Congress just passed a law letting cellphone owners unlock their phones so they can jump from carrier to carrier. But don't rejoice yet. There's a big "gotcha" that may not allow you to do it.
Several days ago the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill already approved by the Senate that allows consumers to unlock their phones. President Obama has said that he'll sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which will make unlocking legal under copyright law.
The law also asks the Librarian of Congress to study whether tablets and other similar portable devices should be covered by the law. One would expect the Library of Congress to allow that, but it's far from a foregone conclusion. That's because the Library of Congress has shown itself not to be friendly to wireless consumers. In 2013, it ruled that unlocking phones should be illegal because it said that would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was passed because of that ruling.
So why shouldn't you rejoice just yet? The odds are that you can't unlock your phone yet. Your existing wireless contract takes precedence over the law. So if your wireless contract says that you can't unlock your phone until your contract expires, you can't do it.
You may be able to buy out your contract in order to unlock your phone, but that's going to cost you serious money. So don't celebrate yet. But the next time you sign a contract, read the fine print to see if it allows for phone unlocking before the contract expires.