Starting on January 26, 2013, a policy update to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act will make it illegal for owners of new cellphones to unlock their devices unless authorized by their carriers. Approved in October, the new policy applies to newly purchased devices, but not to smartphones owned prior to the deadline.
There was a 90-day window in which people could still buy a phone and unlock it, but it closes on January 26. It won’t be impossible to get an unlocked phone, though: customers can still legally buy unlocked iPhones at unsubsidized prices.
Currently, Verizon’s version of the iPhone 5 is sold as an unlocked phone, while AT&T will unlock an out-of-contract phone. A petition at whitehouse.gov looks to restore the legality of unlocking cell phones, but only has about 3,000 signatures as of this writing.