If you bought your iPhone direct from Apple, you’ve got an unlocked phone that’s good for use with any carrier. But what if you bought it second-hand, through a network provider or on a contract?
There’s a good chance your carrier wants to limit what you can do with the hardware they have supplied you, and that means keeping you as a customer by simply denying access to other networks. Don’t stand for this telco nonsense – take the power back.
iPhones & Unlocking
Back in the good old days, mobile phones were pretty easy to unlock. All you needed was the right unlock code to be entered in some strange cryptographic-esque sequence, or a slightly riskier (but reliable nonetheless) firmware flash. These methods involved either a quick web search or visiting a shady guy in the market, and the process took a matter of minutes. Unfortunately; iPhones aren’t that simple and we no longer live in the good old days.
The smartphone age has brought with it advancements in mobile security, particularly from manufacturers like Apple who are keen on maintaining a tight grip on the ecosystem. It’s not within Apple’s interests to restrict which network your phone can access, but when such technology is so closely tied to the phone’s firmware, unlocking your phone becomes quite difficult.
What that means for you and me is that the carrier must authorise the unlock, which prompts Apple to then add the IMEI number to the official unlocked iPhone database. The difficulty in getting your iPhone unlocked differs massively depending on where you live, and who your carrier is. Providers like O2 and Orange in the UK are notorious for creating their own unlock policies, and making it as difficult as possible for users to unlock their iPhones.
Conversely some carriers will sell you a locked phone (like Vodafone Australia), but you can unlock it yourself when you get home without even having to contact them. The only way to know for sure is to research your carrier’s policies.
Methods of Unlocking
You’ll know your iPhone is locked to a different carrier if you insert another SIM and get a message telling you something along the lines of “The SIM card inserted in this iPhone does not appear to be supported” – or more obvious still, you’ll get no usable signal save for some SOS Only access. At this stage you might want to do a little research.
You can check Apple’s official carrier unlock checklist under your country to see whether they offer the service. If they do, you’re in luck – chances are you either simply need to contact them to authorise the unlock; or better still run a web search to see if they have the topic covered in help documentation. AT&T have an online guide, Vodafone Australia produced a video and the UK’s Everything Everywhere are just plain difficult.
It really depends on the laws and policies set by carriers in your region. The process can take some time, may require an additional fee (usually no more than $30) and in many cases you might find small clauses that make it difficult, or impossible. In this case you do have another option – services that charge a premium.
MakeUseOf has no affiliation with an of these companies, nor do we necessarily recommend you use them – but they do exist, and many claim they work just fine. Services like ChronicUnlocks and Official iPhone Unlock (two I randomly plucked from a Google search) seem legitimate, but their methods of operation are still enough to warrant some “buyer beware” discretion before going down this route. They also charge a considerable fee for unlocking, in some cases nearly 50% of the phone’s value – which is nothing near what your carrier will ask for.
Once you have either been granted an unlock from your carrier, or taken your chances and brute forced it through an unlock vendor, you should attempt to replace the SIM card with one from another network and see what happens. You may be prompted to complete a setup, or your device may still appear locked. In this case:
- Connect your iPhone to your Mac or PC via USB cable and launch iTunes.
- Select your phone under the Devices menu, click the Summary tab and choose Backup. iTunes may warn you that you have apps that aren’t backed up, so back these up too if offered.
- Once the backup has completed, click Restore.
- Input your Apple ID password (if prompted), read the warning about all data being deleted then click Restore one last time.
- Wait for the process to complete, then when your phone reboots follow the on-screen prompts to restore the backup you just made.
Once complete, your unlock should hopefully have been applied. If it still isn’t working, then your mobile carrier or the unlock vendor you have used has yet to apply the unlock and you should contact them for further assistance.
What About Jailbreaking?
Personally I’d never recommend someone jailbreak their iPhone for the sole purpose of unlocking. There are so many factors that can affect whether the device can be jailbroken in the first place, let alone being unlocked thereafter. The main problem with this method is that the unlock will only last for as long as the jailbreak lasts – so if you update or have to restore your iPhone, you will lose both your jailbreak and your unlock. At this point, your phone is useless on the cellular network unless you are able to or prepared to switch to the carrier to which the phone is locked.
It’s also a bad idea to keep outdated software on your device for the sole purpose of maintaining your jailbreak – you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to security threats (like the recent TLS vulnerability addressed in iOS 7.1.1). Major software updates (like the upcoming leap from iOS 7 to iOS 8) won’t be jailbroken for weeks, usually months. Even if you do update and manage to downgrade successfully, permanent baseband upgrades applied with every iOS update mean you won’t be able to unlock thereafter anyway.
At present the only unlock that works with iOS 7 (up to 7.0.6) is available via evasi0n, though there’s little information online (anywhere, and I’ve looked) about whether there’s a working unlock yet. According to unloc.kr – there’s not, but there’s no evidence as to how often that website is updated. This is how it goes in the jailbreak world – things move and change so quickly that one set of instructions quickly becomes redundant in the constant game of cat and mouse.
To ensure that you don’t have to deal with a locked device, consider buying your next iPhone from Apple.
Image credits: iPhone 5s (K?rlis Dambr?ns), iPhone 5S white vs. black/slate (Morid1n)
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