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How To Unlock Any iPhone

Updated: May 23, 2016 12:16 PM ET | Originally published: Apr 11, 2012

When you buy a smartphone, it's usually programmed to work with one specific carrier. But that doesn't mean you can't make a switch.

Often, you can unlock your phone after putting in a request with your carrier. "Unlocking" a phone simply means your device won't be locked in to that specific network, so you'll be able to use that same phone with a different carrier. This can be especially helpful if you plan to travel abroad and would rather buy a local SIM card than pay for an international plan, which is usually cheaper.

Follow the steps below to get started.

  1. Make sure your carrier supports unlocking. The big four carriers in the U.S. (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) support unlocking, in addition to some smaller networks like MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile, and Boost Mobile. Apple includes a full list on its website here.
  2. Carefully read the documentation from your carrier. Each carrier makes you take different steps before they will unlock your device. Usually, your phone needs to be fully paid off and your account must be in good standing with no fraudulent activity. Some carriers also require that your phone must have been active on their network for a certain amount of time before you can switch. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have their respective guidelines posted online.
  3. Check to see if your phone is compatible with the network you plan to switch to. Unlocking your iPhone doesn't guarantee that it will function on a new network. Various carrier networks use different wireless technologies, and some phones only work with certain carriers. The best way to know for sure is to contact your current carrier and the carrier you plan to switch to and ask.
  4. Place an unlock request with your carrier. AT&T's website includes an online form for submitting this request, while you'll need to contact Sprint or T-Mobile directly to start the process. Once the request is processed, you should receive instructions from your carrier and a code that enables the phone to work on different networks. On its website, Verizon says it doesn't lock most phones purchased through installment plans or through two-year contracts, but it's best to contact the carrier for specific details.
  5. Back up your iPhone and complete the unlocking process. Backing up your device ensures that all of your most recent data will be preserved when you set up your phone with a different carrier. If you have iCloud Backup turned on, your iPhone automatically backs up when your iPhone is plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi. But it's smart to back up manually as a precaution even if you do have iCloud Backup activated. To do this, navigate to Settings -> iCloud -> Backup -> Back Up Now. Connecting your iPhone to iTunes on your computer via its charging cable will also back up your iPhone. Once this is done, take out your current SIM card and insert one that's compatible with the network you'd like to switch to. If you don't have a new SIM card yet, Apple says wiping your iPhone and restoring it to the backup you just created will complete the process.
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