How to unlock your iPhone from EE, O2, Tesco, Three and Vodafone
September 4th, 2016
You may need to unlock your iPhone before you’re able to use it on other mobile networks. Find out how to unlock an iPhone from UK mobile networks.
If your iPhone was bought in the UK, there’s a good chance it’ll locked to your mobile network operator. To use the iPhone on another mobile network (either in the UK or abroad), you may therefore first need to unlock your iPhone. If you don’t unlock your iPhone before attempting to use it on another network, you’ll receive an error message saying “SIM Not Valid”.
A key benefit of unlocking your iPhone is the ability to access cheaper tariffs in the UK. You can also use your iPhone abroad with a different SIM card when you’re travelling, drastically reducing your mobile roaming rates. Finally, unlocking your iPhone will allow you to pass it on to others and will boost the resale value of your handset on eBay and on 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 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 bought from a third-party retailer like 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:
- You’ll be able to access cheaper tariffs here in the UK. Many people switch to a SIM-only deal which typically saves you about £20/month.
- You can save money when travelling abroad. Rather than roaming on your normal UK SIM card, you can use a different SIM card in your phone for lower costs when travelling abroad.
- Easier second-hand usage & higher resale value. If you no longer have a need for your old iPhone, unlocking it will make it easier for you to use it elsewhere.
Access Cheaper Tariffs In The UK
After completing the minimum term of your contract, you can normally save substantial amounts of money by moving over to a SIM-only deal.
A SIM-only deal will give you a generous allowance of minutes, texts and internet at a monthly price that’s around £20 cheaper than your current iPhone contract. Typically, this means you’re likely to save about £200/year by switching to a SIM-only deal. You’ll need to unlock your iPhone before you’re able to change networks on a SIM-only deal.
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.
When you choose a new SIM-only deal, there’ll normally be a new 12-month commitment. For greater flexibility, you can instead choose a one-month rolling contract instead. For more information, please see our full overview 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 large bill for international roaming on your normal UK plan. This is especially so when you’re travelling outside of Europe where typical roaming can be up to £1.50/minute for outgoing phone calls, £1/minute for incoming phone calls, 50p per text and £6/MB for internet.
By using a locally-purchased SIM card when you’re abroad in other countries, you can normally save a large amount of money on roaming. A local SIM card will make it substantially cheaper to call, text and browse but you’ll need to unlock your iPhone before you’re able to use the SIM card. This is the case even if you’re using another country’s branch of the same mobile network brand (e.g. if you’re using Orange in France or Vodafone in Spain).
Travelling to Europe, the USA, Australia or one of 42 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 mobile network you normally use in the UK.
Just 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 1GB of data, 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).
Countries included in Feel At Home: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy (includes Sardinia and Sicily), Jersey, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal (includes Azores and Madeira), Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (includes Canary Islands and Balearic Islands), Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America.
Second-Hand Usage & Resale Value
By unlocking your iPhone, you’ll also gain benefits in terms of easier second-hand usage. There may also be a boost to your handset resale value.
If you’re passing your old iPhone on to friends or family members, unlocking it first will allow 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 your old iPhone (e.g. on eBay or Gumtree), unlocking it first may boost its resale value. An unlocked iPhone will also have a much larger potential audience of buyers, potentially speeding up how quickly you’re able to sell it.
In the UK, it’s perfectly legal to unlock your iPhone and to use it on a different mobile network from which you originally bought it on.
Your iPhone will typically be locked by your mobile network as they may have subsidised the upfront cost of providing the handset (e.g. the full retail price of a new unlocked iPhone is often more than £500 before considering 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 (this is when stolen bank details are used to open a new contract with the iPhone then being taken and being 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 £15 but there may be certain conditions attached to the unlock (e.g. there might be a minimum amount of time you’ll need to have spent on the network). Unlocking your iPhone will not affect its 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, however, they’ll normally charge you a hefty service fee for filling out unlocking forms on your behalf (the unlocking form is available for free on your mobile network’s website).
Unlike with other brands of smartphone, it isn’t possible for a third-party to generate “iPhone unlocking codes”. This is because no such code exists for the iPhone. Instead, the iPhone is unlocked through a centralised database. The database is run by Apple and holds the “unlocking” status of every iPhone in existence. Only your mobile network operator is authorised to request a change in this database.
If you do decide to use 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 very old models of the iPhone (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 running iOS 7 and later, it’s no longer possible to unlock via a jailbreak. Even if you’re able to unlock your iPhone through a jailbreak, we strongly recommend against this as it’s only a temporary solution (your iPhone will become locked once again if you update the software on it).
Step-by-Step Guide To Unlocking
There are five simple steps to unlocking an iPhone:
- Check whether your iPhone has already been unlocked. Occasionally, your 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 an unlock is actually required.
- Find out your iPhone’s IMEI number. The IMEI number is a 15-digit code which uniquely identifies your iPhone. You’ll need to 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. This is because 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 SIM card, there are two possible outcomes:
- 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 that 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 your iPhone on a mobile network that uses a different coverage provider).
When ordering a free SIM card for the purposes of testing whether your iPhone is unlocked, you might be asked to specify the size of SIM card you require. The following table shows the size of SIM card required by different models of the iPhone:
For more information about 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) and 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 and later devices, 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 (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 the iPhone but you’ll need to do 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 Pay As You Go.
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 10 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 10 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 of your new Pay As You Go SIM card.
As of December 2014, EE has removed the requirement for Pay As You Go customers to have used their iPhone 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 iPhone 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) will not need to unlock their iPhone. This is because giffgaff provides a permanently unlocked version of the iPhone (the iPhone will not lock itself to any 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 automatically to O2 (O2 is the parent company of giffgaff). If this has happened, you’ll need to unlock the handset from O2 (please follow the instructions below).
Pay Monthly. Your iPhone can be unlocked for free at 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.
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 you’ve completed your twelve months on O2, 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’d 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 free of charge at any time during your contract. To request an unlock, call the 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 £10 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 2014, Three has sold all of their iPhones already unlocked for use on any network. If you bought your iPhone from Three 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 & Pay As You Go. On Virgin Media, there’s normally a fee of £15.32 to unlock your iPhone for use on other networks (the unlocking fee applicable to your tariff can be found in the Pay Monthly and Pay As You Go call charge tables). To request an unlock, call Virgin customer services on 789 (calls are free from your Virgin Mobile handset).
Pay Monthly. For Vodafone Pay Monthly customers, it’s free to unlock an iPhone. You’ll need to have been a Vodafone customer for at least three months. The unlocking process should take no more than 10 days. You can make an unlocking request through Vodafone’s online form.
Pay As You Go. It’s free to unlock your iPhone on Vodafone Pay As You Go as long as you’ve been using your Vodafone SIM card for at least 30 days. You can request a free unlock through Vodafone’s online form.
Third-Party Retailers (e.g. Carphone Warehouse)
If your iPhone was originally purchased from a third-party retailer like 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 a SIM-free iPhone, you should contact the mobile network to whom your iPhone has become locked to. For more information, see our full guide on unlocking a SIM-free iPhone.
If you purchased a SIM-free iPhone directly from Apple, it’ll be permanently be unlocked for use on any network. There’s no need to contact your mobile 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 other brands of smartphone, the iPhone isn’t locked through a “network unlocking code”. Instead, the network locking status or “activation status” of every iPhone is managed through a central database run by Apple. Before you’re able to use the iPhone on another mobile network, Apple will need to update the unlocking status of your iPhone in their centralised database. It can take a couple of days for Apple to do this, and you should normally receive an e-mail or text message to confirm once it’s done.
Once you’ve received the e-mail or text message, you’ll need to swap out your existing SIM card for a new SIM card from another network (you can get a free SIM card here).
Changing to a SIM card from another network 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 access to the internet 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 model of the iPhone, please see our full round-up of the best iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus deals.
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.