If you purchased 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 the company will do it for free. In fact, you might even be able to unlock your phone yourself.

In this article we show how to unlock all iPhone models, including older models such as the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6s, either with an unlock code from the network itself or by using a third-party service.

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.

Is my iPhone locked?

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.

How to unlock your iPhone

There are four simple steps to take to unlock an iPhone:

  1. Contact your provider and request an unlock using the contact details and online tools listed below.
  2. If you haven't got the original SIM, you'll need to reset the phone before it can be unlocked.
  3. Power down the phone, then replace the old SIM card with a SIM from a different network.
  4. 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

Below we will outline separately how to get your iPhone unlocked from each of the UK's most popular networks. Scroll down to your carrier to find out that company's specific process.

How to unlock an iPhone on EE

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.

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. You'll need to find the original owner's name and EE phone number, and maybe some additional account information.

It's not always going to be possible to find the information you need - if you got it from eBay, for example, this could be tricky. If you can't, you might need to use a third-party unlocking service as described later in this article.

How to unlock an iPhone on Vodafone

Similarly, Vodafone requires you to have an account or know the details of the person who did. If that's not a problem, 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. The process is free.

How to unlock an iPhone on Three

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/the Finder (depending on the version of macOS you are using).

But even if you purchased your iPhone before that, you simply need to connect the iPhone to iTunes/the Finder and restore the device to unlock it. You'll want to back up first, though, as restoring will wipe all the data.

Alternatively, you can fill out Three's online form.

How to unlock an iPhone on O2

If your iPhone is locked to O2, you can unlock it using My O2 or the My O2 app - the provider explains this process here.

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/the Finder 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 have 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.

How to unlock an iPhone on Virgin Mobile

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 if your iPhone is running iOS 8 or later (iOS 8 launched in 2014 so it's likely) your iPhone will be unlocked for you. (Note that updating iOS will install the most recent version that your device is capable of running.)

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.

How to unlock an iPhone on Tesco Mobile

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".

How to unlock an iPhone on Giffgaff

Giffgaff has a handy tool that helps you figure out how to unlock your Apple iPhone from its network, which you'll find here.

Using a third-party unlocking service

An alternative to contacting your carrier and asking them to unlock the iPhone is to use a mobile phone unlocking service. It's probable that the people using these unlocking services have acquired the iPhone from someone and that it wasn't unlocked first. 

Retailers in most areas will arrange an unlock code for a small fee (usually around £25).

You can also find online services that will unlock your iPhone, but they aren't always reputable and we would generally 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 than that. Shop around if anybody quotes you a higher price.

How to tell if the unlock worked

Once your phone has been unlocked you'll receive a confirmation from the carrier. Now follow these steps:

  1. 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.
  2. Use the SIM card tool (or a straightened paper clip, but preferably the proper tool) to eject the SIM card holder from the side of the phone.
  3. Remove the old SIM card from the card holder. Place your new SIM - from a different network - into the card holder.
  4. Reinsert the SIM card holder into the iPhone.
  5. Make a phone call, and check that the iPhone is able to connect over the new network. If so, it's unlocked!

Insert SIM

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, or if you have acquired a locked iPhone from someone else, you'll need to reset the phone before it will be unlocked. Follow these steps to reset the iPhone:

  1. Back up your iPhone to iCloud or via iTunes/the Finder.
  2. Erase your iPhone. Click on Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.
  3. 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.

And there we have it! Your iPhone should be unlocked and free for use on any network. If you're interested in repeating the process for your tablet, we've got a separate guide for those who wish to unlock an iPad.