How to unlock your iPhone from EE, O2, Tesco, Three and Vodafone
March 18th, 2015
You’ll probably need to unlock your iPhone before you’re able to use it on other mobile networks. This article shows you how to unlock an iPhone from networks in the UK.
If your iPhone was purchased in the UK, it’ll normally be locked to your mobile network operator. If you’d like to use the iPhone on another mobile network (either in the UK or abroad), you’ll first need to unlock the iPhone from your network. If you don’t unlock your iPhone before using it on other networks, you’ll receive an error message saying “SIM Not Valid”.
Benefits of unlocking your iPhone include the ability to access cheaper tariffs in the UK (you can grab a SIM only contract for a lower monthly bill). You can also use the iPhone abroad with a different SIM card when travelling (this will drastically reduce your mobile roaming rates). Finally, unlocking your iPhone allows you to pass it on and boosts the resale value on eBay and other websites.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of unlocking an iPhone. We’ll show you to how to check whether your iPhone actually needs to be unlocked. We’ll also show you how to find your iPhone’s IMEI number and how to request an unlock from your network (including the costs and the timeframe for unlocking). We’ll also discuss SIM-free iPhones from a third-party retailer such as the Carphone Warehouse.
- 1 Benefits of Unlocking
- 2 Legality
- 3 Step-by-Step Guide To Unlocking
- 4 Checking Whether Your iPhone Is Already Unlocked
- 5 Finding Your iPhone IMEI Number
- 6 Unlocking Instructions By Network
- 7 What’s Next?
- 8 More Information
Benefits of Unlocking
There are three main benefits to unlocking your iPhone.
Firstly, you’ll be able to access cheaper tariffs here in the UK (many people switch over to a SIM only contract which typically saves you around £20/month).
Another key benefit of unlocking your iPhone is the ability to travel abroad and to use a specialist SIM card rather than roaming on your normal UK tariff.
Finally, unlocking your iPhone makes it much easier to give the handset to other people (it also boosts the resale value of your iPhone).
Access Cheaper Tariffs In The UK
After completing the minimum term of your contract (normally 24 months), you can often save substantial amounts of money by moving over to a SIM only contract.
SIM only contracts will give you a generous amount of minutes, texts and internet at a monthly price that’s around £20 cheaper than your current iPhone contract. Typically, many people save around £200/year simply by switching their iPhone to a SIM only contract. You can keep the same number when moving mobile networks but you’ll need to unlock your phone before you’re able to do this.
Our recommended SIM only deals for use on an iPhone include:
inc. £5 discount
* A £5/month discount is available on BT Mobile for customers who live in a BT Broadband household.
SIM-only contracts normally have a 12 month commitment. For greater flexibility, you can choose a one-month rolling contract. For a full overview of all the available options, please see our list of SIM-only deals available in the UK.
Save Money When Travelling Abroad
If you’re travelling abroad and using your normal UK SIM card, you can quickly run up a huge bill for international roaming if you’re using your normal UK contract.
When travelling inside the EU, you can normally expect to pay 18.8p/minute for making an outgoing phone call and 5.9p for sending a text message. You’ll also pay 4.9p/minute when receiving a phone call and 19.8p/MB when accessing the internet. With typical usage, the average smartphone user is likely to pay more than £3/day. The best value SIM cards for travelling in Europe can normally reduce the costs fairly substantially.
When using your phone outside the EU, typical roaming charges are substantially higher. Expect to pay around £1.50/minute for outgoing phone calls, £1/minute for incoming phone calls, 50p for every text message you send and around £6/MB for accessing the internet. If you’re using data roaming on a normal UK SIM card, you can easily run up a bill of £60 for only one day of typical smartphone usage.
By using a locally-purchased SIM card when abroad in another country, you can save huge amounts of money on your mobile phone bill. A local SIM card makes it substantially cheaper to call, text and browse when travelling abroad. If you’d like to do this, however, you’ll first need to unlock your iPhone. This is the case even if you’re using another country’s branch of the same mobile network (e.g. if you’re using Orange in France or Vodafone in Spain).
Travelling to Spain, France, Italy, the USA or one of 14 other countries?
With Feel At Home, there’s no extra charge for using your smartphone abroad. Better still, you can benefit from the offer regardless of which network you normally use in the UK. Simply order one of Three’s All-in-One Pay As You Go SIM cards and you can benefit from the offer in any unlocked iPhone. A £10 top-up gives you 500MB, 100 minutes and 3000 texts (all available to be used when abroad). Meanwhile, a £20 top-up gives you 12GB of data, 300 minutes and 3000 texts (again, all available to be used when abroad).
“All in One” Pay As You Go bundles can be used with Three’s “Feel At Home” offer. The inclusive minutes, texts and internet can be used abroad in any “Feel At Home” country. The £15 bundle has a fair usage policy of 12GB/month when in a “Feel At Home” country.
Countries included in Feel At Home: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Macau, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America.
You’ll need a nano-SIM from Three if you’re using the iPhone 5 or a newer device. Customers with an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S should choose Micro SIM rather than Nano SIM.
Second-Hand Usage & Resale Value
By unlocking your iPhone, you’ll also gain benefits in terms of second-hand usage and handset resale value.
If you’re passing your old iPhone on to friends or family members, unlocking it first allows them to use the iPhone on their network of choice. They can also benefit from a low-cost SIM only deal.
If you’re selling an old iPhone (e.g. on eBay or Gumtree), unlocking the iPhone first may boost its resale value. You’ll also increase the potential audience of buyers (otherwise, the iPhone can only be used by customers on one network).
In the UK, it’s perfectly legal to unlock your iPhone so you’re able to use it on other mobile networks.
The iPhone is typically locked by your network as they subsidise the cost of providing the handset (the full retail price of an unlocked iPhone 6 is £539 without any subsidies). The phone locking mechanism essentially stops you from taking a subsidised iPhone and immediately using it on another network. It also helps to reduce fraud (whereby stolen bank details are used to start a contract with the iPhone being taken and sold abroad for a profit).
For a small fee, all UK mobile networks will happily unlock your iPhone. It should typically cost no more than £20 but certain conditions could be attached to the unlock (e.g. a minimum amount of time you’ll need to have spent on the network). Unlocking your iPhone won’t affect the warranty nor will it change the way your iPhone works.
A Warning About iPhone Unlocking Scams
There are a large number of online scams and unscrupulous websites relating to iPhone unlocking.
The only way you can legitimately unlock an iPhone is to do it officially via your mobile network operator. Third-party websites often claim to be able to offer an iPhone unlocking service. In reality, they normally charge you a hefty service fee for filling out the unlocking forms on your behalf (the unlocking form is available for free on your mobile network’s website).
Unlike other smartphones, it isn’t possible for a third-party to generate “iPhone unlocking codes”. This is because no such code exists on the iPhone. Instead, the iPhone is unlocked through a centralised database. The database is run by Apple with only your mobile network operator able to request a change to the unlocking status.
If using third-party services, be extremely aware of their online reviews (for instance, search on Google for the name of the company followed by “review” or “scam”). If possible, also have an in-depth read of the Trustpilot reviews and verify that the site doesn’t appear on this list of known iPhone unlocking scams.
On some older models of the iPhone which still run on a very old operating system (an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 running iOS 6 or earlier), it’s sometimes possible to temporarily unlock your iPhone through a method known as jailbreaking. On newer devices or on iOS 7, it’s no longer possible to unlock via a jailbreak. We strongly recommend against unlocking your phone through a jailbreak: it’s only a temporary solution and your phone will be re-locked as soon as you update the software on your iPhone.
Step-by-Step Guide To Unlocking
There are five simple steps to unlocking an iPhone:
- Check whether your iPhone has already been unlocked. Occasionally, the iPhone is already unlocked at the point of purchase (e.g. if you bought a SIM-free iPhone directly from Apple or if you bought your iPhone from giffgaff or Three). It’s always worth double-checking to make sure unlocking is actually required.
- Find out your iPhone’s IMEI number. The IMEI number is a 15-digit code which uniquely identifies your iPhone. You must have your iPhone’s IMEI number before you’re able to request an unlock from your network.
- Contact your mobile network and request an unlock. You’ll need to request an unlock through your mobile network operator. The instructions and the cost of doing this depend on your network (see the unlocking instructions for each UK network here).
- Wait approximately one week for the unlock to be processed. It takes approximately one week for iPhone unlocking requests to be processed (your mobile network needs to get in touch with Apple before the iPhone can be unlocked).
- Enjoy using your new network or SIM card. After approximately one week, you should receive a message saying your iPhone has been unlocked. You can now use the iPhone on any compatible network – both when you’re at home and when you’re travelling abroad.
In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss each of the five steps in order.
Checking Whether Your iPhone Is Already Unlocked
Before you go through the process of unlocking your iPhone, it’s worth spending a bit of time to make sure your iPhone actually needs to be unlocked. The easiest way to check whether your iPhone has already been unlocked is to order a free Pay As You Go SIM card (the SIM card should come from a different network to the one you’re using at the moment). After you insert the new SIM card, there are two options as to what might possibly happen:
- Your iPhone shows the name of the new network in the top-left hand corner. If after inserting your new SIM card, your iPhone shows the name of the new network in the top-left hand corner, your iPhone has successfully accepted that SIM card. If the SIM card you used was from a different mobile network, it suggests your iPhone is already unlocked (there are a couple of exceptions, please see the notes below*). If your iPhone is working on the network, it isn’t necessary to go through the rest of the unlocking process.
If you’re seeing the name of your new network operator here, it suggests your iPhone is already unlocked for use on other networks.
- You receive an error saying “SIM Not Valid”. If your iPhone is locked to a network, you’ll receive a “SIM Not Valid” error message when inserting a SIM card from another network. You’ll need to complete the rest of the unlocking process before you’re able to use the iPhone on other networks.
If you’re seeing the “SIM Not Valid” error message, you’ll need to go through the rest of the unlocking process.
* Caveats: A giffgaff SIM card may work in your iPhone even if it’s locked to O2. A SIM card from EE will also work in iPhones that are locked to T-Mobile. You should bear this in mind when testing the phone with a SIM card from another network (ideally you should test the handset on a network that uses a different coverage provider).
When ordering a free SIM card for the purposes of testing whether your iPhone is unlocked, you’ll be asked for the size of SIM card you require. The following table shows which size of SIM card is required by your iPhone:
For more information on the different sizes of SIM card, please see our in-depth article comparing Standard SIM, Micro SIM and Nano SIM.
Finding Your iPhone IMEI Number
As part of the iPhone unlocking process, your mobile network will ask you to provide the IMEI number of your iPhone. The IMEI is a 15-digit serial number which uniquely identifies your specific iPhone (every iPhone has a different IMEI number). You’ll need to provide the right IMEI so your network is able to unlock the right handset.
There are five ways of finding the IMEI number on your iPhone:
- Get the IMEI from your iPhone ‘Settings’ menu. On your iPhone, go to Settings > General > About. The IMEI number will be listed as one of the menu items. You can tap and hold the IMEI if you’d like to copy the IMEI number to your iPhone’s clipboard.
- Get the IMEI from the iPhone Dialler. Go to your iPhone’s dialler keypad (just as if you’re about to make a phone call). Instead of dialling a number, enter *#06# (star hash zero six hash). Your iPhone’s IMEI number should appear on the screen.
- Read the IMEI from the back of your handset (iPhone 5 and later devices only). On the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the IMEI number is engraved on the back of your handset (see image on the right). You’ll find it printed towards the bottom of the handset.
- Read the IMEI from your iPhone’s SIM card tray (iPhone 4S and earlier devices only). On the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3G S, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, your IMEI number is printed on the removable SIM card tray. You’ll need a paperclip to eject the tray (see Apple’s website for more information).
- Get the IMEI through iTunes (PC/Mac connection required). Connect your iPhone to a computer and open iTunes. On the Devices > Your iPhone > Summary tab, click on where your phone number is displayed. This will cycle through several pieces of information about your iPhone. The IMEI number will be displayed as one of those pieces of information.
Make a careful note of your phone’s IMEI number (it should be 15 digits long). Make sure you provide the correct IMEI number when unlocking your handset – otherwise you could be unlocking someone else’s device!
Unlocking Instructions By Network
EE, Orange & T-Mobile
Pay Monthly. It costs £8.99 to unlock an iPhone if you’re a Pay Monthly customer on EE, Orange or T-Mobile. To qualify for unlocking, your iPhone must have originally been provided by EE, Orange or T-Mobile. You must have also been a Pay Monthly customer for at least six months and you’ll need to be up-to-date with payments on your account.
On Pay Monthly, EE is fairly strict in that they’ll only unlock the iPhone if they have a record of having provided the handset to you. To qualify for unlocking as a Pay Monthly customer, the iPhone must have been provided with your current contract (either from when you started your contract or from when you upgraded your plan). Replacement devices can also be unlocked but you’ll need to provide proof of exchange.
If you don’t qualify for unlocking under these conditions (e.g. if you’re not the original owner or if your iPhone is second-hand), you can still unlock it as a Pay As You Go customer. Simply order a free EE Pay As You Go SIM card and follow the instructions below for a Pay As You Go customer.
On Pay Monthly, the £8.99 fee for unlocking your iPhone is charged to your next monthly bill. You can submit the unlocking request through a form on EE’s website. It can take up to 7 days for your iPhone to be unlocked.
Pay As You Go. Customers on EE Pay As You Go can unlock their iPhone for £8.99. The £8.99 fee is taken from your Pay As You Go airtime balance so make sure you have enough credit before requesting the unlock. It can take up to 7 days for your iPhone to be unlocked.
If you don’t currently have an EE Pay As You Go SIM card, you can order a free one for the purposes of unlocking. There’s a minimum top-up of £10 on your new SIM card (£8.99 will go towards the cost of unlocking your iPhone). When filling out the form on EE’s website, you should use the phone number on your new Pay As You Go SIM card.
As of December 2014, EE has removed the requirement to have used your handset on Pay As You Go for more than 6 months (the six month requirement now only applies to Pay Monthly customers). They have also removed the original owner requirement for customers unlocking their phone on Pay As You Go. Prior to March 2015, EE also charged customers £20.42 to unlock their iPhone.
Customers who bought their iPhone directly from giffgaff’s website (either with a one-off lump sum payment or with a monthly repayment plan) shouldn’t need to unlock their iPhone. This is because giffgaff provides a SIM-free variety of the iPhone which doesn’t lock itself to a network automatically.
If you bought your iPhone from a third-party retailer (e.g. from the Carphone Warehouse), you may find the iPhone gets locked to O2 automatically (O2 is the parent company of giffgaff). If this has happened, you’ll need to unlock the handset from O2 (follow the instructions below).
Pay Monthly. Your iPhone can be unlocked for free any time during your contract. However, you’ll still need to honour the minimum term of your contract (you aren’t able to cancel your contract early). It can take up to 72 hours to unlock an iPhone from O2. To begin the unlocking process, fill in the form on O2’s website.
At present, O2 won’t unlock the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. According to O2, this is because they’re prioritising “stock of these devices for customers who want to use them on the O2 network”. In the past, O2 has only unlocked new models of the iPhone six months after release. Hence, for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, we expect O2 will start unlocking these handsets from April 2015.
Pay As You Go. Customers on O2 Pay As You Go will need to have used their plan for at least 12 months before they’re able to unlock the iPhone for use on other networks. After the twelve months elapse, it’ll cost £15 to unlock your iPhone. The £15 charge is deducted from your Pay As You Go balance. For this reason, you should make sure you have at least £15 of credit before requesting an unlocking on O2’s website.
Note: If you’re joining giffgaff, it’s possible to use an O2-locked iPhone without having to unlock it first. For customers on O2 Pay Monthly, we would still recommend unlocking your iPhone (it’s free). For O2 Pay As You Go customers, you can save £15 by foregoing the unlock. To join giffgaff, you can order a free SIM card here.
Pay Monthly. Tesco Mobile can unlock your iPhone at any time. It typically costs £20 to unlock your iPhone from Tesco (though it’s free if the minimum term of your contract has ended or if you’ve paid off the ‘Phone payment’ portion of an Anytime Upgrade contract). To request an unlock, call Tesco Mobile aftersales support on 0345 300 6660. It can take up to 28 days for your iPhone to be unlocked.
Pay As You Go. There’s a £20 charge to unlock your iPhone from Tesco Pay As You Go if you’ve had the handset for less than 12 months. After the first 12 months, it’s free to unlock your iPhone. To request an unlock, call the Tesco Mobile aftersales support number (0345 300 6660).
Pay Monthly & Pay As You Go. As of January 1st 2014, Three has sold all of their iPhones already unlocked for use on any network. If you bought your iPhone after this date, it shouldn’t be necessary to unlock it from Three. If your iPhone was purchased before this date, it could still remain locked to the Three network.
If your iPhone remains locked to the Three network, you can request an unlock for free by filling out this form on Three’s website. There’s no charge for unlocking your iPhone but you’ll need to have an active customer account. If you don’t currently have a SIM card on Three, you can order a Pay As You Go SIM card via their website. It can take up to 7 days for Three to unlock your iPhone.
Pay Monthly. For Vodafone Pay Monthly customers, it’s free to unlock an iPhone providing you’ve had it for at least 12 months. If you’ve had the iPhone for less than 12 months, you’ll be charged an unlocking fee of £19.99. The unlocking process should be completed within 10 days. You can make the request through Vodafone’s online form.
Pay As You Go. There’s an administration charge of £19.99 to unlock your iPhone from Vodafone. This is taken from your Pay As You Go airtime balance so be sure to top up by at least £20 prior to making the request to unlock your iPhone. Pay As You Go customers should request an unlock through Vodafone’s online form.
Third-Party Retailers (e.g. Carphone Warehouse)
If your iPhone was originally purchased from a third-party retailer (e.g. the Carphone Warehouse), it may lock itself automatically to the first network you use. This is the case even when your iPhone is sold as a “SIM Free” handset.
To unlock your iPhone, you should contact the mobile network to whom your iPhone has become locked to. If your iPhone has unfortunately become locked to a network that doesn’t sell the iPhone (e.g. Talkmobile or Virgin Mobile), it may now be impossible to unlock the handset. For more information, see our guide on unlocking a SIM-free iPhone.
If you purchased a SIM-free iPhone directly from Apple, it’ll permanently be unlocked for use on any network. There’s no need to contact your network to unlock it again.
After you’ve informed your mobile network that you want to unlock your iPhone and after you’ve made the necessary payments for the unlock to be processed, your mobile network needs to get in touch with Apple.
Unlike most other smartphones, the iPhone isn’t locked with a “network unlocking code”. Instead, the network locking status of all iPhones is managed through a central database run by Apple. Before you’re able to use the iPhone on other networks, Apple will need to update the status of your phone in their centralised locking database. It can take a couple of days for Apple to do this – you should normally receive an e-mail or text message once your phone has been updated in their database.
Once you’ve received the e-mail or text message, you’ll need to swap out your SIM card for a SIM card from another network (you can get a free SIM card here).
Changing the SIM card will force your iPhone to update its unlocking status with Apple’s central database. So that your phone is able to reach Apple’s servers, your iPhone should be connected to wi-fi when you insert the SIM card from another network. Alternatively, if there’s no wi-fi available, you can connect your iPhone to a computer using a USB cable. The computer should have internet access and must have iTunes installed. Upon plugging in your iPhone, you’ll receive the following message to show your iPhone has been unlocked:
For more information, please see our full guide to mobile phone unlocking. If you’re looking to upgrade to a newer version of the iPhone, please see our round-up of the best iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus tariffs.
I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.
Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.