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AT&T will unlock your off-contract iPhone starting this Sunday

iphone-4s-unlockAT&T announced Friday that it would allow mobile subscribers in good standing to unlock out-of-contract iPhones starting April 8, reports Engadget. According to AT&T’s statement, “The only requirements are that a customer’s account must be in good standing, their device cannot be associated with a current and active term commitment on an AT&T customer account, and they need to have fulfilled their contract term, upgraded under one of our upgrade policies or paid an early termination fee.” A mouthful, to be sure, but good news for many iPhone owners previously stymied by an uncooperative AT&T.

An unlocked iPhone has the ability to be used on any GSM network that meets the iPhone’s wireless specifications, such as T-Mobile’s EDGE network in the US.

Previous to this policy shift, AT&T had historically refused to unlock iPhones — even those out of contract — something wireless customers relocating outside the US but to countries with their own GSM networks resented. AT&T’s own forums are filled with such requests and commiserations.

For all other phones on AT&T’s network, an 80-day period of service is the only requirement, after which those phones have the option of being unlocked. The iPhone has always been an exception — due likely to the higher prices carriers must pay for that device, and its tremendous resale value.

If users wanted to unlock their AT&T phones before this week, they were forced to jailbreak their devices, a process by which new firmware is installed to replace the wireless carrier’s own, allowing jailbroken devices to load software from outside Apple’s strictly regulated App Store, and to run on compatible networks outside of the designated wireless carrier’s. Jailbreaking however, has its downsides — once a devices’ firmware has been overwritten, it can no longer receive updates through traditional channels — the further software updates would in turn disable the jailbreak. It also causes users to wander from Apple’s meticulously curated software environment, perhaps an incentive for Apple to pressure AT&T into allowing unlocking. Alternately, Apple has made unlocked iPhone 4S’s available since last November — but only if you’re willing to pay up: The 16 gigabyte base model starts at $649.

Last month, however, an out-of-contract AT&T user who had relocated to Canada successfully lobbied the wireless carrier to provide him with an unlock code for his 3GS, after appealing to Apple CEO Tim Cook via email, reported 9to5mac. Although Cook did not respond personally to the customer’s entreaty, AT&T Partnership Operations got in touch, informing him that “it received his email from Cook requesting to unlock the iPhone.” The new policy change, however, will not help subscribers wishing to take their phones to different overseas carriers while still in contract to AT&T — they will be required to abide by AT&T’s current roaming agreements.