How I Unlocked My iPhone and Lived to Tell About It

Your cellular carrier holding you captive? Not that long ago you had to know how to hack your iPhone to unlock it. Not anymore. It is simpler than you think and legal.

Now that my 2 year contract is up I am thinking about what to do with my old iPhone once I get my next replacement. One of the biggest issues I need to address is unlocking it. An unlocked iPhone is worth more when selling it on the secondary market and also makes it possible to use it on a discount cellular carrier.

Before the US Congress passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act you typically had to find some way to hack your device to ‘Unlock’ it or to pay someone to do it for you. Not anymore. Every carrier, by law, offers a way to do it for free.

What does it mean when your iPhone is ‘locked’?

When I purchased my iPhone 5 in 2013 I signed a new 2 year contract with AT&T. As a frugal home inspector, that way I would get the new handset for $199 instead of paying full price.

AT&T was happy because I would need to pay a little more in each of the 24 months and there would be a penalty if I broke the contract. That would more than make up for the big discount they gave me when I bought it. I was happy because I was certain I would stay with AT&T and did not have to pay full price.

That was all fine and good but AT&T does not trust me. They ‘lock’ my iPhone to only use AT&T for cellular and LTE service. If I was to quit paying my monthly bill and try to use a discount GSM provider my iPhone would not be able to connect to it. It would be ‘locked’ into only using AT&T or using nothing at all.

How can home inspectors go about unlocking your iPhone?

Just because you have completed a 2 year contract your iPhone does not get automatically unlocked. You have to ask AT&T to unlock it for you. The process was amazingly simple and also FREE.

The first step was to go to this page and fill out the request. You will need a few pieces of information such as the IMEI number of your device and possibly the last four digits of the account holder’s SSN. Since my iPhone was on a business account I needed to use this page. Once I filled out the info I waited.

In less than 48 hours I received an email with the title AT&T Device Unlock Request – Complete. In the body of the email was a link to the step by step instructions how to complete the unlock procedure.

The second step of the process was to plug my iPhone into iTunes on my computer and do a Factory Restore. Just to make sure, I backed up my iPhone with iTunes to my local computer so I could restore all my apps and settings once the Factory Restore was complete. Once that was complete I started the Factory Restore. This downloaded new firmware from Apple and once it was installed iTunes told me my iPhone was now Unlocked. Success !!

Once I restored the backup I just did, my iPhone was exactly like it was before except it was now ‘Unlocked’. My iPhone 5 was now free to change carriers and just increased in value.

So what exactly happens when you unlock an iPhone?

At the simplest level, when you ask AT&T to unlock your iPhone, they tell Apple to ‘whitelist’ your specific device. Once that is done Apple can update the firmware on your iPhone with the ‘Unlocked’ version of the iPhone firmware that you install via iTunes.

You can now buy an ‘Unlocked’ iPhone from Apple and avoid all this but you will need to pay full price. I hope to cover that process in another post.

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