Wednesday, Feb. 11, marked an important shift in power to the consumer in the wireless industry. It's the day carriers officially must begin allowing customers to unlock their fully paid phones to use however they like. Here's how.

It's been a long time coming, but the ability to unlock your phone and take it to another carrier is back, thanks to a voluntary agreement between the wireless industry (CTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission that went into effect on Wednesday.

Traditionally, carriers in the U.S. put digital locks on wireless phones they sold to consumers to keep them from taking devices to use with competitors. Unlocking is the process of freeing your phone to use on a compatible network, assuming you didn't buy an "unlocked" edition in the first place.

Unlocking carrier-sold phones was technically illegal for consumers for a time, but even after it became legal for consumers, it was a pain to unlock phones with the four major carriers (especially Sprint).

But now -- if you've reached the full term of your postpaid contract, a full year of a prepaid service, or otherwise have fully paid for your device -- the big four carriers (along with some small prepaid companies) have to comply with your request to unlock the phone. I'm looking at you, Sprint!

How to Unlock Your Phone

We previously published a general how-to for unlocking your phone with the major carriers, along with a guide to which discount wireless brands are compatible with which wireless networks. Check it out here.

Once again, Kif Leswing at GigaOm has compiled an excellent, updated list of links and phone numbers for unlocking your device from the major carriers as swiftly as possible. Here's the most pertinent information:

For locked AT&T phones you'll want to visit this web form. Full documentation is available here.

For Verizon devices you'll want to call 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock. Full documentation is available here.

Sprint phones can be unlocked by calling 1-888-211-4727. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation is available here.

T-Mobile customers can unlock their devices by calling 1-877-746-0909. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation here.

Unlocking is Great News for Many Latinos

As we previously reported, unlocking smartphones is really important for many Latinos, especially the burgeoning, smartphone savvy millennial set.

That's because, while studies have found these digital-forward Latinos are far more likely to own and upgrade their smartphones than the general population, Latinos also tend to pay much more in average monthly cellphone bills than any other ethnicity in the U.S. studied (via National Hispanic Media Coalition).

So the ability to unlock your fully paid phone and take it to a compatible carrier is a boon for Latino consumers in general, who might have a great device but are looking for a better priced plan to use it on.

A Warning on the Binary Nature of U.S. Wireless

One final thing to mention is that not all phones will work on all wireless networks. Besides the prepaid/discount wireless guide we prepared, be aware that in general, a binary divide in the technologies carriers use to send and receive cell signals exists between Verizon/Sprint on one side and T-Mobile/AT&T on the other. Verizon and Sprint use a system peculiar to the U.S. called CDMA, while T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM signals, which is the wireless system used across the world.

Smartphones bought on either side of the divide are only guaranteed to work on the same respective side, though many newer phones are packed to the gills with receivers and modems so they work across the board.

So before you rush out to unlock your phone and sign up with a new carrier, sure to know exactly what kind of device you have, down to the specific model number, often found in the "about my device" section of the settings for your smartphone (or tablet, since they're covered by the new consumer protections as well).

Happy unlocking!