the network provider can send a configuration message with the settings, but sometimes it can be a manual process which can be complicated and a bit daunting if you are not confident with what you are doing.
FACTORY UNLOCKED PHONES USUALLY HAVE ALL THE SETTINGS SAVED FOR SIMPLE SETUP
What is network branding?
If a network locked phone has been unlocked, then it is possible, depending on the handset and the network provider that the phone hardware or software has that particular networks branding on it.
If it has been unlocked, then the phone will likely function correctly but you will often see the branding that will not be relevant to you.
How to remove network branding
The network branding takes two forms, software and hardware.
Removing the branding on the hardware is usually not possible unless the branding is in the form of a user removable sticker.
Special chemicals may remove some logos on a case, whilst in many instances it will be necessary to source and replace parts of the handset.
Removing software branding is often simpler by deleting or removing certain files and applications although this could impact on the performance.
The more common approach is to flash new software to the device without the branding.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO REMOVE NETWORK BRANDING BUT AVOID UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
Restrictions and Implications
If you purchase a phone SIM free and factory unlocked from new there should be no complications, the seller and the manufacturer should support you.
The above also applies if you purchase a phone new:
- SIM free but not unlocked
- With a SIM and locked
The complications come if you purchase a phone that is:
- SIM free but has been unlocked
- With a SIM but has been unlocked
In these two scenarios it will depend on where and when you buy or bought it and the conditions of sale.
In many cases (not all) a phone that has been unlocked after originally being locked will fall outside the normal warranty. guarantee and contract conditions with those who first manufactured and sold the handset. So if it stopped working for some reason they would unlikely repair or replace it.
For example. If you buy a Samsung phone off an online marketplace such as eBay, that someone once received as part of their contract on Vodafone, but has since had it unlocked to work with other networks; then Samsung and Vodafone are unlikely to support you or the original purchaser because the handset has been modified by unlocking it and violated their terms.
It is also common that even if you purchased a phone new but modify the software it will invalidate the warranty.
Many insurance providers will also often decline insurance on something you did not buy from new.
UNLESS YOU ARE WILLING TO TAKE THE RISK, PURCHASE NEW FROM A REPUTABLE SELLER
Is Buying Unlocked Cheaper?
Locked handsets are often cheaper as they appeal to a smaller audience.
Purchasing a handset that is now unlocked, but was previously locked is often cheaper than the factory unlocked handsets. This is because factory unlocked handsets are usually more expensive in the first place and do not carry the same risks (explained above) around the warranty and ongoing support.
BUYING FACTORY UNLOCKED CAN BE CHEAPER IN THE LONG TERM
Is buying SIM Free Cheaper?
Yes and no depending on your circumstances, but long terms it usually is.
When buying SIM free you have the upfront cost of the handset, whereas when purchased on a contract, the cost of the handset is factored into the monthly cost.
When taking out a contract you are essentially taking a loan out for the phone and only at the end of the contract will you have paid for and be able to keep the phone.
Normally included in the contract is an allowance for calls, texts and maybe mobile data, but the initial cost of the handset has been factored in.
At the time of writing, a Sony Xperia Z2 on Vodafone is free, but there is a monthly cost of £39.50 which gives unlimited texts, calls and 2GB of data along with the phone.
The contract is for 24 months and the total paid at the end of the 24 months is £948.
Buy a SIM free and factory unlocked Sony Xperia Z2 and there is an upfront cost of £439.
Obtain a 1 month contract SIM from 3 with unlimited calls and texts and 4GB of data and over 24 months the cost is £504.
At the end of the 24 months, the phone and the SIM have cost £943. £5 cheaper than the Vodafone option where you were committed for 24 months.
With the SIM free option you could change handset or network provider at any time without restriction.
An option that sits somewhere in between these two is to obtain a 12 month contract SIM from 3 with unlimited calls and texts and 4GB of data and over 24 months the cost is £432.
Add in the cost of the Z2 and the total bundle price comes to £871. That is £77 cheaper than the Vodafone option with only 12 months commitment to 3.
Ultimately you have to choose the right option for you, but SIM free gives you that option to be flexible.
BUYING SIM FREE CAN BE A LOT CHEAPER
How can SIM Free save you money?
As per the example above, it can.
It will depend on your needs and desires as to whether it will save you money, but generally it will even if there is a higher upfront cost.
BUYING SIM FREE CAN SAVE YOU MONEY
Upgrade when you like
When you are SIM free and unlocked you are not tied to anyone.
Want a different phone, can afford to buy it, then great, go for it.
Your old phone can easily be sold on to someone else or recycled to gain value from it and contribute towards new purchases.
Depending on your network plan you can even change this more regularly. You can chose when to upgrade your phone, if you want a mobile plan that offers you more or less minutes or data. You change it when you want, subject to the conditions you have.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED. UPGRADE WHEN YOU LIKE
SIM Only/ Pay Monthly Plans
SIM only plans are a new type of contract or pay monthly arrangement that has come about as a result of the increasing popularity of SIM free phones. They offer the SIM card only and no phone/hardware.
SIM only plans provide a SIM card with an agreed amount of minutes, texts and data for each calendar month. The plan is then for usually either for 1 or 12 months.
1 month plans are generally a little more expensive as you can cancel the contract with 1 months notice whilst a 12 month plan requires commitment for the full 12 months.
Either way a SIM only plan is a commitment that requires you to sign into a contract.
GREAT VARIETY OF CONTRACT OPTIONS FOR SIM FREE PHONES
Contract or Pay as You Go SIM?
Contracts often offer the most value for money in what they give whereas pay as you go tends to be more expensive per text message, call or data usage.
With a contract there is a fixed monthly cost, whereas with PAYG you pay based on what you use.
On contract you may pay £20 per month but only actually use £10 worth of the allowance.
With PAYG, if you use £10, you pay £10.
Contracts require more commitment and remove the hassle of having to top up when a balance is low.
Most opt for contracts as there are some excellent value deals to be had, but you should only ever commit to what you can afford.
CHOOSE WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU AND WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD
Prices of handsets and contracts will vary depending on when and where you purchase the phone and how recently the handset was release.
As this guide has shown, if opting for SIM free, sourcing the phone and SIM separately offers the best long term value for money.
Specialist retailers like Clove exist, offering only SIM free handsets. This specialisation in turn leads to volume and more competitive prices to give you the best deal.
SPECIALIST SIM FREE RETAILERS OFTEN OFFER THE BEST PRICES
Should I buy SIM free?
Ultimately only you can decide whether you should buy SIM free or not.
All the pros and cons have been laid out in this document for you to decide.
In many cases SIM free is in the long term cheaper and more flexible.
You should not stretch yourself to buy SIM free and if the upfront cost is of concern then the contract options can offer a regular but lower monthly cost, the downside being you are tied in and committing to making that payment, whereas a SIM free option, you can sell the hardware at any point to release capital.
YOU DECIDE. IF YOU CAN AFFORD THE UPFRONT COST THE LONG TERM BENEFITS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
The guide is complete, you should now be really au fait with everything to do with SIM free and locked or unlocked phones.
Here is a list of things to remember to consider and question yourself over when purchasing a new SIM free handset.
- Is the seller actually selling a phone locked to a network without a SIM or a phone capable of being used on any network?
- Is the phone factory unlocked or was is previously locked?
- Is there any manufacturer branding on the hardware or software?
- If I buy an unlocked phone am I willing to take any associated risks?
- Do I want to be able to change my phone regularly?
- Do I want to be tied into a contract?
- Can I afford the upfront cost?
- Would a Pay As You Go option be better for me?
- Is this a reputable seller?
- Am I happy with my decision?
This guide has been put together by Clove Technology (www.clove.co.uk) a UK based specialist in SIM free and factory unlocked smartphones and tablets.
Established in 1992, Clove are an independent supplier who can offer free and impartial advice.
This guide is available at no cost to you and should aid your decision process and understanding of SIM free phones.
Any queries or questions can be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org