spacemobiles

Unlocking Your AT&T iPhone – What You Really Need to Know

Posted on: April 12, 2012

We’re three days into AT&T unlocking your iPhone. Why not report on it until now? Simple, fools rush in. We’ll tell you what you really need to know. Unlike other Apple product launches, waiting in line didn’t pay off.

Important Item 1: You probably won’t benefit from unlocking your iPhone.

The most major reason to unlock your iPhone, is to increase its resale value. Traveling internationally is the other. Percentage-wise, most iPhone users don’t do the latter, and many don’t do the former until that iPhone is quite obsolete.

While you may dream of dumping your AT&T service for another carrier, an unlocked iPhone is probably the most covoluted way to achieve that goal. It’s not as simple as unlocking and dropping the new SIM in to get service, with Apple, it’s never a simple process, despite all of its marketing to the contrary.

On T-Mobile and iPhone – Big Changes Mean Good News

For example, if you were planning on porting to T-Mobile, an unlocked iPhone will work just fine on T-Mobile, with recently revised future plans calling for future 3G access on the network without the need for an AWS model specific to the carrier, but the caveat is that you’ll be waiting for a few months to get the most out of T-Mobile’s drastically cheaper rates as a result of it being left out of the iPhone sales party. It has yet to begin the process to reband its network for 1900MHz 3G access and the FCC has yet to approve the additional spectrum transfer that T-Mobile is owed by AT&T as a result of the rejected purchase and merger in order for the rebanding process to start.

An AT&T iPhone, when unlocked and properly configured, will only work on T-Mobile’s 2G GSM/EDGE network for now, but in the future, T-Mobile is actively working to move its HSPA+ network to the 1900MHz band it currently uses for GSM in order to support all major data services down the road, without having to discontinue GSM/EDGE service. Ironically, thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, Apple essentially forced T-Mobile to reconfigure its network in order for it to be able to fully support the iPhone, as it and MetroPCS are the only US carriers that were not able to offer the iPhone due to incompatible 3G networks.

In short, your unlocked iPhone will work very slowly for the time being, and you’ll lose modern conveniences like being able to talk and surf the web at the same time, but later this year, all iPhones will be able to function to their fullest extent on T-Mobile with full coverage in 2013. It just took a federally blocked AT&T purchase in order for it to happen.

On the AT&T iPhone 4S and CDMA

Now, if you were planning on moving that hot new iPhone 4S over to Sprint and Verizon, brace yourself. While the iPhone 4S does feature both GSM and CDMA hardware, Apple noted at the point of sale that unlocked, GSM/UMTS iPhone 4S devices can not connect to CDMA networks. Ever. They ship from the factory without the CDMA radio provisioned. Hence, it can’t ever work on Sprint or Verizon.

Why did Apple do this? They haven’t answered, and we didn’t waste the text to get a non-answer from them this time around, either. But we know the reason; Verizon and Sprint don’t want foreign devices on their 3G networks. They never have, and their deal with Apple certainly does everything it can to prohibit them with the dual-network iPhone 4S.

On Unlocked AT&T iPhones and Straight Talk’s BYOD

And, if your were planning on moving your iPhone to the new Straight Talk / TracFone BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) plans, you don’t need to unlock your iPhone! Thanks to TracFone’s contract with AT&T, you just need to order an “AT&T-compatible” SIM card, and your locked AT&T 3G GSM/UMTS/HSPA+ phone will work, sans unlocking, although you do need to perform additional steps to have full MMS support on the 3GS, 4 and 4S, but these steps thankfully no longer involve jailbreaking.

However, if you are unlocking an AT&T iPhone 4 or 4S for use on StraightTalk via their rebranded T-Mobile SIM, it should be noted that the APN menus to reset data and MMS access are locked out by default on AT&T models and can only be triggered via inserting foreign SIMs into the device, such as the aforementioned SIM. Steps to reset MMS settings are best handled via push delivery files offered by the online Unlockit service, and is the default settings file used by StraightTalk for their BYOD service for those wanting to use the iPhone.

We’ve covered each of these in the past, so frequent readers of PhoneNews.com should see all of the above as old news. However, we felt it important enough to save most folks from reading the rest of this primer. On the off chance that you do roam internationally, or if you just want to dump your iPhone on Craigslist, read on.

Important Note 2: You’ve Gotta Qualify… When AT&T Feels Like It

As a late-breaking note, AT&T tweaked their unlock policy at the last minute to give active-duty servicemen who are assigned abroad a huge break. If your line is used by someone assigned abroad, you can unlock your iPhone regardless of contract status.

If you don’t qualify for that break however, your iPhone must no longer be tied to a two-year agreement. Yes, AT&T’s unlocking policy states that you only had to be 90 days into a contract… but AT&T is breaking bending massaging rethinking their own rules when it comes to iPhone. Clearly, and plainly rethinking possible.

Previously, AT&T said they would unlock any device after your first 90 days into a contract, provided the device was not an exclusive to AT&T. Since iPhone 4S, clearly, AT&T doesn’t have an exclusive on any model of iPhone (3GS aside). Still, AT&T won’t honor their own policy when it comes to iPhone, and instead wrote a new one. Their answer if you don’t like it? Enter arbitration, and probably, go jump off a cliff. (Note, we didn’t ask them on that last part… we rarely receive a reply from AT&T media relations).

This isn’t the first time we’ve taken air to call out AT&T Mobility changing the rules mid-game, and we’re sure it won’t be the last. It’s why we don’t have contracts, iPhones, or accounts with AT&T Mobility. To be clear, you can still be in a contract with AT&T, you just cannot have a contract tied to the iPhone. For example, let’s say you bought an iPhone 3GS twenty-two months ago. Today, you upgraded to a Nokia Lumia 900, and signed a new two-year contract. AT&T will now allow you to unlock the iPhone 3GS.

Important Note 3: Know Before You Go (Call Customer Service)

We’re receiving a lot of reports that AT&T is having issues unlocking iPhones. Sources indicate this may be linked to one call center being poorly educated, though most AT&T customer service representatives are unlocking iPhones properly.

  • If you are told to go to an AT&T retail store to unlock your iPhone, politely end the call, and call AT&T customer service back. An AT&T retail store cannot unlock your iPhone. Period.

Similar to international unlocks with CDMA-carrier iPhone 4S devices, Apple is the one that actually executes the unlocking codes on their end. The request however is initiated by AT&T customer service. Once they validate that your iPhone qualifies for an unlock, they will send a request for Apple to unlock your iPhone.

This is where the AT&T iPhone unlock process starts to differ. Unlike the CDMA-carrier iPhone 4S unlock process, your device actually is unlocked during an iTunes Restore of the device’s firmware. This is because unlike the international CDMA 4S unlock, you will be able to put a SIM card into your iPhone 4S without phoning home to Apple’s servers.

This is important, actually, as the CDMA 4S international unlock has been widely criticized. It requires a customer to find a working Wi-Fi connection, in the foreign country, in order to be able to activate a foreign SIM card. Obviously, a traveler in a foreign country may have problems doing that… especially if they’ve never connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot abroad before.

The good news is the iTunes Restore process is permanent. iTunes will backup your device, restore its firmware, and issue the unlock codes to the iPhone’s baseband. From then on, your AT&T iPhone is unlocked for life. It can’t be re-locked even if used on another iTunes account, which is the biggest fear for most that have had their devices unlocked in the past couple of days since the policy went into effect on Sunday.

And, from initial reports, when AT&T does unlock an iPhone properly with Apple, the process is pretty instant. Users have reported unlocking their iPhones during the phone call with AT&T customer service while others have reported delays of at least 2-3 days, depending on the time of day when the unlocks were requested.

When AT&T customer service doesn’t work, that’s when the problems start. In addition to being told to go to an AT&T retail store, customers have been told to report to Apple iPhone technical support, various support pages, among other dead ends. Again, the solution is to politely accept that you’re talking to an untrained/mis-trained representative, and call back to try again.

Hopefully this guide will help ease your own experiences with unlocking an off-contract iPhone. Please let us know your experience with the process in the comments, we’ll be monitoring for any major changes that may be used in future articles on the subject.

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