Tracfone: Unlocking phones

I thought I'd share my experience with getting a Tracfone-branded phone unlocked, and info that I've gleaned elsewhere.
The possibility of getting Tracfone-branded devices unlocked is pretty new, and details on what works & what doesn't are mostly through anecdotal reports, rather than a clear set of statements from Tracfone.

[i]What Tracfone officially requires:

Customers must request handset unlocking.
Customers must have had their locked device activated on TracFone service for no fewer than 12 months, redeemed air time cards in no fewer than 12 months, and not have had their telephone number recycled or ported.
Customers must request this interim unlocking solution while their service is active or within 60 days after their active service days expire. This 60-day grace period applies even if the customer's telephone number was recycled or ported.
Customers must currently own a TracFone branded handset model launched on TracFone's service after February 11, 2014 or activated with TracFone's service after February 11, 2015.[/i] 

There's lots of grey area in those requirements!

My timeline: I had an active Tracfone line for a number of years, with existiingg units and service time. Just over a year ago, I transferred my service to a new phone, an LG Fiesta 2 purchased via Tracfone's Ebay store, that came bundled with a year of service and units. For grins, I had checked the phone a couple of times for unlocking during the year, and it was judged not yet unlockable, as anticipated. A few days after the one-year anniversary, I tried the unlock request again, and it went through just fine. My Fiesta 2 was a relatively uncommon (for Tracfone) T-Mobile-network device-- I've tested it with Mint Mobile and FreedomPop (AT&T data) SIMs, and both work fine, so it is truly unlocked.

My current understanding of what's really required to unlock a Tracfone, and what you can do with it after unlocking. (Subject to changes, correction, better reports, etc.):

Tracfone will only unlock Tracfone-branded phones. (Including Simple Moble Total, etc. if you have customer service re-brand them to Tracfone at initial activation). They will not unlock your BYOD phone, regardless of the circumstances.) [EDIT TO CLARIFY: they will not unlock a phone using a BYOD SIM, regardless of circumstances, either-- so a Tracfone-branded devices running on a BYOD SIM cannot be unlocked..]

Time period: 12 months: The phone has to be active with it's registered Tracfone IMEI/MEID & associated SIM card for the 12 months. Tracfone links the 2 together, and as far as Tracfone is concerned, a particular phone is 'active' on the network as long as it's issued SIM card is active, whether or not it's still in the same device. (By anecdotal reports from others.)

Paid Service for those 12 months: If you already have accumulated service time before you start using a phone you hope to unlock, the current 'general wisdom' is it does not count towards unlocking that phone-- it would have counted for the phone that was active when you added the service time. There have been varying reports on whether or not 'bundled' airtime that comes with a phone counts towards unlocking: in my case, it definitely did. I've seen other reports that worked the same, and some credible reports that the phone did not qualify for unlocking with only the bundled airtime applied. If I was rejected under those circumstances, I'd file FCC and Better Business Bureau complaints. (Since Tracfone is under a settlement with the FCC regarding not honoring their commitments to unlock customer phones, I think Tracfone would adjust quickly when the FCC forwards the complaint to them.)

You do have to request the unlock-- it won't happen automatically. You can do it online or by phone, details here:
https://www.tfwunlockpolicy.com/wps/portal/home
I understand that the exact process for unlocking may vary by phone manufacturer: in my instance, the approval & directions for entering codes to unlock the phone came almost immediately. I believe Tracfone iPhones are unlocked through the Apple servers after being submitted by Tracfone.

Caveats: I've seen several reports on Tracfone Verizon-based phones that have been unlocked. It appears there might be a catch in that the IMEIs of Tracfone verizon network devices are not included in the Verizon 'whitelist' database. This likely means that you won't be able to use an unlocked Tracfone to activate a new Verizon-network account, even on an MVNO, but you can probably SIM-swap from an already active device on another MVNO into the unlocked Tracfone.

I am of the opinion that the best candidates for unlocking on Tracfone are bundled phones that are GSM compatible-- at least the GSM part is fully unlocked. Tracfone models ending in DL are multi-carrier (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile), and would be great candidates. (Most of the current Moto and Alcatel models are multi-carrier DL versions, as are some LG devices.)

Models ending in BL are AT&T/T-mobile compatible, so they would also be good candidates, but these are not common, especially with bundled airtime.

Models ending in VL are Verizon-network only, including many of the LG Tracfones. These would be the worst choice as unlocking candidates, unless you are comfortable with SIM-swapping as a route for later use, or can confirm that the device has the frequency bands necessary to support use on AT&T or T-Mobile. (Info about frequency band capabilities can be difficult to source on Tracfone devices, and they are often custom variants of manufacturer models:.)

KentE Thanks for this excellent write up! Since Tracfone won’t unlock one of their phones on a BYOD sim, does that mean my Total Wireless branded iPhone would work on Tracfone Verizon/TMo/Att if it has the bands? Even though it might never be unlockable?

I have zero experience with iPhones, so I have to go by my experience with Androids, and simply extrapolate to iPhones.... It's possible that there could be roadblocks I'm not aware of with iPhones.

Yes, I believe it should, although it might take a conversation with Tracfone if you want it to be on Tracfone's Verizon network.

(My assumption is that you have any of the later model iPhones that would have been all-carrier models if they'd been sourced from outside of the Tracfone group.)

As a general rule, phones from any of the Tracfone family can be used with any of the brands. Activating it on AT&T or T-Mobile is the most straight forward, because Tracfone doesn't require the IMEI to activate a BYOD GSM SIM: you register, and activate, the SIM: and you can use it in a a true BYOD device, or a Tracfone-family device.

Using it on Tracfone Verizon is a little different.
The first issue is that anywhere on the Verizon network, you have to register the IMEI along with the SIM.
Tracfone does not officially allow the use of a BYOD SIM in a Tracfone-family-branded device: It's supposed to have to use a Tracfone-specific SIM (like the one that came with your Total Wireless iPhone). On the GSM networks, you can skate through via a BYOD SIM, but not on Verizon.

I've read, but have no personal experience, that the Tracfone group also 'locks' Verizon-network phones to the specific Tracfone subsidiary at initial activation. (In your case, to Total Wireless .) Apparently that subsidiary-specific lock can be changed by Customer Service, by re-SKUing the device.

The existence of 2 parallel SIM lines in the Tracfone family just adds another stage of complication, but it's not insurmountable. In some instances, it gives you 2 possible routes towards activation.

Thanks KentE, really appreciate the vast knowledge you and so many others freely share on this forum. For giggles, I went to Target and got a BYOD Tracfone sim kit. The Total Wireless IPhone is a 7 plus model. Wanting to avoid the whole IMEI thing, I inserted the AT&T Tracfone sim and it connected with the Tracfone network straight away so you are 100% correct (as usual). The whole reason behind my original question was Total wireless has a higher monthly cost than Tracfone does and now I can gift the phone to a friend who is having a hard time making ends meet these days. Thanks again for the guidance!

Chosen, I'm glad the early test looks good. Very nice of you to think about helping your friend!

Honestly, I only skim over a bunch of the discussions about iPhones on the Tracfone family, since I've never had to deal with one. My crude understanding is that limitations are under control of Apple's Activation Policy, and what particular arrangements Tracfone might have been able to work out with Apple as a special accommodation. . I think in some ways, the Tracfone/iPhone limitations are less restrictive than Android limitations, since the Android limitations seem to be entirely at Tracfone's discretion for branded devices.

In general, Apple controls the APNs on iPhones rather than the carriers. Typically, special accommodations amount to the carrier or MVNO reaching an agreement with Apple to sell some number of iPhones. This is why some providers don't offer, visual voicemail, WiFi Calling or VoLTE as examples on iPhones. Of course, I have no idea what specific arrangements exist between TracFone (or any other provider) and Apple.