An unlocked iPhone refers to an iPhone that is not tied to or locked to a specific carrier. iPhones purchased directly from Apple or third party retailers are usually unlocked, while iPhones bought from cell phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile etc. are often locked to that carrier’s network initially. Unlocking an iPhone offers several benefits and advantages over locked iPhones.
What is a Locked iPhone?
When you purchase an iPhone from a cell phone carrier like AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, it is usually locked to that carrier’s network. This means the iPhone can only be used on that carrier’s network and SIM cards from other carriers will not work.
The carrier locks the iPhone so you can’t switch networks until you’ve finished paying off the phone or fulfilled your contractual obligations to that carrier. This ensures the carrier recoups the subsidy they provided on the device.
A locked iPhone will only work with SIM cards from the carrier it is locked to. Inserting another carrier’s SIM card will result in an error message that the SIM card is invalid.
Why Carriers Lock iPhones
There are a few key reasons why carriers lock iPhones to their networks:
- Subsidizing the cost of the phone: When you buy an iPhone from a carrier, they often subsidize or discount the upfront cost of the device to make it more affordable. In exchange, they lock the iPhone to their network to ensure you stay a customer long enough for them to recoup that subsidy cost.
- Prevent churn: Locking phones to their network helps prevent churn or customers leaving for another carrier before their contract is up. Once their contract term is complete, they can request the phone be unlocked.
- Strong-arm customers: Some argue carrier locks allow carriers to strong-arm customers into staying on their network and accepting whatever terms they impose. An unlocked phone allows customers to switch carriers anytime.
Overall, carrier locks help cellular providers maintain control over devices on their network and retain customers for longer periods.
What is an Unlocked iPhone?
An unlocked iPhone is one that is not tied to any specific carrier. Rather than only working on one carrier’s network, an unlocked iPhone can be used on any carrier that uses GSM technology.
With an unlocked iPhone, you can insert any GSM carrier’s SIM card and it will work seamlessly on that network. This gives you the flexibility to choose any carrier you want and switch between them anytime.
Here are some key things to know about unlocked iPhones:
- Purchased outright: Unlocked iPhones are usually purchased at full retail price rather than subsidized by a carrier. This means you pay more upfront but are not locked into a contract.
- Bring your own device: Since it is carrier agnostic, you can often use an unlocked iPhone with carriers that allow you to “bring your own device” (BYOD).
- Switch carriers freely: You can switch carriers at any time by just getting a new SIM card and service plan from the new carrier. No need to wait out a contract term.
- Use globally: When traveling internationally, you can purchase local SIM cards to avoid roaming charges and still use your iPhone.
- Resell easily: Unlocked phones typically have higher resale value since they work across multiple networks.
Purchasing an unlocked iPhone gives you freedom and flexibility to choose your carrier.
How to Tell if an iPhone is Unlocked
There are a few easy ways to tell if your iPhone is unlocked or locked to a carrier:
- Check carrier: Go to Settings > General > About on the iPhone and look at the carrier name. If it just says “Unlocked” or “No SIM Restrictions,” it is unlocked. If it shows a carrier name, it is likely locked.
- Try a friend’s SIM: Borrow a friend’s SIM card from a different carrier and try inserting it in your iPhone. If it works, your phone is unlocked. If you get an error about an invalid SIM, it is locked.
- Check model number: Apple includes the model numbers on their phones. Model numbers that end with a U (Example: iPhone XR A1984U) are unlocked iPhones. Non U models (A1984) are usually carrier locked versions.
- Ask your carrier: You can contact your cell phone carrier and ask them if your iPhone is currently locked or unlocked on their network. They will be able to provide a definite answer.
- Check purchase history: If you paid full price for your iPhone from Apple or another third party retailer like Best Buy, it is most likely unlocked, as carrier locks are usually only applied when purchasing subsidized phones on contract.
Knowing your iPhone lock status gives you the flexibility to switch between carriers or travel internationally without issue.
Benefits of an Unlocked iPhone
Choosing to buy an unlocked iPhone or unlocking your existing iPhone provides several notable benefits:
1. Use Any GSM Carrier
The biggest benefit is you can use any GSM carrier’s SIM card in your iPhone. Most carriers around the world use GSM technology. This gives you the freedom to choose any plan from any carrier and switch anytime without being locked into a contract.
2. Switch Carriers Easily
You can switch wireless carriers at any time. All you need to do is get a new SIM card from the new carrier and activate service on their network to switch. No need to finish out long device contracts or financing agreements.
3. Use Local SIMs when Traveling
With an unlocked phone, you can simply buy a local SIM card when traveling internationally. This allows you to avoid roaming charges while still using your iPhone. A locked phone restricts you to your carrier’s roaming plans.
4. Resell Value
Unlocked iPhones typically have higher resale value as more people will be interested in an iPhone that works across multiple carriers. Carrier locked devices have lower demand on the resale market.
5. No Carrier Bloatware
Unlocked iPhones direct from Apple do not come preloaded with all the carrier bloatware apps and features that locked carriers phones do. This provides a cleaner software experience.
6. No Contracts
You aren’t forced into a long service contract when purchasing an unlocked iPhone. The device is tied solely to you rather than a carrier, offering more freedom.
For people who value flexibility in their cell phone service, an unlocked iPhone offers some great perks compared to locked phones. The ability to switch carriers anytime is the prime benefit.
How to Unlock an iPhone
If you have an iPhone that is currently locked to a certain carrier, you do have options to unlock it:
Ask Your Carrier to Unlock It
The easiest method is to simply contact your carrier and ask them to unlock the iPhone. In the United States, carriers are required by law to unlock devices once the contract term is completed or device financing payments are finished. Typically you’ll need to meet some requirements:
- Device is fully paid off (or contract term completed)
- Account in good standing
- Device not reported lost or stolen
The carrier will provide instructions to complete the unlock once approved. It usually just involves restoring the device software.
Use a Third Party Unlocking Service
There are many third party phone unlocking services available online. They can unlock phones from any carrier by essentially hacking the firmware. This option works if your carrier refuses to unlock your device for you. Costs range from $15 to $30 typically.
Unlock with Jailbreaking
You can jailbreak your iPhone and use jailbreak apps to unlock it from the carrier lock. This is a complicated process and makes your device more vulnerable to security issues. Apple can detect jailbreaking so getting future support may also be difficult.
Buy from Your Carrier Unlocked
Some carriers now allow you to pay full retail price for devices upfront and get an unlocked phone directly from them. This is the simplest option but can be more expensive.
With a bit of legwork, you can get your iPhone unlocked and enjoy the many benefits that come with it. Just be sure to use a legitimate unlocking method and don’t violate your contract terms when doing so.
Will Unlocking Void the Warranty?
A common concern is whether unlocking your iPhone will void your warranty coverage with Apple. The good news is it will not void Apple’s standard hardware warranty on iPhones.
Apple actually has no issue with you unlocking your device after your contract is completed. They provide the following guidance:
Apple does not unlock devices under an active carrier installment plan, in a carrier’s return or exchange period, or when device has been reported lost, stolen or missing. Carrier partners must authorize the unlock. Apple cannot unlock devices that are activated with a carrier. Please contact your carrier for unlock eligibility requirements.
Essentially, as long as you fully own your iPhone and your carrier authorizes the unlock, Apple will still honor any hardware defect warranty claims even on an unlocked device.
Their warranty does not cover software issues caused by unlocking your phone though. Damage or issues stemming from using unsupported carriers after unlocking fall outside the warranty. But standard hardware defects will still be covered.
So you can purchase Applecare+ and safely unlock your iPhone without worrying about voiding that coverage. Just don’t expect warranty coverage for software issues caused by unlocking or using unsupported carriers.
Will Unlocking Affect Updates?
Another common unlocking concern is whether it will impact your ability to get future iOS updates from Apple. Fortunately, unlocking your iPhone will not affect or reduce your ability to continue receiving iOS updates.
Since the firmware and software updates are handled directly between your iPhone and Apple’s servers, your carrier does not actually play a role in the process. The unlocked or locked status of your device does not impact how you get iOS updates.
Even after unlocking, your iPhone will continue to notify you when new iOS versions are released. You can download and install them as you normally would to stay up to date.
Some carrier-specific firmware files may no longer work after unlocking but it does not reduce your core ability to continue updating through Apple directly. You’ll continue receiving updates for at least 5 years after the release of your specific iPhone model.
So one perk of unlocking is you get iOS updates directly from Apple rather than waiting for your carrier to approve and push them. Overall, no need to worry about missing out on software updates by unlocking!
Using Multiple SIMs with eSIM
Thanks to eSIM technology introduced on newer iPhones, you can actually use two cellular plans simultaneously when your iPhone is unlocked. eSIM allows for a digital SIM profile rather than just using the physical SIM card.
To use two plans, you simply get one carrier’s plan with the physical nano SIM card inserted, and add a second carrier’s plan via the eSIM. Then you can set up your iPhone to intelligently switch between the two plans.
Having both a physical SIM and eSIM set up allows unlocked iPhone users to:
- Use two different carrier plans for voice/data
- Separate work and personal numbers
- Avoid roaming charges when traveling
- Compare network coverage and performance
- Maintain continuity if you switch carriers
With eSIM and an unlocked phone, you can mix and match plans from multiple carriers and switch between them on the fly based on your needs. It’s a great flexible solution.
Just make sure both carriers support eSIM activation and any required plan costs are accounted for. But it enables some creative cellular plan combinations.
Buying an Unlocked iPhone
If you want to purchase an unlocked iPhone, here are a few tips:
- Buy directly from Apple – Any iPhone purchased at full price directly from Apple will come unlocked. You can buy online, in their stores, or from Apple authorized resellers.
- Search third party retailers – Major retailers like Best Buy and Walmart sell officially unlocked iPhones too. Be sure it specifically says “unlocked” in the title/description.
- Check model numbers – Apple factory unlocked phones have a U after the model number (example A1633U). Avoid any listings without the U.
- Confirm policies – If buying used or refurbished, check return and exchange policies in case it arrives locked.
- Know iOS support status – With older or resold iPhones, check Apple’s website to confirm iOS version support before buying.
While more expensive upfront, buying a factory unlocked iPhone gives you assurance it will work on any GSM carrier without issue. Be wary of sketchy vendors claiming to “unlock” devices for you – make sure it is unlocked from the factory. Then you can use it seamlessly on your carrier of choice!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can unlocked iPhones still make emergency calls?
Yes, even with no SIM card inserted, iPhones will allow you to dial emergency service numbers to make calls. The phone’s cellular radio does not need to be activated to dial basic emergency numbers like 911 in the US or 112 in Europe.
Do unlocked iPhones work with Verizon/Sprint?
Verizon and Sprint use CDMA networks rather than GSM, so unlocked iPhones will only get LTE data but not voice/text. For full Verizon/Sprint compatibility, you need an iPhone specifically made for their networks.
Can I get 5G on an unlocked iPhone?
Yes, as long as the unlocked iPhone model supports 5G bands, you will get 5G by using a 5G compatible SIM in the device. 5G will work regardless of the phone being locked or unlocked as long as carrier networks and plans allow for it.
Is buying a used unlocked iPhone risky?
Yes, there are risks buying used iPhones. Make sure to check the IMEI is not blacklisted, iCloud is removed, battery health is decent, and confirm the phone is not stolen before purchasing a used or refurbished iPhone.
Does unlocking work on prepaid or MVNO carriers?
Yes, you can use an unlocked iPhone with prepaid carriers or Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) like Straight Talk, Mint, or Google Fi. Just swap in the new carrier’s SIM and activate service.
To summarize, an unlocked iPhone refers to an iPhone not tied to any specific carrier. It provides more flexibility to switch between carriers and use different SIMs when traveling internationally. While unlocked iPhones cost more upfront, they offer freedom to change carriers anytime without contracts or restrictions.
If you have a carrier locked iPhone, you can request an unlock after completing your contract or financing as long as your account is in good standing. Unlocking your iPhone will not affect your warranty coverage or ability to get software updates. With unlocked iPhones now the norm, most customers can benefit from the flexibility they provide.