AT&T announced today that they will unlock iPhones that are no longer bound to a cellular contract starting on April 8. Previous to the announcement, the iPhone was an exception to AT&T’s unlocking policies.
Other smartphones tied to contracts with AT&T could be unlocked and switched to another carrier's network after 90 days as long as the customer's account is in good standing and the device isn't sold exclusively by Apple. But the iPhone couldn't not be unlocked at all, not even after a user's two-year contract expired (see the screen grab below for proof). That little rule left many two-year old iPhones useless to their owners.
Now, AT&T has announced that it will offer qualifying customers the option to unlock their iPhone, but not without jumping through one inconvenient hoop first.
The biggest qualifying factor is that the customer would have to finish their two-year contract with AT&T before they can get their iPhone unlocked. It’s exciting that AT&T is agreeing to unlock an iPhone, but with the average relevance of the iPhone being about 2-3 years, it doesn’t leave the customer much time to enjoy this unlocked freedom.
Verizon and Sprint are able to unlock their phones earlier because they do not have much competition on the CDMA network here in there states, whereas an unlocked GSM AT&T phone can be used on carriers like T-Mobile.
If you plan to travel to Europe or any GSM-enabled country during the two-years in which you are bound to your cellular contract, here are some options for you:
Buy an unlocked and contract-free iPhone directly from Apple. The phone will be GSM only — which means that you will not be able to use it with CDMA networks like Verizon or Sprint. This would benefit the world traveller in that the phone can be used abroad with any active micro-sim card. Another benefit is that you will not have to sign a two-year contract to use this phone in the states. You can also take this phone to a carrier like T-Mobile, but keep in mind that you will lose features like the visual voicemail.
You can dig that old phone out of your old gadgets drawer and get it unlocked. Next time you travel internationally, you won’t have the latest and the greatest iPhone, but you will be able to insert a local sim card and use the older model.