Skip to main content

UK regulator bans mobile firms from selling ‘locked’ phones

iPhone 12 with open padlock.
(Image credit: Future)

As it moves to bring the UK in alignment with the new European Electronic Communications Code, Ofcom has finalised its ruling on the locking of phones by operators, banning the practice, and giving mobile companies until December 2021 to comply.

Among those companies affected are BT and its EE mobile division, Vodafone, Tesco Mobile; whereas O2, Sky, Three and Virgin already only sell unlocked handsets.

“Mobile phone companies will be banned from selling ‘locked’ handsets, under a range of new rules from Ofcom that will make switching even simpler,” an Ofcom statement said. “Some companies – including BT/EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone – still sell mobile phones that cannot be used on other networks unless they are unlocked, a potentially complicated process which can also cost around £10.”

The European Electronic Communications Code aims to make it more transparent for customers looking to switch to a new provider, with Ofcom research finding that more than a third (35%) of people who decided against switching said this put them off.

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

Selina Chadha, Ofcom.

“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.”

Helping consumers avoid confusion

Ofcom also found that almost half of customers who try to unlock their device experience difficulties doing so, including delays in accessing an unlock code, and codes that didn’t work when users tried to unlock their devices.

“Following consultation, we have confirmed that mobile companies will be banned from selling locked phones – allowing people to move to a different network with their existing handset, hassle-free,” Ofcom said. “The new rules will come in from December 2021.”

Dion Price, CEO of Trustonic, a company that specializes in embedded mobile security, believes that - whilst being a good move for consumers - the new Ofcom ruling could see an increase in theft and fraud, an argument often used by mobile companies that still lock their handsets in the UK.

"The news is a true double-edged sword; on one hand the consumer has more freedom and can be more network agnostic with their device purchase."

Dion Price, Trustonic.

“Unfortunately, 400,000 phones are reported stolen each year in the UK; and if you were to consider the amount of phone thefts that are not reported, this number is likely to be 2-3 times higher,” Price said. “The news is a true double-edged sword; on one hand the consumer has more freedom and can be more network agnostic with their device purchase.”


Dan is a British journalist with 20 years of experience in the design and tech sectors, producing content for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Dell and The Sunday Times. In 2012 he helped launch the world's number one design blog, Creative Bloq. Dan is now editor-in-chief at 5Gradar, where he oversees news, insight and reviews, providing an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stay up-to-date with the key issues facing 5G.