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Ofcom to ban operators from selling locked phones

Jasper Hart
October 27, 2020

New rules to come in effect from December 2021

Mobile providers are to be banned from selling handsets locked to their networks from December 2021, under new rules from Ofcom.

The regulator said that the move would make it easier for customers to switch networks.

Currently, O2, Three and Virgin Mobile have already started selling unlocked handsets. Ofcom’s rules will affect BT/EE, Vodafone and Tesco Mobile.

According to Ofcom, 35 per cent of people who have decided not to switch networks have said that the difficulties behind unlocking a device have put them off.

Additionally, nearly half of all customers who try to unlock their device experience difficulties in doing so, such as a delay in getting the code they need, the code not working, or suffering a loss in service due to not realising their device was locked.

“We know that lots of people can be put off from switching because their handset is locked,” said Ofcom connectivity director Selina Chadha. “So we’re banning mobile companies from selling locked phones, which will save people time, money and effort – and help them unlock better deals.”

O2 CEO Mark Evans welcomed the change. “We fully support Ofcom’s decision today,” he said. “At O2 we started selling unlocked handsets to customers a number of years ago – and we still maintain the best loyalty in the industry. Offering value and flexibility is a much better way to win trust, and as an industry we should be working to give customers the best of both.”

In response to the announcement, Vodafone said: “We stand ready to implement these changes when they come into force,” while an EE spokesperson added: “We’ll work with Ofcom to comply with its guidelines.”

However, mobile supply chain security firm Trustonic’s CEO Dion Price warned that operators could see losses from increased fraud and theft.

“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. On the other, the industry could face a consistent increase in fraud and theft, which impacts profits,” he said.

Ofcom’s new rules follow on from it introducing the ‘Text to switch’ ruling last year, allowing customers to switch mobile networks with a text.


The ban on selling locked handsets is part of a wider consultation on making it easier for broadband and mobile customers to switch networks.

Other rules laid out by Ofcom include:

  • Giving customers better contract information in writing, and stronger rights to exit their contract if their providers make changes they were not previously told about that negatively affect the contract. These rules will come into force in June 2022.
  • Ensuring disabled customers have the necessary access to information about their service, so that they can request accessible formats, such as braille. This requirement will come into force in December 2021.
  • Facilitating switching between broadband providers – the guidance behind this rule is still being laid out, and it will not come into force until December 2022.


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