Unlocking vs. Jailbreaking

They're not the same thing

Man standing in front of illuminated bus schedule with phone

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Jailbreaking an iPhone and unlocking an iPhone aren't the same thing, even though they're often talked about together. They're related because both give users more control over their iPhones, but the kinds of control they offer are very different. So, what's the difference?

  • Lets you choose a phone carrier.

  • Lets you control what apps you put on your phone.

While both unlocking and jailbreaking are about choice, they achieve two very different things. Jailbreaking an iPhone lets you control what software you install on it. Unlocking, meanwhile, lets you choose which phone company to use your phone with, no matter which one you bought it from.

Jailbreaking Pros and Cons

  • Can use apps from all compatible stores, not just Apple's.

  • Can change your default apps and app icons.

  • Can customize your phone's user interface in ways iOS doesn't normally allow.

  • Can void your warranty.

  • Can damage your phone.

  • Can leave you open to security vulnerabilities.

Apple tightly controls what users can do with their iOS devices. This includes blocking certain kinds of customizations and only letting users install apps released through the App Store. Apple reviews apps to ensure they meet basic standards of design and quality, but there are thousands not available in the App Store. Apple has rejected these apps (or never reviewed them) for reasons like violating terms of service, poor quality code, security problems, and existing in legal gray areas. If those issues aren't important to you, you may want to try out these apps. Jailbreaking allows you to do that.

Jailbreaking your iPhone allows you to use apps from all compatible app stores, not just Apple's. You can also change your default apps and app icons, customize the user interface in ways iOS doesn't usually allow, and even get paid apps for free (a.k.a pirating).

Jailbreaking also introduces some notable risks. It exploits security holes in iOS to remove Apple's controls on your iPhone. Doing it can void your warranty and/or damage your phone (which means Apple won't help you fix it), and it opens you to security vulnerabilities that other iPhone users don't have to worry about.

Unlocking Pros and Cons

  • Can change your phone carrier.

  • Can temporarily use local phone companies while travelling.

  • Must pay full price of an unlocked phone up front.

  • Unlocking the phone yourself may void your warranty.

Unlocking is similar to jailbreaking because it offers more flexibility, but it's a different and more limited kind of openness.

New iPhones are generally "locked" to the phone company whose service you signed up for when buying it. (That said, you can buy iPhones that are unlocked out of the box, too. This has become more common in recent years.) For example, if you sign up for AT&T when you buy your iPhone, it's locked to AT&T's network and won't work with Verizon or Sprint.

Phone companies used to lock phones because they subsidized the upfront cost when customers signed multiyear contracts. They couldn't afford to have a customer leave before making their money back. There aren't many subsidies anymore, but phone companies now sell phones on installment plans and need to hold onto customers who are still paying them off.

When you unlock an iPhone, you modify its software so it works with other phone carriers. This can be done by Apple, by a phone company (usually after your contract expires), or with third-party software. In most cases, it doesn't exploit security holes or harm your phone like jailbreaking can.

There's been legal confusion about whether unlocking is legal and a consumer right. In July 2010, the Library of Congress said users had the right to unlock their iPhones, but subsequent rule-making made it illegal. The issue was decided for good in July 2014 when President Obama signed a bill making unlocking phones legal.

The Bottom Line

Unlocking and jailbreaking an iPhone aren't the same thing, but they both give the user greater control over their iPhone (or, in the case of jailbreaking, over other iOS devices). Both require some tech-savvy. For jailbreaking, you need the willingness to risk damaging your phone. If you're not comfortable with that risk or don't have the skills, think twice before you jailbreak. On the other hand, unlocking can give you more flexibility and better options, and it's a safe, standardized process.