Bell says CRTC promise of free phone unlocking doesn't apply to everyone

Canadians were supposed to be freed from cellphone unlocking fees come Dec. 1, but some with a Bell-locked phone have found they've had to fight for their freedom.

One woman only got her phone unlocked for free after CBC News contacted Bell

Amanda Barnhardt of Hamilton, Ont., says it's unfair that Bell wouldn't unlock her cellphone for free because she's never been a Bell customer. (Amanda Barnhardt)

Canadians were supposed to be freed from cellphone unlocking fees come Dec. 1, but some with a Bell-locked phone have found they've had to fight for their freedom. 

That's because the telecom giant will only unlock phones free of charge for current and former customers. Its policy excludes anyone who never signed up with Bell but acquired a second-hand phone that happens to be locked to its network.

Bell also turned down Laura Train-Fraser even though she says she was once a customer. Because the telecom couldn't confirm this, it refused to unlock her phone.

"It's ridiculous," said Train-Fraser, who lives in Parry Sound, Ont. "I just think they're finding whatever loopholes they can to get around this."

She finally did get her phone unlocked for free, but only after CBC News asked Bell about the issue.

"If I hadn't talked to [CBC News], I'd be sitting here with a locked phone," she said.

Laura Train-Fraser and her 13-year-old daughter, Abby, had difficulty getting Bell to unlock this cellphone. (Laura Train-Fraser)

In the past, telecoms often provided their customers with phones locked to their network and then charged them a fee — typically $50 — to unlock a device if a customer wanted to switch service providers.

But the industry's regulator, the CRTC, introduced new rules this month that require telecoms to eliminate unlocking fees to help spur competition.

It also ordered that new phones be provided to customers unlocked.

Rogers, Telus and Freedom Mobile all told CBC News they will now unlock all phones locked to their network, free of charge, for any individual or small business —  as long as the phone isn't flagged as lost or stolen. 

But some people with a Bell-locked phone are finding the company has a somewhat different interpretation of the CRTC rules.

Train-Fraser bought her phone from a third-party, and says she used it for about eight months with Bell's pay-as-you-go plan.

Then nobody used it for more than a year, until her 13-year-old daughter needed a phone for her plan with Koodo, owned by Telus.

Train-Fraser says she contacted Bell several times to unlock the phone, but the company couldn't confirm she had once been a customer.

"I'm not easily frustrated and it took everything in me to not just blast them."

She said Bell wouldn't even let her pay its original $50 fee to unlock the device, and instead kept trying to convince her to sign up with its phone service. 

"That's what it felt like, 'You're going to come to us, or we're not going to help you.'"

When asked about Train-Fraser's claims, Bell said it would look into the issue. 

Unlock what you locked

Amanda Barnhardt of Hamilton, Ont., also found herself frustrated when trying to unlock her Bell-locked phone.

She bought the device from a friend and wanted to unlock it so she could use it with her Chatr Mobile plan.

Chatr is owned by Bell's rival, Rogers.

Barnhardt was surprised last week when Bell initially said it wouldn't do the job for free because she had never been a customer.

"I do not think that is fair at all," she said. "I figured it would have been one call and done."

Bell says it will unlock phones for free for former and current customers with accounts in good standing. (CBC)

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) says it's aware of the issue and has filed a complaint with the CRTC, asking it to clarify its unlocking rules.

The consumer advocacy group believes the telecom regulator should explicitly state that cellular providers must unlock any phone free of charge from their network.

"A reasonable rule is if the carrier locked it, the carrier should unlock it," said executive director John Lawford.

The CRTC told CBC News that it couldn't comment on an ongoing issue. Bell said it's in full compliance with CRTC regulations, but is reviewing PIAC's complaint.

As for Barnhardt and Train-Fraser, both eventually did get their phones unlocked for free.

Barnhardt says she got the phone's original owner, who is a current Bell customer, to call the telecom and get the job done.

Shortly after CBC News contacted Bell about Train-Fraser's situation, she says the company finally granted her request, and chalked it up to a "misunderstanding."


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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