Everything You Need to Know about the Unlocked iPhone

iPhone XS and XR introduction
The iPhone XS and XR aren't as similar as they may seem.

Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images News

Until relatively recently, all iPhones were sold with a SIM lock, software that made it so that you could only use the phone with the phone company that you bought it from. That changed for a number of reasons — including that customers now pay full price for their phones, rather than getting discounts from phone companies in exchange for multi-year contracts — but now you can buy an unlocked phone and use it with whatever phone company you prefer. Here are the answers to the most common questions about the unlocked iPhone.

What Is an Unlocked iPhone?

An unlocked iPhone is a phone that isn't tied to any one phone company. This means that you can use it on any compatible cell phone network as long as you have a service plan with that phone company. It also means that you're not tied to a multi-year contract with the phone company and, assuming your phone is paid off, you're free to switch to another company whenever you want.

What Is the Advantage to Having an Unlocked Phone?

The biggest advantage to having an unlocked phone is flexibility. As mentioned in the last section, your phone being unlocked means that you're able to switch to another phone company whenever there are better rates or promotions. Unlocked phones are also useful when traveling overseas, since you can get a short-term phone plan from a local phone company instead of using your primary phone company's (potentially expensive) international plans.

Where Do I Buy an Unlocked iPhone?

The simplest way to buy an unlocked phone is to buy directly from Apple. In addition to selling new iPhones tied to specific phone companies, Apple also sells phones that are unlocked by default, allowing you to choose the phone company you want to use when you activate the phone. Apple used to charge extra for unlocked phones, but now they're the same price as any other phone.

While phone companies may sell unlocked phones, be careful not to buy an unlocked phone on an installment plan in which you pay a bit each month for the phone. If you do that, even though your phone is unlocked, you'll be stuck with that phone company until you've paid off the phone and won't have the freedom that an unlocked phone normally brings. If you prefer to buy an iPhone installments, check out Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program instead, which won't tie you to one phone company.

Does the Unlocked iPhone Include a SIM Card?

No. If you buy an unlocked iPhone directly from Apple, it does not include a SIM card. But that's OK. When you decide what phone company you want to use, you'll get a SIM card from that company when you sign up.

Can I Use the Phone With More Than One Carrier at the Same Time?

Yes. To do this, you need to have active service and an active SIM card from the two phone companies. Then, when you want to switch the company (and phone number assigned to the phone) that you use, just swap the SIM cards in the phone.

Some iPhone models support two SIM cards at the same time, so you don't need to swap the SIM. More on that later in this article.

Can I Use an Unlocked Phone With Any Phone Company?

Yes. All modern iPhones can work with any major cell phone companies, including the major U.S. carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. This is because they support both GSM phone networks (used by AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (used by Sprint and Verizon). When you switch from one phone company to another, you may need to get a new SIM card for the new company, but otherwise your phone will be the same.

With the Dual SIM on XS and XR, Do I Need an Unlocked Phone?

Good question! The iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR support the use of two SIM cards in one phone at the same time. The first SIM is a physical card, while the second is a software-based eSIM. Because there are two SIMs, you don't necessarily need an unlocked phone. You could have the primary SIM tied to a specific phone company and use the second only for short-term situations like overseas travel. On the other hand, you may prefer to keep both SIMs unlocked for maximum flexibility. It really depends on how you want to use your phone. Some people prefer unlocked phones on principle. For others, the flexibility of the dual SIM configuration may be enough.

Can I Unlock My Existing iPhone?

Yes. It's possible to unlock most iPhones, even if they were not unlocked when you bought them originally. Assuming you're not under contract with a phone company, and that you've paid off all remaining installments on your phone, you should be eligible to unlock. Your phone company can perform the unlocking for you. To learn all about this process, read Unlock the iPhone on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Are Unlocked Phones Also Jailbroken?

No. While jailbreaking and unlocking are often discussed in the same breath, they're not the same thing. The unlocked iPhones sold by Apple are not jailbroken. So, while unlocked iPhones let you use whatever phone company you choose, you're still required to use the App Store and other official Apple systems for software. To learn more about jailbreaking and what it offers, check out the Definition of Jailbreaking on the iPhone.