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.

iPhone 6s ColoursTypically, 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 five retailers from which you can currently buy a permanently unlocked iPhone.

The easiest places to buy a permanently unlocked iPhone are either directly from Apple, from the retailer John Lewis or from the online retailer Unshackled.com. You’ll get a SIM-free iPhone that’s permanently unlocked for use on any network.

Sometimes, 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 unlocked iPhones 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.
Unshackled 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 and automatically locks itself to the first mobile network used, you’ll also be restricted to only using it on mobile networks in the UK. This is summarised in the small print on the Carphone Warehouse website:

The 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.

To be clear, this restriction doesn’t apply when you buy a permanently-unlocked iPhone from Apple, John Lewis, Unshackled, giffgaff or Three.

Buying An Unlocked iPhone

John Lewis iPhone

John Lewis is our recommended retailer for buying a SIM-free iPhone.

In the UK, there are five places where you can currently buy a permanently-unlocked iPhone.

For most people, we’d recommend buying from John Lewis as they provide permanently-unlocked iPhones with a free 2-year guarantee. Alternatively, Unshackled is also worth considering as they’ll allow you to pay for your handset over a period of 2 years.

For the iPhone SE and iPhone 5s, the giffgaff phone store is worth considering for its slightly lower prices.

The following table compares how much you’d pay for a permanently unlocked iPhone at the Apple Store, giffgaff, Three, John Lewis and Unshackled:

Handset Apple Store giffgaff* Three* John Lewis Unshackled
iPhone 7 £599.00 £599.00 £599.00 £599.00
iPhone 7 Plus £719.00 £719.00 £719.00 £719.00
iPhone SE £379.00 £329.00 £379.99 £379.00 £359.00
iPhone 6s £499.00 £499.00 £499.99 £499.00 £499.00
iPhone 6s Plus £599.00 £599.00 £599.99 £579.00 £599.00
iPhone 5s £199.00 £249.99

iPhone prices were correct as of the 9th December 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.

Order an unlocked iPhone from John Lewis »

We’d typically 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

Apple Store

If you aren’t sure which network your iPhone has locked to, you can double check by making a Genius Bar appointment at your nearest Apple Store.

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:

EE

EE

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.

View full unlocking instructions for EE »

O2

O2

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.

View full unlocking instructions for O2 »

Three

Three

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.

View full unlocking instructions for Three »

Vodafone

Vodafone

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).

View full unlocking instructions for Vodafone »

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.

More Information

For more information, please see our article on mobile phone unlocking and on how to unlock your iPhone from UK networks.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

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.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 452 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Sai said:

    Hi Ken

    Just wondered an iphone 7 from ID mobile sim contract, would this be locked to the first sim? As they are part of Carphone warehouse.

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Sai,
      Many thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t know the exact details of how iPhones from iD Mobile will behave with regards to network locking. I presume they behave in the same way as CPW iPhones, but someone else here may have a better idea than me?
      Ken

  2. Sunny said:

    Hi Ken,

    My Iphone SE fro car phone warehouse is locked now to Lebara. Lebara is a pay 2 go sim card and i am in no contract with them.
    I have contcated Apple , carphone warehouse and lebara and none are able to unlock my iPhone.
    Can you help?

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Sunny,
      Many thanks for your comment. It’s possible your iPhone SE is now locked to Vodafone (as Lebara uses Vodafone as their underlying network coverage provider). Would it be possible to try using a Vodafone PAYG SIM card inside the handset? If it works, then your handset will be locked to Vodafone, and you can progress an unlock through Vodafone PAYG.
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  3. MB said:

    I have an email from John Lewis Customer services stating quite clearly that the I phone is unlocked at point of sale but will lock to the first Sim inserted.So their advertising claims are inaccurate and so is your interpretation of their claims.Please check for yourselves and amend.

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi MB,
      Many thanks for your comment. Would you mind forwarding me the email you received from John Lewis Customer Services? The feedback I’ve always received in the past suggests John Lewis iPhones should be unlocked for use on any network. It’s possible either things have changed, or there is still some confusion within the John Lewis customer services team. For instance, see the recent thread here on Netmums – it appears another customer was given the same information, but was then able to verify that the iPhone was unlocked:
      “I have tried a vodaphone sim and it recognised it straight away so looks like I have been worried about nothing and it is indeed a myth that JL phones lock to first network.”
      Ken

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