The largest U.S. carriers are now letting customers unlock their phones without a big fight, but what will it really change?

Companies including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile have signed up to “a voluntary code of conduct that, among other things, lets you get your phone unlocked without a big fight,” writes Jon Fingas for Engadget. Such news is always well-received, but this time not much will actually change for consumers.

U.S. Cell Phones Can Now Be Unlocked Legally

Unlocking cell phones: Specific terms and conditions

The first point to remember is that if you bought your phone with a contract, the handset cannot be unlocked until you have paid off the contract in full. The industry writes that carriers will unlock cell phones “after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee.”

Another caveat applies to prepaid phones, which “carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.” These two clauses mean that the majority of cell phones aren’t eligible.

Customers who do unlock their phones may be disappointed to find that they won’t necessarily be compatible with other U.S. networks. Both Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology which makes it more difficult to add new phones to their networks, and T-Mobile tends to use different wireless bands.

However if you plan on taking an unlocked, relatively recent-model U.S. phone abroad you should be able to use a SIM card from an international network.

Changing cellular landscape

The furor surrounding this news may seem surprising when you find out that a lot of cell phones are sold unlocked. iPhones and other 4G LTE phones bought from Verizon are unlocked, and iPhones bought directly from Apple are too.

Changing rules on international roaming charges mean that unlocking is not worth as much to the consumer as it once was. T-Mobile has started offering free internet access in a lot of foreign countries, and roaming in general has become cheaper.

Although unlocking does add resale value to your handset, the current situation means that the possibility of unlocking cell phones is not going to lead to drastic changes in consumer behavior.