Apple iPhone: When SIM-Free Doesn’t Mean Unlocked
April 13th, 2016
If you buy a SIM-free iPhone from certain UK retailers, it will lock itself to the first mobile network you use on the handset.
Typically, on mobile phones, a SIM-free smartphone is also an unlocked smartphone. With a SIM-free device, you’ll pay the full retail price for your handset upfront (this will be more than £500 for the latest flagship smartphone). In return, you’ll normally get a fully-unlocked handset that will work on any mobile network you choose. You could then get the cheapest SIM-only deal or a free Pay As You Go SIM card for the handset.
With the iPhone, things aren’t always so simple. If you’re buying a SIM-free iPhone from certain UK retailers, it will automatically lock itself to the first mobile network you use. It will also be restricted to only working on UK mobile networks.
In this article, we’ll discuss SIM-free iPhones and their unlocking status when you buy the iPhone from different UK retailers. We’ll also look at the best places to buy a permanently-unlocked iPhone and how you can unlock a SIM-free iPhone from your network.
iPhone: Unlocking Status By Retailer
In the UK, there are four retailers from which you can currently buy a permanently unlocked iPhone.
If you’d like to save a bit of money, you can also buy a permanently unlocked iPhone from giffgaff or Three. They both offer an unlocked iPhone on Pay As You Go with a small discount, but you’ll be required to get a Pay As You Go SIM card at the same time (£10 minimum top-up).
At other retailers, your iPhone will not be permanently unlocked even if it’s advertised as a SIM-free device.
In the following table, we’ve summarise the unlocking status of iPhones from various UK retailers:
|Retailer||Will the iPhone be permanently unlocked?|
|Direct||Apple Store||✔ Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.|
|Mobile Network||giffgaff||✔ Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.|
|Three||✔ Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.|
|EE||✘ No, the iPhone will be locked to EE.|
|O2||✘ No, the iPhone will be locked to O2.|
|Tesco Mobile||✘ No, the iPhone will be locked to Tesco Mobile.|
|Virgin Mobile||✘ No, the iPhone will be locked to Virgin Mobile.|
|Vodafone||✘ No, the iPhone will be locked to Vodafone.|
|Third-Party Retailers||John Lewis||✔ Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.|
|Argos||✘ No, the iPhone will lock itself to the first mobile network you use.|
|Carphone Warehouse||✘ No, the iPhone will lock itself to the first mobile network you use.|
|Currys||✘ No, the iPhone will lock itself to the first mobile network you use.|
|PC World||✘ No, the iPhone will lock itself to the first mobile network you use.|
If your SIM-free iPhone comes from a third-party retailer, you’ll also be restricted to only using it on mobile networks in the UK. This is summarised by the small print on the Carphone Warehouse website:
iPhone will lock itself to the network of the first SIM card that is used in the phone. Subsequently attempting to use it on any other network, for example by replacing the SIM card, may mean it becomes permanently unusable. SIM free iPhones can only be used with a UK-network SIM card, and will not accept foreign SIM cards.
Buying An Unlocked iPhone
In the UK, there are four places where you can currently buy a permanently unlocked iPhone. In general, we’d recommend John Lewis as they provide permanently unlocked iPhones with a free 2-year guarantee. For the iPhone SE and iPhone 5s, the giffgaff phone store will offer a slightly cheaper price.
The following table compares how much you’d pay for a permanently unlocked iPhone at the Apple Store, giffgaff, Three and John Lewis:
|Handset||Apple Store||giffgaff*||Three*||John Lewis|
|iPhone 7 Plus||£719.00||£719.00||–||£719.00|
|iPhone 6s Plus||£599.00||£579.00||£599.99||£579.00|
iPhone prices were correct as of the 11th November 2016. * On giffgaff and Three, you can get a permanently-unlocked iPhone on Pay As You Go. You’ll need to order a Pay As You Go SIM card at the same time, with a minimum top-up of £10 on the SIM card. There is no obligation to actually use the SIM card: you can easily use the handset on another mobile network.
We recommend buying your SIM-free iPhone from John Lewis as it comes with a 2-year guarantee.
If you opt to buy an iPhone from giffgaff, you’ll be given a giffgaff Pay As You Go SIM card along with your iPhone (a minimum top-up of £10 will apply on that SIM card). There’s no obligation to continue using giffgaff – you can switch to another network any time you want, without the need to unlock your iPhone.
Unlocking a SIM-Free iPhone
If your SIM-free iPhone has locked itself to a mobile network, you’ll need to unlock it before you can use it on a different network.
The first step is finding out which mobile network the iPhone has locked to. For most people, this should be fairly straightforward as it’s the first mobile network you used on the device (this will be EE, O2, Three or Vodafone). If you were using a virtual network operator such as giffgaff or Tesco Mobile, your iPhone may have locked itself to the underlying coverage provider.
If you aren’t sure which mobile network your iPhone has locked to, you can find out by calling AppleCare or by visiting your nearest Apple Store and by making a Genius Bar appointment. The staff at Apple will check the ‘activation policy’ of your iPhone. This will tell them which mobile network your iPhone is currently locked to.
Once you’ve found out which mobile network your iPhone is locked to, follow the relevant instructions for unlocking it from that network:
If your SIM-free iPhone has locked itself to the EE network, you can unlock it as an EE Pay As You Go customer. If you aren’t already a customer of EE, you can order a free Pay As You Go SIM card for the purposes of unlocking. It will cost £8.99 to process the unlocking of your iPhone. You can request this immediately as soon as you join EE.
If your SIM-free iPhone has locked itself to O2, you can unlock it once you’ve been an O2 Pay As You Go customer for at least 12 months. There is a fee of £15 to unlock your iPhone on O2 Pay As You Go. Alternatively, customers with an O2 Pay Monthly contract can unlock their iPhone for free at any time.
If your SIM-free iPhone has locked itself to Three, you can unlock it for free at any time as a Three Pay As You Go customer. Simply order a free Pay As You Go SIM card from Three and then fill out the unlocking form on Three’s website.
If your SIM-free iPhone has locked itself to Vodafone, you can unlock it for £19.99 as a Vodafone Pay As You Go customer. Alternatively, customers with a Pay Monthly contract from Vodafone get free unlocking once they’ve been a customer for 12 months (a fee of £19.99 will apply if you’ve been a Pay Monthly customer for less than 12 months).
If you haven’t yet used your SIM-free iPhone, I’d strongly recommend using it first with a SIM card from Three. The reason for this is because Three won’t charge you to unlock the iPhone from their network. They also have the most flexible policies around iPhone unlocking (for instance, there’s no need for you to have been a customer for more than a certain amount of time and they won’t check about where the iPhone was originally purchased from).
Once you’ve unlocked a SIM-free iPhone, it will permanently be unlocked for use on any network. It should also start working on mobile networks outside of the UK.
Other Brands Of Mobile Phone
The automatic locking of SIM-free devices will only occur on an Apple iPhone. If you’re using a SIM-free smartphone from any other manufacturer (e.g. from Samsung or from Sony), automatic locking will not occur.
My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.
Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.