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Unlocked iPhones: Everything you need to know

Updated Dec 13, 2023

It’s important to be aware of what pertinent terminology means when you own or intend to purchase an iPhone, as this will help you make more well-informed choices. Two such pieces of terminology are “locked” and “unlocked.” Understanding these terms can help you when buying an iPhone, traveling abroad with an iPhone, switching carriers, and experiencing challenges related to accessing your phone.

What does “unlocked iPhone” mean?

To understand the difference between a locked and unlocked iPhone, it helps to know what a locked phone is. Basically, a locked phone is tied ("locked") to a specific carrier, like AT&T or Verizon. Locked phones have a software code on them that prevents the user from using other networks. When people ask if their iPhone is fully unlocked, what they really want to know is if it will work on their network.

When you get an iPhone from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, or any other carrier, it is usually locked to work only on that carrier. This may be okay if you intend to stick with that carrier for the foreseeable future. However, if you are thinking about switching to another network carrier, plan to travel to another country, or are moving somewhere where coverage could be better on another network, you may want the freedom of having a phone that can work on any service carrier.

However, when someone says that their phone is locked, they may also be referring to a scenario where you cannot pass the lock screen to access most of the phone’s features. As such, context is important when determining what someone means by a “locked” or “unlocked” phone.

What does "GSM unlocked" mean?

All carriers in the United States use one of two different technologies for transmitting their signal: GSM or CDMA. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM, while Verizon uses CDMA. If you were doing some online shopping and found a deal on a GSM unlocked iPhone, chances are this phone will only properly work on the listed GSM Networks like T-Mobile and AT&T. 

This may not be a problem for you, but if you ever intend to switch to Verizon, keep in mind that you will probably need to buy a new iPhone. However, just because you are using an iPhone on a GSM network does not necessarily mean that it won’t work on Verizon.

If you are a loyal T-Mobile or AT&T user, then perhaps a GSM-unlocked iPhone will meet your needs. But if you are thinking about switching to Verizon or like the freedom of swapping carriers anytime, get an unlocked iPhone that has both GSM and CDMA antennae.

Can an unlocked iPhone be used with any carrier?

For an iPhone to be unlocked, it must be able to use its antennae for more than just one service carrier. But that does not necessarily mean that it has the right antennae to work on every carrier. If your iPhone is already unlocked, there is a small chance that it may not be able to work on Verizon. 

Depending on where you got your iPhone, it may come equipped with different antennae. Verizon uses CDMA antennae, and some iPhones are only equipped to work on GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile. That being said, while many older iPhones were only equipped to work with either GSM or CDMA antennae, newer iPhones that are sold inside the U.S. are generally equipped with both cellular technologies.

There is a pretty easy way to check if your unlocked iPhone will work on Verizon. Simply find the model number of your iPhone and check which networks this model number is able to work on. You can find the model number of your iPhone in your settings. Select “Settings” then “General” then “About.” After you have the model number, just go to Google and see if this model of iPhone is compatible with the Verizon network.

Are all iPhones unlocked?

iPhones purchased from most carriers are locked. However, an iPhone that has been bought directly from the Apple Store will be unlocked. If you are unsure whether your iPhone is locked, there are a few ways that you can check.

How to check if an iPhone is unlocked

The easiest way you can find out if your iPhone is unlocked is by simply calling your carrier. Another way to check if your iPhone is unlocked is by going into your iPhone settings. 

This is relatively simple: go to “Settings,” then “Cellular,” and then “Cellular Data Options.” The selections will slightly vary depending on what carrier you bought your iPhone from, but if anywhere along the way you see an option called "Cellular Data Network," you have successfully confirmed that your iPhone is unlocked.

How to unlock an iPhone for use with any U.S. carrier

If you have already purchased a locked phone, but need to unlock it for any reason, it is possible to do so. There are a few ways to unlock a phone that you bought from a carrier. However, even if you unlock your iPhone, there is a good chance it still won’t work on all networks. 

If you have fully paid off your iPhone with your service carrier, unlocking it will be relatively simple. Just call your service carrier and ask them to unlock it for you. 

However, if your iPhone is not fully paid off, the terms of your contract will specify how much you need to pay to unlock your iPhone. Sometimes this might be pricey, especially if you have a binding contract and want to leave the carrier altogether. But let’s say you are traveling somewhere, and still plan to stay with your service carrier. In that case, the carrier may make an exception and choose to unlock your iPhone. But this will be up to their discretion.

How to use an unlocked iPhone internationally

If you are looking to travel outside the United States with your iPhone, you should first check if your iPhone has GSM antennae onboard, since most international service carriers use GSM antennae. 

T-Mobile is a GSM network, and if your iPhone comes equipped with the right antennae to work on T-Mobile, then it will probably also be able to work abroad. This cannot be a hundred percent guaranteed due to a plethora of different GSM frequencies worldwide across different carriers, but if your iPhone is unlocked to work on GSM networks in the United States, it should also be fine for international travel.

How to unlock your iPhone without the passcode

It is frustrating to lose access to your iPhone considering the many ways that you use your phone and the important information you keep on it. Loss of access may even result in limited ability to complete many daily tasks that you have come to rely on your phone for, such as accessing bank accounts and communicating with others. 

The best way to deal with such issues is prevention. When you get a new, used, or refurbished iPhone, you must make sure that you have received an unlocked iPhone, and then choose a password that you can remember. Be wary any time you reset your password and make sure you can access the new one in a secure place. You should also consider accessories such as phone covers that will help prevent damage. Additionally, you should always carefully check to make absolutely sure that the phone