Is It Illegal to Unlock the iPhone?

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Last Updated: March 4, 2015

When you buy an iPhone whose price is subsidized by a phone company, you're signing up to use that phone company's service (usually for two years). Even though many iPhones can work on multiple phone company networks, when your initial contract expires, your iPhone is often still "locked" to the company you bought it from.

The question is: Can you use software to remove that lock and use your iPhone on another company's network?

If you live in the United States, as of Aug. 1, 2014, it is legal to unlock your iPhone or other cellphone.

Related: Learn how to unlock your iPhone on the major U.S. carriers

Unlocking

When people want to change phone companies without having to buy a new iPhone, many people "unlock" their iPhones. Unlocking refers to using software to modify the phone so it works with more than one phone carrier. Some phone companies will unlock phones under certain conditions, others are a bit less welcoming of this (after all, if you're locked to their network, the likelihood is that you'll stay their customer). As a result, some people unlock their phones on their own or pay other (non-phone) companies to do it for them.

Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act Makes Unlocking Legal

On Aug. 1, 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act." This law, designed to overturn a previous ruling on the unlocking issue, makes it legal for any cellphone or smartphone user who has fulfilled all the requirements of their phone contract to unlock their phone and move to another carrier.

With that law going into effect, the question of unlocking—which had at one time been a gray area, and then later banned—was settled permanently in favor of consumers' ability to control their devices.

Previous Ruling Made Unlocking Illegal

The U.S. Library of Congress has authority over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law designed to govern copyright issues in the digital age.

Thanks to this authority, the Library of Congress provides exceptions to and interpretations of the law.

In Oct. 2012, the Library of Congress ruled on how the DMCA affects unlocking all cellphones, including the iPhone. That ruling, which starts on page 16 of the linked PDF, went into effect on Jan. 25, 2013. It said that, because there were a number of phones that users could buy unlocked right out of the box (instead of having to unlock them with software), unlocking cellphones was now a violation of the DMCA and is illegal.

While that may sound very restrictive, this didn't apply to all phones. The conditions of the ruling meant that it only applied to:

  • Phones bought after Jan. 25, 2013
  • Phones that were subsidized by phone companies. If you paid $199 for your iPhone, its price was subsidized by the phone company you bought it from. If you paid $499 or more, it probably wasn't.
  • Phones in the U.S. The DMCA and Library of Congress have no authority outside the U.S.

If you bought your phone before Jan. 24, 2013, paid full price for it, bought an unlocked phone, or live outside the U.S., the ruling did not apply to you and it was still legal for you to unlock your phone. Additionally, the ruling preserved the right of phone companies to unlock customers' phones upon request (though the companies were not required to do so)

The ruling affected all cellphones sold in the U.S., including smartphones like the iPhone.

What About Jailbreaking?

There's another term used often in conjunction with unlocking: jailbreaking. Though they often are discussed together, they're not the same thing. Unlike unlocking, which lets you switch phone companies, jailbreaking removes restrictions on your iPhone placed there by Apple and allows you to install non-App Store software or make other low-level changes. So, what's the fate of jailbreaking?

There's no change. The Library of Congress previously said that jailbreaking is legal and its previous ruling upholds that (starting on page 12 of the PDF linked to above, if you're interested).

The law signed by President Obama did not affect jailbreaking.

The Bottom Line

Unlocking is legal. In order to be able to unlock a phone, you'll need to either buy an unlocked phone at full price or complete all the requirements of your phone company contract (generally either two years of service and/or paying installments for the price of your phone). Once you do that, though, you're free to move your phone to whatever company you prefer.