Is It Illegal to Unlock the iPhone?

When you buy an iPhone from a phone company like AT&T or Verizon, you usually sign up to use that phone company's service (often for two years). Even though iPhones can work with many phone companies, when your initial contract expires, your iPhone is often still "locked" to the company you bought it from. That means it's only set up to work with that company.

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, the answer is yes. It is legal to unlock your iPhone or another cell phone.

Ready to unlock your iPhone and move it to another phone company? Find out how in How to Unlock the iPhone on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Phone with combination lock attached

What Is Phone 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 company.

Most phone companies will unlock phones under certain conditions, such as after a contract has expired or when you've paid off the installments on your phone. Some people unlock their phones on their own or pay service providers to do it for them.

In this case, "locked" and "unlocked" refers to your phone's connection to a phone company. However, the term can also relate to whether an iPhone can be activated after being resold. For more on that, check out How to Unlock iCloud-Locked iPhones.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act Makes Unlocking Legal

On Aug. 1, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act." This law overturned a previous ruling on the unlocking issue. It made it legal for any cell phone 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 was banned — was settled permanently in favor of consumers' ability to control their devices.

A 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 United States Library of Congress ruled on how the DMCA affects unlocking all cellphones, including the iPhone. That ruling went into effect on Jan. 25, 2013. It said that, because there were some phones that users could buy unlocked right out of the box (instead of having to unlock them with software), unlocking cell phones was now a violation of the DMCA and was 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.
  • Phones in the U.S. (the DMCA and Library of Congress have no authority in other countries).

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. 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. But, as noted above, that ruling no longer applies and unlocking is now totally legal.

What About Jailbreaking?

There's another term often used 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. It lets you install non-App Store apps or make other low-level changes. So, what's the fate of jailbreaking?

The Library of Congress has previously ruled that jailbreaking is legal. The law signed by President Obama in 2014 did not affect jailbreaking.

The Bottom Line on Unlocking iPhones

Unlocking is legal in the U.S. To be able to unlock a phone, you'll need to either buy an unlocked phone or complete all the requirements of your phone company contract (generally either two years of service 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.

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