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Unlocking cell phones was made illegal by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It's the same law that makes it illegal to circumvent the digital locks on copyrighted music, movies, books, and software. The law also made it illegal to jailbreak or root your phone. These are different than unlocking. They allow a phone to run software that has been blocked by the manufacturer. It's a broad law, so it allows the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress to grant exemptions. Unlocking, jailbreaking, and rooting cell phones all were exempted from the law. The exemptions for jailbreaking and rooting are in effect until 2015.
Cell Phone Unlocking
The Law Against Unlocking Cell Phones