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 six 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, from the retailer Argos or 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.
Argos Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
Unshackled Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
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, Argos, 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 477 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Edd said:

    Hi, I want to by a phone from third party. It’s iPhone 6s brand new and still in sealed box, seems that it is locked to o2. Seller told me that all I need to do is just to call o2, and they will unlock the phone. Is it true? Is it so simple?Thank you

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Edd,
      Many thanks for your comment. You’ll need to make sure you qualify for the iPhone unlocking. If you’re a non-O2 customer, you may need to join O2 Pay As You Go in order to qualify (which may come with a 12 month wait and also an additional fee to unlock your iPhone). For this reason, I’d normally recommend against buying a locked iPhone (instead, I’d pay just a little bit more and save yourself the hassle).
      Hope this helps,
      Ken

  2. Mike said:

    Hello, I’m just about to buy iPhone 7 plus locked to Vodafone. Although I’m buying this from third party company not connected with phones as CPW etc. I’ve spoken to Vodafone support and it’s not a problem for them to unlock a device if I’ll get their sim and use it for the month. And here I have a question. After that time and after unlocking, will the phone be able to take any sim at any time or will it lock again to the first one I’ll put inside. I would also add that after unlocking I would like to use a Polish, not UK sim card. And now, after reading all that articles and comments, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to. Don’t want to end up with useless phone…

    Thanks

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comment. Once unlocked, your iPhone should always remain unlocked in the future – no need to worry about it locking itself afterwards!
      Ken

  3. Steve said:

    Hi Ken,

    We’ve just been discussing unlocked/sim free mobiles in the office here. In your article you mention that if you purchase an iPhone from Argos it will lock itself to the first network it sees. The Argos website currently states:

    This is a unlocked phone with no commitment to any network, you decide which sim card to use. Choose the most suitable plan, whether it’s a contract or a pay-as-you-go. The sim is unlocked throughout the lifetime of the phone without restriction.

    So, i guess they to have changed their views on SIM free mobiles?

    Kind regards

    Steve

    1. Ken replied:

      Hi Steve,
      Many thanks for your comment. Yes, it does look like Argos have changed their policy to now provide permanently-unlocked iPhones. I’ve just updated the information in the article above to reflect this – thanks a lot for letting me know!
      Ken

      1. David replied:

        Hi,

        No it will lock to the first sim card you put in.

        Thanks for using Argos Q&A.

        This the answer from Argos

        1. Ken replied:

          Hi David,
          Many thanks for your comment. I’ve just seen this on the Argos website:
          “This is a unlocked phone with no commitment to any network, you decide which sim card to use. Choose the most suitable plan, whether it’s a contract or a pay-as-you-go. The sim is unlocked throughout the lifetime of the phone without restriction.”
          I think therefore the policy has changed at Argos?
          Ken

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