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

Unlocking your phone opens it to access on other carrier networks

A woman taking a photo with a phone in an exotic locale.

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For years, unlocking smartphones presented 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.

Phone-unlocking rights were signed into U.S. law in 2014. Since then, carriers have responded by limiting direct handset subsidies and instead using other new-subscriber inducements like chunking the cost of the device over a contract period. Because you don't own the device outright until you've paid it off, this technique effectively precludes unlocking for months or years after you purchase the device on one of these plans.

'Unlocking' Defined

When you buy an iPhone—unless you pay full price to get an unlocked model—it is restricted to the network of the phone company you initially choose to use it on. Software in the phone prevents it from being used on another phone company's network.

Locking became prevalent because, in many cases, phone companies subsidize the price of the phone in exchange for a two-year contract. That's why you'll sometimes see entry-level iPhones for well below MSRP; the phone company you use it with has paid Apple the difference between the full price and the price you pay to entice you to use their service. The wireless carrier makes 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, you can. But before you do, you have to change the software on your phone that locks it to your old carrier.

Unlocking is not the same as jailbreaking. When you jailbreak a phone, you gain access to its core operating system to make unsanctioned changes to the device. Jailbreaking does not allow you to unlock the phone, given that locking occurs at a network level, not a device level.

You Can't Unlock On Your Own

You cannot unlock your phone yourself. Instead, request unlocking 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

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 > General > About and scroll down.

After you've requested the unlock, you'll 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.

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 contract has been completed. If you have an earlier model, contact Sprint and request the unlock.

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. 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.

Verizon

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 or a demand for payment in full.