Difference Between Unlocking and Jailbreaking an iPhone

unlocking vs jailbreaking iphone
iPhone image copyright Apple Inc.

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

How Jailbreaking and Unlocking Are Different

Both are about choice, but after that they're pretty different:

  • Jailbreaking lets you control what software you install on your iPhone
  • Unlocking lets you choose which phone company to use your phone with, no matter which one you bought it from.

Read on to learn more about each option, how they can help you, and what you should be careful of if you're thinking about doing either one.

What Is Jailbreaking?

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 hundreds of apps that aren't 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 occupying legal gray areas. If those issues aren't important to you, you may want to try out these apps.

Jailbreaking allows that.

RELATED: How to Get Apps That Aren't In the App Store

​Some of the things you can do with a jailbroken phone include:

  • Using apps from all of the compatible app stores, including Cydia
  • Change your default apps and app icons
  • Customize the user interface in ways the iOS doesn't usually allow
  • Get paid apps for free (aka pirate them)

Jailbreaking has some dangers. Jailbreaking exploits security holes in the 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 open you to security vulnerabilities that other iPhone users don't have to worry about.

What Is Unlocking?

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

New iPhones are generally "locked" to the phone company whose service you signed up for when buying it. (You can buy unlocked iPhones at full price upfront.) For example, if you sign up for AT&T when you buy your iPhone, it is locked to AT&T's network and won't work with Verizon or Sprint.

Locking a phone used to be done because phone companies subsidized the upfront cost of the phone when customers signed multiyear contracts. The phone company couldn't afford to have a customer leave before making its 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 to allow it to work with other phone companies than your original one.

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.

RELATED: How to Unlock the iPhone on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile

Some of the things you can do with an unlocked phone include:

  • Change your phone carrier to one that offers better service in your area
  • Change your phone carrier to one that offers better rates
  • Temporarily use local phone companies while you travel.

There has been legal confusion about whether unlocking is legal and a consumer right. In July 2010, the Library of Congress said that users had the right to unlock their iPhones, but subsequent rulemaking made it illegal. The issue seems to have been 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 other iOS device). 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.

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