Unlock the iPhone on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile

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For years, unlocking was a legal gray area, a right that some people claimed, while others asserted that it broke various laws. Well, that discussion is over: unlocking your phone is officially legal. Now that there's no question about its status, you may be interested in unlocking your iPhone. 

Unlocking Defined

When you buy an iPhone—unless you pay full price (US$649 and up) to get an unlocked model—it is "locked" to the phone company you initially choose to use it on.

This means that there is software in place that prevents it from being used on another phone company's network.

This is done because, in most cases, phone companies subsidize the price of the phone in exchange for a two-year contract. That's why you can get an entry-level iPhone 6 for just $199; the phone company you use it with has paid Apple the different between the full price and the price you pay to entice you to use their service. They make this money back over the life of your contract. Locking the iPhone to their network ensures that you meet the terms of the contract and that they make a profit.

However, when your obligations to the phone company are up, you're free to do whatever you like with the phone. Many people do nothing and become month-to-month customers, but if you'd prefer to switch to another company—because you prefer them, they offer a better deal, they have better coverage in your area, etc.—you can.

But before you do, you have to change the software on your phone that locks it to your old carrier.

You Can't Unlock On Your Own

Unfortunately, users can't unlock their phones themselves. Instead, you have to request the unlock from your phone company. Generally, the process is fairly easy—ranging from filling out an online form to calling customer support—but each company handles unlocking differently.

Requirements For All Phone Companies

While each company may have slightly different requirements that you must meet before unlocking your phone, there are some basic things that they all require:

  • The phone you want to unlock has to have been locked to/activated by the carrier you're requesting the unlock from (that is, AT&T won't unlock a Sprint iPhone, Sprint has to do it)
  • If you got your phone at a subsidized price, your initial two-year contract has to be complete
  • If you purchased your iPhone on an installment for no money upfront, both your contract and your installments must be paid off
  • Your account must be in good standing (not owe any money, etc.)
  • The phone must not have been reported stolen
  • If you request unlocks too often, the companies reserve the right to deny unlock requests.

Assuming you meet all of those requirements, here's what you'll need to do to unlock your iPhone on each of the major U.S. phone companies.

AT&T

In order to unlock your AT&T phone, you'll need to meet all of the company's requirements and then fill out a form on its website.

Part of filling out the form includes supplying the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identifier) number of the phone you want to unlock.

To find the IMEI:

  • Tap Settings
  • Tap General
  • Tap About
  • Scroll down to IMEI.

Once you've requested the unlock, you'll need to wait 2-5 days (in most cases) or 14 days (if you upgraded your phone early). You'll receive a confirmation that allows you to check on the status of your request and will be notified when the unlock is complete.

Read AT&T's full policies and requirements

Sprint

Unlocking is pretty easy with Sprint. If you have an iPhone 5C, 5S, 6, 6 Plus, or newer, Sprint automatically unlocks the device after your initial two-year contact has been completed. If you have an earlier model, contact Sprint and request the unlock.

Read Sprint's full policies and requirements.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is a bit different than the other carriers in that you can buy an unlocked iPhone for its network directly from Apple (for the unsubsidized price of $649 and up). In that case, there's nothing to do—the phone is unlocked from the start.

If you buy a subsidized phone, you must request the unlock from T-Mobile customer support. Customers are limited to two requests a year.

Read T-Mobile's full policies and requirements

Verizon

This is easy: Verizon sells its phones unlocked, so you won't need to request anything. That said, you're still bound to the two-year contract if your phone was subsidized or if you're on an installment payment plan. In that case, trying to take your phone to another carrier will result in penalties and/or a demand for payment in full.

Read Verizon's full policies and requirements

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