The 411: Locked-down phones

Every two weeks, Senior Associate Editor Nicole Lee answers your questions about cell phones, smartphones, and all things mobile.

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
4 min read

Welcome to the 411, my column answering all your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories. I receive plenty of questions about these subjects via e-mail, so I figured many of you might have similar queries, too. At times, I might solicit answers from readers if I'm stumped. Send your questions and comments to me at nicole.lee@cnet.com. If you prefer to remain anonymous, let me know in the e-mail.

I currently carry 2 phones, one Verizon (CDMA) and one AT&T (GSM). This has served me well at getting coverage most everywhere I go. But what I would really love to do is combine the 2 accounts onto 1 phone. Are there any devices available that I could combine the 2 accounts (Verizon & AT&T) onto a single phone? -- TC, via e-mail

I would say probably not. There are dual-mode CDMA/GSM phones like the Verizon world phones, but the GSM chip in those handsets can only be used with overseas carriers. These phones can be SIM unlocked, but even then, many of them have additional locks that make them unusable with either AT&T or T-Mobile. If you do want to use two accounts in one phone, I can think of dual-SIM card handsets like the Blu Speed and the Duet D888, but these are GSM-only. If anyone has other ideas, please let us know in the comments.

Hi Nicole. Does the Motorola Droid Bionic come with the option to buy it unlocked. I would like to buy foreign prepaid SIM cards for use overseas? I travel a lot. If not what would your recommendation be for someone who travels a lot and partially lives overseas and get all or most of the features these phones have to offer. Thank you for your advice. -- Dwayne, via e-mail

The Motorola Droid Pro is one of a few Verizon world phones.
The Motorola Droid Pro is one of a few Verizon world phones. Josh Miller/CNET

No, the Motorola Droid Bionic is a Verizon Wireless phone, which makes it a CDMA device. The use of SIM cards is a GSM technology. The Droid Bionic does have a SIM card in it, but that's an LTE SIM card, which is purely for 4G data and not for voice. If you want a Verizon world phone, you can opt for the Motorola Droid Pro, the Motorola Droid 3, the Motorola Droid 2 Global, the HTC Droid Incredible 2, the HTC Trophy (which is a Windows Phone), the BlackBerry Bold 9930, or the BlackBerry Torch 9850. You can ask Verizon to unlock these phones when you travel abroad as long as you tell them you'll be using foreign SIM cards with them.

Another option would of course be to choose any smartphone from T-Mobile or AT&T, as they are GSM carriers. If you want to go unlocked, that's even better, as you don't have to sign up for a two-year contract. Our favorite unlocked phone at the moment is the Samsung Galaxy S II, though you have to purchase it at a far more expensive price.

Incidentally, the Galaxy S II will also be available under contract from T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint (in the form of the Epic 4G Touch) if you want it cheaper and you're not opposed to contracts.

I am currently an AT&T customer with an iPhone 4 and can't afford it. Can I switch to a simpler mobile plan in your opinion? Safely? Will they "unlock" it? A term new to me. Or can MetroPCS handle the iPhone yet? thx! -- kholo, via e-mail

You definitely can't use the AT&T iPhone 4 with MetroPCS, because MetroPCS is a CDMA carrier while the iPhone 4 for AT&T is a GSM device. Even if you did unlock the iPhone 4, you wouldn't be able to use the phone on MetroPCS. As for unlocking the phone, carriers typically don't do it unless you give the excuse of international travel, and even then it's a case-by-case basis. From what I understand, AT&T generally doesn't unlock its iPhones. Even if you did, though, you would have to get a Micro-SIM card from the other carrier, which isn't always possible. You could also try unlocking the phone yourself, but it's fairly complicated.

As your primary concern seems to be saving money, I would suggest bringing that concern up with AT&T customer service reps and see what they say to you. Be assertive and say that you're willing to change carriers if they don't lower the bill. Sometimes this works, although sometimes it doesn't. You could also lower your data plan to the minimum 500MB, which is $15 a month, and lower your monthly voice minutes to the minimum, too. If none of these tactics makes your monthly bill any lower, then you might just have to give the phone up and get a handset with a cheaper plan. If anyone has other ideas, let us know.