Unlocking vs. Jailbreaking

They're not the same thing

Jailbreaking an iPhone and unlocking an iPhone aren't the same things, even though these are often talked about together. Jailbreaking and unlocking are related because both give you more control over your iPhone, but the kinds of control are different. We reviewed the difference between these two to help you make the best choice for your iPhone.

Unlocking vs Jailbreaking
Unlocking
  • Lets you choose a phone carrier.

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

While both unlocking and jailbreaking are about choice, these tasks achieve two different things. Jailbreaking an iPhone gives you control over the 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

Advantages
  • Use apps from all compatible stores, not just the Apple Store.

  • Change your default apps and app icons.

  • Customize the user interface in ways iOS doesn't normally allow.

Disadvantages
  • May void your warranty.

  • Can damage your phone.

  • Leaves 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 rejected these apps (or never reviewed them) for reasons like violating terms of service, poor quality code, security problems, and existing 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.

When you jailbreak your iPhone, you can use apps from all compatible app stores, not just the Apple Store. You can also change the default apps and app icons, customize the user interface in ways iOS doesn't usually allow, and get paid apps for free (this is known as pirating).

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

Unlocking Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Change your phone carrier.

  • Temporarily use local phone companies while travelling.

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

  • Unlocking the phone 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. For example, if you sign up for AT&T when you buy your iPhone, it's locked to the AT&T network and won't work with Verizon or Sprint.

You can buy iPhones that are unlocked out of the box, too. This has become more common in recent years.

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 on to customers who are 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 things, but both give you greater control over your 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.