If you bought your iPhone within the past few years, it's likely to be unlocked, and free to use with any SIM. If your iPhone is older than that, it might be locked to a particular network/provider. But that doesn't mean you're stuck with that provider forever.
You should be able to get your network to unlock your iPhone for you; often they'll do it for free. In fact, you might even be able to unlock your iPhone yourself.
In this article we show how to unlock all iPhone models, either with an unlock code from the network itself or by using a third-party service. We have a separate guide for those who wish to unlock an iPad instead.
Is iPhone unlocking legal?
It's completely legal to unlock your iPhone if you've finished paying for your contract or you purchased it outright unsubsidised. However, if you're still in the process of paying for your contract you don't fully own the iPhone yet, so you're best to check with your carrier before unlocking it.
First of all, here's how to tell if your iPhone is locked. This is most likely to be a problem if you bought the device second-hand or inherited it from a friend or family member. If it is locked, you'll find that the iPhone isn't working on your mobile network, and that's because it's tied to a different network.
Read on to find out how to unlock it.
How to unlock your iPhone
- Contact your provider and request an unlock using the contact details and online tools listed below.
- If you've not got the original SIM, you'll need to reset the phone before it can be unlocked.
- Power down the phone, then replace the old SIM card with a SIM from a different network.
- Check that the iPhone is able to connect a phone call over the new network.
That's the shortened version, but let's go through those steps in a bit more detail.
Contact your network provider
We've looked separately at how to get your iPhone unlocked from each of the UK's most popular networks. Scroll down to your carrier to find out their specific process.
If you've had your EE account for at least six months and have paid all of your bills to date, EE will unlock your iPhone for you. It'll cost £8.99 if you're still within the contract, though, and it could take up to seven days, which isn't ideal.
If you're a Pay as You Go customer and have enough credit to pay the £8.99 admin fee, EE will unlock your iPhone for you at that price.
However, if you've got an iPhone that's locked to EE but you're not an EE customer, you're going to need to do some digging; if you got it from eBay this could be tricky. You'll need to find the original owner's name and EE phone number, and maybe some additional account information.
Of course, it's not always going to be possible to find out the information you need, in which case you might need to use a third-party unlocking service as described later in this article.
Similarly, Vodafone requires you to have an account or know the details of the person who did. If that's not a problem, you can go straight ahead and use Vodafone's online unlocking form.
It'll take up to 48 hours for the company to get back to you and up to 10 days to unlock the phone, and it's free to do so.
Three keeps things nice and simple. On its website, the carrier states that any iPhone purchased after 1 January 2014 from Three is automatically unlocked as soon as you connect it to Wi-Fi or iTunes.
But even if you purchased your iPhone before that, you simply need to connect the iPhone to iTunes and restore the device to unlock it. You'll want to back up your content first, though, as restoring will wipe all the data.
Alternatively, you can fill out Three's online form.
The company says it will send a text to let you know when the iPhone is unlocked. You'll need to connect the device to iTunes with the non-O2 SIM, and iTunes will confirm the unlocking.
If you're a Pay Monthly customer you can unlock your phone at any time, but you'll still be required to finish paying for the rest of your contract. Pay As You Go customers can get their device unlocked for free.
Business customers can get their iPhone unlocked by filling in an online form. You'll need to pay off the minimum term of your contract.
O2 says that, if it accepts your request, the company will email you within seven days with details on how to unlock your phone.
Virgin says any iPhone purchased from the company within the past few years will be unlocked already, but some older iPhones might not.
The good news is that all you'll need to do is update your iPhone to iOS 8 or later and it'll be unlocked for you. (Note that updating iOS will install the most recent version that your device is capable of running, so at time of writing most active iPhones will get iOS 12. This is fine for these purposes, and has lots of nice new features too.)
If your iPhone isn't compatible with a sufficiently recent version of iOS - that is, if it's an iPhone 4 or older - you'll be able to perform a full restore of your iPhone to unlock it. Don't forget to back up your data first.
If you've been with Tesco Mobile for 12 months or more, or if you've completed your contract, you'll be able to get an unlock code from Tesco for free by calling 0345 301 4455 and choosing "unlock your mobile".
Giffgaff has a handy tool that helps you figure out how to unlock your Apple iPhone from its network, which you'll find here.
An alternative to contacting your carrier and asking them to unlock the iPhone is to use a mobile phone unlocking service. There are many retailers in most areas who will arrange an unlock code for a small fee (usually around £25).
Although they aren't always reputable, you can also find online services that will unlock your iPhone, but we would advise against it. If you do decide to use one, please make sure you read all the small print before you buy, because they can surprise you with extra bills at the end of the process.
We've tried Doctor SIM, which promises to refund you if the unlock is unsuccessful, so that could be an option if you've tried all of the methods listed above. Doctor SIM successfully unlocked our phone with no problems and no hidden fees, so we feel confident in recommending them.
How much should I pay?
Ideally you shouldn't pay anything to unlock your iPhone, because your carrier should unlock it for you for free. But some carriers are still setting admin charges of up to £20. Third-party companies seem to charge between £10 and £25, and we wouldn't pay more. Shop around if anybody quotes you a higher price than that.
How to tell if the unlock worked
Once your phone has been unlocked you will receive a confirmation from the carrier. Now follow these steps:
- Power down the phone: hold down the power button (or the power button and volume down, if it's an X-series iPhone) and swipe your finger across as directed.
- Use the SIM card tool (or a straightened paper clip) to eject the SIM card holder from the side of the phone.
- Remove the old SIM card from the card holder. Place your new SIM - from a different network - into the card holder.
- Reinsert the SIM card holder into the iPhone.
- Make a phone call, and check that the iPhone is able to connect over the new network. If so, it's unlocked!
How to update an unlocked phone without the SIM card
If you've requested an unlock from your carrier, but have not got the original SIM card, you will need to reset the phone before it will be unlocked. Follow these steps:
- Back up your iPhone to iCloud or iTunes.
- Erase your iPhone. Click on Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.
- Complete the setup assistant and restore from your backup.
The phone should now be unlocked.
When you turn the iPhone back on, complete the setup assistant and restore it from the backup you created. Then you can insert the new SIM card and it should now work.