Cellphone unlocking has come a long way. At the beginning of 2013, it became arguably illegal, when a copyright exemption letting people crack the firmware to use their phone on another carrier expired. Since then, we've seen the FCC and Congress take up the case, creating more options for people who want to unlock their own phones or have a carrier do it for them. And today, if you're looking to do the latter, you can officially expect more options: February 11th is the deadline for carriers to adopt unlocking standards that the CTIA announced in December of 2013.
Of course, you can unlock your own phone, too
This industry-wide agreement mandates that carriers post clear unlocking policies online, offer to unlock prepaid phones within a year of purchase and postpaid ones after a user's contract is up, respond to any requests within two business days, and unlock phones for deployed military personnel. All the major carriers have had unlocking policies for some time, but this standardizes them and makes clear that unlocking should be a right, not a privilege.
T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular, and AT&T were all part of the original agreement. In an email to The Verge, a T-Mobile spokesperson posted its policy and said the company had adjusted to the rules "in advance of the deadline," and Verizon said it was also compliant, linking to its official rules. US Cellular's written policy still says it's working towards the goal, but the company said it had met all the CTIA's obligations as of today; Sprint also said its own standards would "meet fully" with the CTIA's today. AT&T hadn't responded as of this writing, but its policies generally match the agreement.
If you don't want to go through a carrier, of course, you can handle the the process yourself or through a third-party company. That's the beauty of a law President Barack Obama signed last August, putting the copyright exemption back in place for another few years. But for most people, carriers are still the simplest path to unlocking — and over the past year, that path has gotten quite a bit smoother.