What To Do When You Can't Activate a Used iPhone

Activation Lock problems will prevent iPhone registration on a cell network

Buying a used iPhone sometimes leads to problems when you try to activate the device on your carrier's network because the iPhone asks for someone else's Apple ID and won't work without it.

stolen iphone tool
Checking an iPhone's Activation Lock status can tell you whether it's been stolen.

What's Happening: Activation Lock

A user iPhone that can't be activated is usually caused by a feature of Apple's Find My iPhone service called Activation Lock. Activation Lock is a security measure that Apple added to deal with iPhone thefts. Before Activation Lock, if someone managed to steal an iPhone and not get caught, they could simply erase it, resell it, and get away with the crime. Activation Lock changed that.

When the phone's original owner has set up Find My iPhone on the device, the Apple ID used to activate the device is stored on Apple's servers along with info about that phone. Those servers will only activate the phone again if that original Apple ID is used.

Frustrated person holding an iPhone near a laptop
Lifewire / Kelly Miller

You're being blocked from activating or even using the iPhone because you don't have the Apple ID username and password that was originally used to set up the phone. That helps prevent theft: why bother stealing a phone that won't work? On the other hand, it doesn't help you if you purchased the phone legitimately.  

Most likely, the previous owner just forgot to turn off Find My iPhone or erase the device properly before selling it (though it could also be a sign that you've got a stolen device, so be cautious). You just need to contact the previous owner and have them take a couple of steps.

There are lots of websites and services that claim to be able to remove Activation Lock without the previous owner. Be very, very skeptical of them. Find out why by reading How to Unlock iCloud-Locked iPhones.

How to Remove Activation Lock on iPhone With the Previous Owner

In order to use your new iPhone, you need to remove Activation Lock by entering the previous owner's Apple ID.

Begin the process by contacting the seller and explaining the situation. If the seller lives near enough to you that you can bring the phone back to them, do so. Once the seller has the iPhone in hand, they just need to enter their Apple ID on the Activation Lock screen. With that done, restart the phone and you can continue with the standard activation process.

How to Remove Activation Lock With the Previous Owner Using iCloud

Things get a little more complex if the seller can't physically access the phone. In that case, the seller uses iCloud to remove the phone from his account by following these steps:.

  1. Go to iCloud.com on any device.

    Screenshot of iCloud.com highlighting the Apple ID

    If you access iCloud.com on your iOS device and have Find My iPhone installed, you will see an option to Open Find My iPhone. Tap that to proceed.

    iPad screenshot of Open Find My iPhone when navigating on the web to iCloud.com
  2. Sign in with the Apple ID they used to activate the phone.

  3. Click Find iPhone.

    Screenshot of iCloud.com webpage in Chrome highlighting Find iPhone icon
  4. Click All Devices. 

  5. Click the phone they're selling you, then click the "i" icon to see the details.

    Screenshot of Find My iPhone page in Chrome highlighting All Devices and Information buttons
  6. Click Remove from Account. You may need to have the previous owner Erase the device first, if they haven't done so already (see below).

With that done, you should restart the iPhone. If you can proceed with the normal activation process, you're good to go.

What to Do If the Homescreen or Passcode Screen Are Present

Depending on what the previous owner did or didn't do, you may not even be at the Activation Lock stage. If you turn on your new phone and see either the iPhone's homescreen or the passcode lock screen, the seller didn't properly erase the phone before selling it to you.

In this scenario, you need the seller to erase the device before you can activate it. Here's what the previous owner needs to do:

  • If the phone runs iOS 10 and up, the seller should sign out of iCloud and then erase the device by going to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.
  • If the phone runs iOS 9, the seller should go to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings and enter their Apple ID when prompted.

When the erase process is complete, the phone will be ready for you to activate.

How to Erase an iPhone Using iCloud 

If the previous owner didn't properly erase the iPhone and you can't get the phone physically to the seller, the seller can use iCloud to erase it. To do that, make sure the phone you're trying to activate is connected to a Wi-Fi or cellular network, and then ask the seller to follow these steps:

  1. Sign in with the Apple ID they used on the phone they're selling you.

  2. Click All Devices.

  3. Select the phone they're selling you.

  4. Click Erase iPhone.

  5. When the phone is erased, click Remove from Account.

  6. Restart the phone and you should be able to set it up.

Erasing an iPhone Using the Find My iPhone App

The same process to erase the iPhone performed using iCloud in the last section can be done using the Find My iPhone app installed on another iPhone. If the seller prefers to do that, connect the phone you're buying to Wi-Fi or cellular and then have the seller follow these steps:

  1. Launch the Find My iPhone app.

  2. Sign into it with the Apple ID they used on the phone they sold you.

  3. Select the phone they sold you.

  4. Tap Erase iPhone.

    Screenshot of iPad's Find My iPhone app with Erase iPhone button highlighted
  5. Tap Erase iPhone (it's the same button name, but on a new screen).

    iPad's Find My iPhone app with Erase iPhone red button
  6. Enter their Apple ID.

  7. Tap Erase.

  8. Tap Remove from Account.

  9. Restart the iPhone and begin setup.

How to Avoid Activation Lock When Selling Your iPhone

If you're going to sell your iPhone, you don't want to be bothered by your seller telling you that you didn't turn off Activation Lock. Make sure you have a smooth transaction by doing all the right things before selling your iPhone