Friday, August 31, 2012

Unlocking an AT&T iPhone - Experiences after a 3GS, 4 and 4S.

So far I've legally unlocked 3 contract-complete AT&T iPhones (I don't think you can legally unlock Sprint or Verizon iPhones, so this is a real AT&T advantage). Time to share my experiences.

The process I've followed is described in this April 2001 OS X Daily post. AT&T has recently added a pure web based approach but I've not used it. The short version of the process is:

  1. Get your phone's IMEI and Serial Number, but really you need the IMEI.
  2. Go to AT&T's mobile site and look way down the page to the tiny 'contact' link. Or click on the 'bot helper and say you want to unlock your phone.
  3. Say you want a technical support chat.
  4. Fill out the form, you'll be asked for the IMEI and your last four of your SSN (if you forget, just Google it. Amazing that this is proof of identity.)
  5. You're told it will take a few minutes to get the email and 1-2 days for things to be processed; which doesn't seem to make sense.
On two occasions I got the email within ten minutes. On a third occasion I waited 48 hours with no email. I contacted them again, they said their part of the process was done and they resent the email. The email just says to backup, then "Restore" (wipes the phone and reinstalls latest OS) then "Restore from backup". (Yeah, that Restore stuff is confusing).
After the "Restore" (wipe phone, reinstall OS) when the phone mounts in iTunes, but before it's been registered, you see the unlock indication.
Screen shot 2012 08 31 at 7 21 55 PM
After that just restore and then you're asked to register your phone with your AppleID [1] then do the restore.
AT&T's newish unlock portal has some details on the process.

AT&T will unlock an iPhone under the following circumstances:

The person requesting the unlock is:

a current AT&T customer or a former AT&T customer who can provide the phone number or account number for the account

All contract obligations, including any term commitment, associated with the device to be unlocked have been fully satisfied; and The iPhone has not been reported lost or stolen.

Current customers will be allowed five (5) unlocks per account, per year, so long as their account is in good standing with no past-due amount or unpaid balance and has been active for at least sixty (60) days. Former customers will be allowed five (5) unlocks per former account so long as they owe AT&T no Early Termination Fee or other unpaid balance.

The 5 unlock limit is interesting, I'm actually closing in on it. It's interesting they'll even process unlocks for former customers.

We have one iPhone 4 a friend gave us (needed repair), I'd like to unlock that one too. It sounds like she could do the unlock so long as she can provide the account number that the phone was purchased with. I'll have to give that a try sometime, I'm curious to know if it will work if I 'restore' that phone to my AppleID.

I really don't understand why AT&T ended its previously infuriating eternal lock program - a lock that applied even to a fully paid off phone [2]. It's so unlike my image of them. It's equally mysterious why Verizon gets away with their eternal lock.

[1] Currently I have one phone on one Apple ID, and a bunch of phones and computers on another. Apple's ID system is so very broken. [2] Note, however, even a carrier-locked AT&T phone will work with AT&T resellers such as H2O wireless

See also:

Update 9/17/12:

I unlocked another iPhone 4, this time using their new web form. This phone had an H2O wireless SIM and was registered to my Mac account, but I was able to unlock it with the prior owner's AT&T number (she still has active account and the number that was previously used with this phone) and the last four of her SS. I can't remember if we needed anything else. It did take several days for the unlock email to arrive.


jpmist said...

I've done the jailbreak and unlock on my 3G. Is there any advantage to having an official AT&T/Apple unlock?

John Gordon said...

Sometimes if you jailbreak you can't easily apply OS updates, but there aren't any updates for a 3G so seems no difference there.