Unlocking phones..? Give me the key!
February 18, 2007 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a Sony Ericsson K790a or K550i and figure out how unlocked phones work with US service providers, pretty please!

My Cingular contract expiration is fast approaching and I would like to acquire a decent quality camera phone. A bit of research has directed me to the SE K790a and K550i, however they are not offered with any of the major US wireless providers. I've found a few on eBay that are advertised as unlocked, but is there a better way to get my hands on one? I've always thought of purchasing cell phones via eBay as a bit more risky than other products...yay or nay?

Before I purchase, do I need to contact Cingular or other service providers to see if either of them will work with their services? How does one do this unlocked phone thing exactly? I've always picked up whatever they offered in their usual lineup, and now I'm finding they're crap for photography. Any cellphone gurus out there to guide my way? Other 2mp+ camera phone reviews appreciated if anyone has additional model suggestions! Thanks all!
posted by Asherah to Technology (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Even if you have an unlocked phone, most American service providers won't let you use it. They want to limit the number of kinds of phones that use their system, for technical and support reasons. Before you spend any money on an unlocked phone, you'd be well advised to go talk to Cingular and see what they have to say about it.

Otherwise you might end up with a perfectly good phone that Cingular will refuse to let you use on their system.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:11 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: I've bought 4 unlocked phones from MyWorldphone.com and I've used them without problem on T-Mobile. As long as you get a GSM phone you should have no trouble using it on Cingular, just don't expect any support. Try to get a quad-band phone (one that includes 850mhz,) as that is in use in a lot of areas in the US, especially on Cingular. Also 3G won't work as the US providers all use different frequencies for the 3G tech than europe/asia.

I would suggest the Nokia N73. I have an N71 and I love it and it's camera. First camera on a phone i've really used. If you can wait a couple months longer the N75, the smaller and better version of the N71, should be available through Cingular. Bonus that it will be the first N-series that works on a US 3G system.
posted by cmicali at 7:42 PM on February 18, 2007

Oh to answer the how do you do it question.. it's really easy. You just put the SIM card that is in your current phone into the new one and turn it on. The SIM has an identification number on it that identifies you to Cingular, so whichever phone has yoru SIM in it is your phone on the network, so calls to your number will ring on that phone, calls made from it are billed to you, etc.

This magic of course only works on networks that are GSM (Cingular, T-Mobile.) Verizon and Sprint are CDMA, and don't work at all with GSM phones.
posted by cmicali at 7:46 PM on February 18, 2007

FWIW, I've never had problems using unlocked phones with Cingular. I just pop my SIM chip in, and everything just works. You may need to fiddle with some settings to browse the Internet and other special things like that, since the phone hasn't come pre-programmed with carrier-specific settings.

Amazon is where I picked up my last unlocked phone. Buy.com also had a few recently. There are many smaller sites catering specifically to unlocked phone buyers, but I have no idea which are reputable.
posted by scarlet at 7:47 PM on February 18, 2007

Response by poster: All of the replies have been excellent thus far, thanks! Follow-up question...I have no qualms staying with Cingular, but will I have to enter another 1 or 2 yr service contract with them or does having an unlocked phone give me the benefit of switching to a month-to-month plan? Is there such a thing? (I've tried phoning them today, but of course no customer service on Sunday evenings...grr.)
posted by Asherah at 8:01 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: Even if you have an unlocked phone, most American service providers won't let you use it.

I've been using unlocked quad band GSM phones for the past four years on both cingular and t-mobile. No problems at all. You're on your own with support for the device, but getting the settings for your phone is trivial. Finding support on the web is easy these days. Check out howard forums, everything you could possibly ask has been answered there.

Either way, go get yourself a nice phone that hasn't been crippled by the operators.
posted by lovejones at 8:02 PM on February 18, 2007

When your contract expires you are on month to month and you can cancel at anytime. They make you sign a 1-2yr contract when you get a phone from them because the equipment is subsidized. If you use your own equipment you dont have to sign any contract, but you usually pay more for the device.
posted by cmicali at 8:17 PM on February 18, 2007

Best answer: I have to second/third/fourth the "it'll work just fine" sentiment.

While certainly Cingular could choose to proactively deny your phone access to their network, why would they? Also, it presumes that Cingular is a hell of a lot smarter than they really are. Think more like the cable company, who gave us free cable for 6 years because they didn't understand how the apartment numbering was set up in our apartment building, and decided to take the safer route (and just keep it turned on).

I bought a Nokia 9300 from Cingular, ended up trading it for an E70, which I bought DIRECTLY FROM nokiausa.com. Even the data plan worked perfectly fine.

I suppose that if Cingular wanted to be dicks about the whole thing, they could refuse to give me CUSTOMER SUPPORT for my new phone. But really-- when was the last time you called your cellular provider for tech support? You'll find better quality info by googling.

As far as finding an unlocked K790a, you do have some choices, though they are expensive:

1. From SonyEricsson directly. Here. $500 is a lot to spend for a phone, but then again, I spent $450 for mine!

2. Ebay. I actually just bought my wife a new K510a on eBay for a pretty decent price. ($165 incl shipping). Note that the K510i does not have 850 MHz, which will be a problem outside of major metro areas, which is why I spent extra to get the K510a. (in other words, don't get a K790i).

Good luck. Quad band seems to be more common in a lot of the higher end phones, which makes things a lot easier...
posted by gregvr at 8:21 PM on February 18, 2007

I bought a Sony Ericsson K800i (the K790a's European brother).

Two reasons for this:
1) I will never, ever use EDGE. It sucks on T-Mobile anyway.
2) I'm more likely to go overseas, and don't want a useless brick if I do.
3) It was cheaper(!) ($360.00, SHIPPED, brand new.)

This guy is who I bought mine from. It arrived in a completely sealed, plastic-still-on-the-screen, brand new box and was exactly as described, with a nice holster to boot.

I popped my SIM card in for T-Mobile, and it was up and running instantly.

This is a picture I took with the phone a few days ago. 3MP goes a LONG way.

Again, unlocked phones couldn't be simpler, provided you have a SIM already. (Any T-Mo or Cingular retail store will be able to provide one for you when signing up for a new account, to the tune of perhaps $20-$30. SIMs are available on eBay, too. Or you might be able to use your Cingular one, even if switching services. Not sure about that.)

And the SE K800/790 is an amazing phone. Smartly built, a brilliantly intelligent interface and no crashes or lockups to speak of.
posted by disillusioned at 1:42 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: What disillusioned says. I have the K800i too and love it. I was in Germany last week where my tri-band [850/1800/1900] nokia would not work, but my personal K800i [900/1800/1900] worked just find with the cingular or t-mobile chip. I haven't found a place in the US where I've needed the 850mhz band to work. But 900mhz is quite common outside N. America. If you plan on staying in the US exclusively and you go to rural areas where 850mhz might be common, maybe you should stick with a 790.

I've had no problems Cingular or T-mobile SIMs in the US and when I've traveled outside. You put it in. Power it up. And it attaches to the network.

Cingular's 3G won't work on the K800i, because Cingular uses a different frequency. I think it might work on T-mobile's whenever that is rolled out.

The K800i's price may soon dip since SE just announced the K810i. Featurewise, it is identical, but it has some cosmetic differences, most notably it is thinner and they've done something about the bumpy lens cover. It isn't due into the market for several months though. A N. American followup for the 790 was not announced. Since neither Cingular or T-mobile offered the phone, SE might not offer the followup unless it did extremely well in Canada and Mexico.
posted by birdherder at 4:21 AM on February 19, 2007

I bought a Nokia N73 from overseas and flubbed the security code (which is a feature of your SIM, natch, not the phone!) and called Cingular. (No hold time! Woo!) The lady gave me the secondary security code and then proceeded to help me set up the rest of the phone for other services. ..without being asked -- she practically insisted that we check them before I hung up.

She didn't have much specific info about the N73, but did all she did all she could do, including comparing similar phones she did know about.

It's the first time I've been totally impressed with the support of a cell carrier. So, don't necessarily expect no help from your carrier just because you don't have one of their crappy phones.
posted by cmiller at 6:22 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: If you do end up buying the phone, you'll have to set it up to work w/ your provider's data network (for picture messages/web browsing/etc)

Thankfully SE has a page set up to do this automatically.

Alternatively both T-Mobile and Cingular can do the same thing from their support sites...but you'll have to do a little digging to find the right page.
posted by timelord at 7:04 AM on February 19, 2007

Response by poster: Again, thank you all, I've learned quite a lot about this in the past 24hrs...I don't feel weary about it at all, although I may decide to wait for the K810 roll-out to see if the price drops as birdherder mentioned. Its very nice to know that I won't have to be locked into a service contract and I can avoid horrible phones! yay...
posted by Asherah at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2007

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