Major cellular carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and others — typically lock their networks to the iPhone you buy from their stores or pay for via an installment plan. What does that really mean, though? A cell phone lock is a software code that ensures your mobile phone connects only to a specific network. Conversely, unlocking your iPhone means that you can switch carriers if you’re dissatisfied with the service, move to a different region, are traveling, or want to keep your old handset when you change networks.
To switch carriers, you must rely on your current carrier to unlock your phone. While Apple can’t unlock your iPhone, its support page lists the carriers that offer unlocking services, such as AT&T, Boost Mobile, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Virgin Mobile, Xfinity, and many more.
Unlocking your iPhone requires you to meet certain criteria. For example, your phone must be paid in full, by completing an installment plan or coming to the end of any other contract you signed. The handset cannot be reported lost or stolen, and your account must be in good standing. If you paid for your iPhone in full upon purchase, then it’s probably unlocked already. Unlocked iPhones are generally worth more than locked mobile devices. It’s generally a good idea to unlock your phone when it goes off-contract. If you’re ready to unlock your iPhone, here’s how to do it.
Contacting your carrier
Verify that your carrier offers unlocking. Note that it might take a few days to complete the process after you submit your request.
- Contact your carrier and request an unlock.
- Wait for your carrier to confirm that your iPhone is unlocked.
- If you have a SIM card from a different carrier, remove it and insert the new one.
- Set up your iPhone again.
- If you don’t have another SIM card, back up your iPhone.
- After the backup, erase your iPhone.
- Restore your iPhone from the backup you made.
Error message? Here’s what to do
You might see this message on your computer or on your iPhone: “The SIM card inserted in this iPhone does not appear to be supported. Only compatible SIM cards from a supported carrier may be used to activate iPhone. Please insert the SIM card that came with your iPhone or visit a supported carrier store.” If you see that message, do this:
- Restore your iPhone to factory settings.
- Contact your carrier to make sure that it applied the unlock in their system.
- Restore your iPhone from a backup.
Unlocking an AT&T iPhone
If you have AT&T, you can use the convenient device unlock portal to avoid customer service phone contact. This process could take a few days, and you will receive a confirmation once it’s completed. To disengage your iPhone from the AT&T network, you must first do the following.
- If you are on a current contract or an installment program, pay off the balance, including any termination fees.
- If you’ve paid off your balance early, wait at least 24 hours after payment.
- Make sure your phone has not been reported lost or stolen, that it hasn’t been involved in fraud, and that the account is in good standing.
- Your phone must have been active for at least 60 days, with no past due or unpaid balance. It also cannot be active on a different AT&T customer’s account.
- If you upgraded early, you must wait for the 14-day “buyer’s remorse” period (30 days for business customers) before unlocking your old phone.
Double-check whether the unlock has been completed by consulting AT&T’s online Unlock Status Page, or wait for the confirmation email. If the unlock has gone through, remove your AT&T SIM card and insert the SIM for your new carrier to begin the setup process. Don’t worry about iPads and wearable devices with LTE connections. Those are handled separately from smartphones and are sold unlocked.
Unlocking a Sprint iPhone
You can unlock your Sprint iPhone under the following conditions:
- You have discharged your service, lease, or installment billing obligations and have paid any early termination fees or end-of-lease purchase options.
- Your Sprint account is currently in good standing, and your iPhone has not been reported lost or stolen, associated with fraudulent activity, or flagged as ineligible to be unlocked.
- Your iPhone is currently active on Sprint’s network and has been for at least 50 days.
- You have not unlocked another phone with Sprint within the past 12 months.
- Sprint iPhone users who purchased their handset earlier than February 2015 must contact Sprint Customer Care (1-844-665-6327) to determine if their iPhones can be unlocked and to request unlocking for domestic use on a different carrier. Alternately, call Sprint Worldwide Care (888-226-7212) if you need your iPhone unlocked for international travel, or call Sprint Prepaid Customer Care (855-639-4644) if you are a Sprint prepaid customer.
- Turn over your Sprint account information and your iPhone’s IMEI number to Sprint’s customer care rep.
- Wait for Sprint to send you an email with unlocking instructions.
- If your iPhone was launched after February 2015, Sprint automatically unlocks your device as soon as it’s eligible.
Unlock a Verizon iPhone
Both prepaid and post-paid iPhones you purchase from Verizon are locked for 60 days after purchase. Devices that you purchase from Verizon’s retail partners are locked for 60 days after activation. After 60 days, Verizon automatically removes the lock. That means that if you have fulfilled all financial obligations and your phone is otherwise clean, you can remove the Verizon SIM card and insert a different one of your choosing. Customers who are in the U.S. military and stationed outside of the Verizon coverage area can get their iPhones unlocked on request even during the 60-day lock period.
Unlock a T-Mobile iPhone
T-Mobile has a number of terms and conditions you must meet before it will unlock your iPhone from the network.
- Your account must be in good standing, and your phone must not be reported lost, stolen, or blocked to T-Mobile.
- You have requested no more than two mobile device unlock codes per service line in the last 12 months.
- If the device was financed using T‑Mobile’s Equipment Installment Plan (EIP), then all payments must be made and the device must be paid in full unless otherwise specified.
- If the device is on an account with a service contract term, then at least 18 consecutive monthly payments must have been made. Or, the account must have been migrated to a no-contract rate plan.
- T‑Mobile may request proof of purchase or additional information at its discretion, and certain other exceptions may apply.
For post-paid accounts, your phone must be active on the T‑Mobile network for at least 40 days. If the device is on a canceled account, the balance must be paid in full. Prepaid iPhones must have been active on the T‑Mobile network for more than one year. If active for less than a year, the prepaid account must have more than $100 in refills since the first use date.
If a device meets the eligibility requirements, contact T‑Mobile Customer Service to request the steps to unlock your device. Exceptions for military personnel, business, and government accounts may apply under certain circumstances. Once your iPhone meets the minimum criteria, T-Mobile will send you information about how to unlock your phone. Contact T‑Mobile Customer Service for more details.
Unlock a U.S. Cellular iPhone
iPhone models 7 through 11 and the SE2 are locked into the U.S. Cellular network for 120 days after activation to prevent fraud and theft. For locked 4G LTE devices launched before February 1, 2016, some can be unlocked via a software update. U.S. Cellular-locked 1X and 3G devices launched before February 1, 2016, can be unlocked with a request to customer service.
After the 120-day lock period ends, U.S. Cellular automatically unlocks the aforementioned iPhone models if your account is in good standing. During the 120-day lock period, the carrier will unlock your post-paid device on request if you are on military duty with deployment overseas. Your post-paid account must be in good standing or paid in full, and you must have otherwise met all financial obligations.
Third-party lock breakers
If you encounter problems with an official carrier unlock, you can still opt for an IMEI unlock, which works identically to the official carrier unlock. There are plenty of IMEI unlock companies, but it’s best to go with trusted vendors like Express Unlocks, DoctorSIM, MobileUnlocked, UnlockBase, Cellphone Unlock, UnlockUnit, Unlock River, and Unlock Radar. Check review sites like Trustpilot before making a final decision or paying up. The price to unlock an iPhone varies based on your carrier. Lock breaker services support models from the newest iPhone 11 series all the way back to the iPhone 4.
Most third-party unlocking services operate the same way. From their website, you pay varying amounts, usually under $100, for an email-based unlock code. Most require upfront payment. Reputable unlocking services have customer support lines and deliver codes quickly.
Buy an unlocked iPhone
Every iPhone you buy from Apple — either online or from an Apple Store — is unlocked, except for specific carrier financing options. An unlocked iPhone lets you choose any carrier you want. To get started with a new carrier, do the following:
- Switch off your iPhone.
- Remove the current SIM card from your old carrier.
- Insert the new SIM card for your new carrier.
- Restart your phone.
- Upon restart, follow the on-screen instructions to set up your phone.
You can also buy a SIM-free iPhone, which means your iPhone does not come with a carrier SIM card, which frees you to use a SIM card from any compatible carrier. Of course, you will have to pay for your new phone upfront and in full.
If you can’t pay in full, you might consider Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, where you get an unlocked iPhone in much the same manner as the SIM-free option. Not only do you avoid the upfront cost, but you also get to pay in monthly installments and are eligible for an upgrade after 12 payments. The program includes the AppleCare+ protection program alongside a $4.17 per month add-on for AppleCare+ with Theft and Loss protection. The upgrade plan does require a credit check.
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