If you’ve purchased a SIM-free iPhone from certain UK retailers, it may have locked itself to the first mobile network you used on the handset.

Typically, a SIM-free mobile phone is also an unlocked smartphone. As you’ll have paid the full retail price for your handset upfront (up to £1,000 for the latest flagship smartphone), you’ll normally be able to use the handset on the mobile network of your choice. For instance, you could get a cheap SIM-only deal or you could use a free Pay As You Go SIM card inside the handset.

Historically, things haven’t always been so simple when purchasing a SIM-free iPhone in the UK. In the past, SIM-free iPhones from certain UK retailers (including the Carphone Warehouse) would lock themselves to the first mobile network used on the handset. The iPhones were also restricted to only working on UK mobile networks. Nowadays, this is no longer the case for newly-purchased iPhones but you may still be affected if your iPhone was purchased in the past.

We’d currently recommend buying your SIM-free iPhone from John Lewis. You’ll benefit from a 2-year guarantee at no extra charge, along with the John Lewis “Never Knowingly Undersold” promise. The standard warranty on an iPhone is just 1 year when purchased from most other retailers.

In this article, we’ll discuss SIM-free iPhones in the UK and we’ll look at how the unlocking status differs depending on where you buy it. 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 mobile network.

iPhone: Unlocking Status By Retailer

In the UK, you can now buy a permanently unlocked iPhone either directly from Apple or from a range of third-party retailers (including John Lewis, Argos and the Carphone Warehouse). You’ll get a SIM-free iPhone that’s permanently unlocked for use on any network (there is no longer the automatic locking behaviour that affected some iPhones in the past).

You can also buy a permanently unlocked iPhone from three UK mobile networks: BT Mobile, giffgaff and Three. Both giffgaff and Three offer the iPhone on Pay As You Go with a minimum top-up of £10. Meanwhile, BT Mobile only offers the iPhone on a Pay Monthly basis with a 24-month contract.

The following table summarises the unlocking status of iPhones purchased from various UK retailers:

Retailer Will the iPhone be permanently unlocked?
Direct Apple Store Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
Third-Party Retailers Argos Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
Carphone Warehouse Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked (since July 2017).
Currys Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked (since July 2017).
John Lewis Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
PC World Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked (since July 2017).
Unshackled Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
Mobile Network BT Mobile Yes, the iPhone will be permanently unlocked.
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.
iD Mobile No, the iPhone will be locked to iD Mobile.
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.

If your iPhone was originally purchased from the Carphone Warehouse, Currys or PC World before July 2017, it will lock itself to the first mobile network used on the handset. This was previously summarised in the small print available on the Carphone Warehouse website (this has since been removed as it no longer applies to new sales):

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, it’s been confirmed by Carphone Warehouse (e.g. on Facebook, Twitter and their official website) that this policy no longer applies for SIM-free iPhones purchased from July 2017 onwards.

Buying An Unlocked iPhone

In the UK, there are now numerous retailers where you can buy a permanently-unlocked iPhone.

The following table compares how much you’d pay for a permanently-unlocked iPhone at various retailers:

Retailer iPhone X iPhone 8 iPhone 8 Plus iPhone 7 iPhone 7 Plus iPhone SE
Apple Store £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £549.00 £669.00 £349.00
Argos £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £539.00 £649.00 £299.00
Carphone Warehouse £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £549.00 £649.00 £299.00
Currys £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £539.00 £699.00 £299.00
John Lewis £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £549.00 £669.00 £299.00
PC World £999.00 £699.00 £799.00 £539.00 £699.00 £299.00
Unshackled £699.00 £799.00 £549.00 £669.00 £379.00
giffgaff* £699.00 £799.00 £499.00 £649.00 £299.00
Three* £699.99 £799.99 £569.99 £669.99 £379.99

* Requires a £10 minimum top-up with purchase of iPhone.

We often recommend buying a SIM-free iPhone from John Lewis as you can benefit from their 2-year guarantee and their “never knowingly undersold” promise. You’ll also get a 2-year guarantee included in the price (the standard warranty is just 1 year when purchased from most other retailers).

Order an unlocked iPhone from John Lewis →

If you opt to buy an unlocked iPhone from giffgaff or Three, you’ll need to top-up at least £10 on your giffgaff or Three Pay As You Go SIM card. There’s no obligation to continue using your SIM card as you can switch to another network at any time 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 you have a SIM-free iPhone that was originally purchased before July 2017, it may have locked itself to the first mobile network you used on the handset. To use it with a SIM card from a different mobile network, you’ll need to go through the process of unlocking it.

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 (either 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 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 has 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 by contacting EE. It’s free to unlock the iPhone if you’re an EE Pay As You Go customer – you can order a free EE SIM card to join the network. Alternatively, if you’re a non-customer, it will cost £8.99 to unlock your iPhone. You can reach the EE unlocking team on 0800 956 6000 (select option 2 and then option 4).

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’s 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 free as a Vodafone Pay As You Go customer. You can join by ordering a free Vodafone SIM card, which must be used for at least 30 days before you request the unlock. Alternatively, you can use your Pay Monthly contract for unlocking as long as you’ve had it for at least 3 months.

View full unlocking instructions for Vodafone →

Once you’ve unlocked a SIM-free iPhone, it will be permanently 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 has only occurred on Apple iPhone devices. If you’re using a SIM-free smartphone from any other manufacturer (e.g. from Samsung, Huawei, Google, Sony, Motorola, etc), it will not lock itself to the first mobile network used.

More Information

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

Your Comments 499 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 499 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • Hello. I have changed my provider from EE to Three. I have IPhone 5c bought as simfree in UK. Perhaps 3 years ago. The new sim is not working as showing Activation Required message. I have already left EE. I don’t know how to unlock it if it’s a problem of automatic locking with first used network. It’s a frustrating and unnecessary feature of Apple…..Could you suggest any help?

  • Hi Ken
    I have an iPhone 7 that was originally with EE, they unlocked this and I went with Vodafone, they weren’t great where I am so they released me and I went to BT who were horrendous. I have moved to O2 with a new phone so was selling the 7. The buyer put a three SIM card in the phone and it says that sim doesn’t work. I tried my O2 one in same message. So I put the BT one back in (out of contract) but this went in ok and although no service it worked and showed connected to BT.
    They say they haven’t locked it but doesn’t explain how it is locked to BT. Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

    Paul

    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment. One thing that might be worth mentioning is I believe BT Mobile SIM cards will work in an EE-locked handset (they both use EE as the underlying network). To properly test whether the iPhone is unlocked, I’d recommend using a SIM card from O2, Three or Vodafone.
      If you believe the handset to be unlocked, but it isn’t acting in this way, you can get in touch with Apple to check the activation policy on your device.
      Ken

  • Amna Aurangzeb said:

    I went to Carphone Warehouse in Bury to buy an I phone x for my daughter who lives in Pakistan.i wanted a sim free phone which could be used on a Pakistani sim .I was told that the iPhone x they have has a regional lock and it would not work in Pakistan unless u put a uk sim and use it in Pakistan on roaming .Please confirm this information if it’s true .Is it ok if I buy a sim free phone from uk to be able to work in Pakistan

    • Hi Amna,
      Many thanks for your comment. Until recently, the policy was that iPhones sold by the Carphone Warehouse, and a number of other third-party retailers, would not work for activation purposes with a SIM card from outside the UK. The same policy didn’t apply to iPhones from most other retailers (e.g. the Apple Store, John Lewis, giffgaff, etc).
      This policy changed in July 2017 so it should no longer be the case. However, to be safe, I’d probably still choose to buy it from somewhere like John Lewis, as iPhones from there have always worked with SIM cards in other countries.
      Ken

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