Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Is my Apple refurb GSM iPhone really factory unlocked and ready for Virgin Mobile Canada?

Last year I discovered that Virgin Mobile Canada's [1] prepaid service worked quite well with an AT&T (GSM) post-contract unlocked iPhone 4S. It looked like for about $15-$20/month I could buy enough data to support email, iMessage and Facebook (with video autoplay disabled) [2].

That made me think about a battered AT&T iPhone 4 unlocked refurb phone with an old battery and balky Home button [4] we've been using as a backup. My Canadian sister has no computer or net access -- maybe I could set her up on Virgin with the iPhone 4. 

A bit of research [2] suggests that the American GSM iPhone 4 should work on Virgin's network -- though at a slower rate than the 4S. (Virgin's SIM card FAQ IMEI lookup didn't recognize my IMEI, but I think I ran into that with the 4s too.) So the plan looked doable, but I wanted to give her a phone that would last -- and I didn't want to try my own repairs [5].

There are two options for refreshing an old iPhone 4 with a known defect (I don't know of any equivalent service for Android). You can pay about $170 for an Express Replacement or you can see what the local Apple store will do. If you do the Express Replacement or a typical Apple store refresh you'll probably get an AT&T locked iPhone back, and have to beg AT&T for help.

This time I tried my local Apple store -- and got a top notch "Genius". She decided to give me a refurb for $155, so I saved on the ERS fee. Even better, she said, I'd be getting an Apple unlocked refurb [6]. The entire process took about 15 minutes. Nice deal - looks good as new, fresh battery, home button should work for a while.

Except ... how could I tell it was really unlocked? I tried the erase/restore procedure for AT&T unlocks, but iTunes didn't show me the nice "Congratulations, your iPhone has been unlocked" message. I tried (surrendering more personal data), but it didn't recognize the IMEI. I think Factory Unlocks are different.

In the end I found two techniques. One is to inspect the Settings screens, there I found a "Carrier" menu I'm not used to seeing. It showed up with an old (inactive) AT&T SIM card inserted.

Photo 1

The Carrier menu let me select two carriers (after I turned off 3G data [7], I think T-Mobile only does EDGE data for the 4/4s though maybe a carrier settings update would help):

Photo 2 

I had an old (inactive) T-Mobile SIM in my desk, so I tried that and got some more menus of interest:

Photo 3

and with the old T-Mobile SIM my carrier changed (though I still had no service)

Photo 5

So Apple delivered as promised. I think the Carrier options by themselves are a pretty good indicator of an Apple factory unlocked GSM phone.

- footnotes -

[1] A Bell Wireless Affiliate

[2] Voice is 40 cents/min, so strictly for emergency. This strategy is a pure data play.

[3] Radios:

Bell Affiliates like Virgin use 850 and 1900MHz GSM frequencies (and some CDMA). 

iPhone 4s

  • GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
  • HSDPA 14.4 Mbit/s, HSUPA 5.76 Mbit/s, UMTS, EDGE, EV-DO Rev.A
  • GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
  • HSDPA 7.2 Mbit/s, HSUPA 5.76 Mbit/s, UMTS, EDGE
[4] Achilles heel of the iPhone 4. They all fail.
[5] I've done that -- it's a mug's game. It's difficult to find genuine parts, and it takes most of us a few phones to get good at these repairs.

[6] Maybe improved policies since Nov 2013?
[7] At some point in my experiments I got a No Service - Restricted Network message. Turning off 3G and cellular data let me connect to T-Mobile.

No comments: