Can I get my iPhone to work on the T-Mobile network?
December 31, 2008 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What is involved in "unlocking" an iPhone 3G? Is this even legal?

I searched this question and found some high tech answers that I don't understand...I am not very technologically inclined.

I got an iPhone 3G for Christmas, but my current cell phone plan is with T-Mobile. I am happy with my service with T-Mobile, but I was under the impression that iPhones can only get service through AT&T. I called T-Mobile to inquire about the early termination fee, and it would cost me $200 to cancel my contract and move to AT&T.

The T-Mobile guy that I spoke to said I could unlock my iPhone and run it off of the T-Mobile network. I asked if I could take the phone to a T-Mobile store and have someone do this for me. He then kind of back-peddled and said "Oh, well, we aren't really supposed to recommend that, and we can't unlock it for you," which sounded kind of sketchy to me.

My question is: a) would it be possible for a non-techie to unlock an iPhone and not have any problems with it, and b) is this legal? I'm a major goodie-two-shoes rule follower and it makes me very nervous to do something like this.
posted by junipero to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of people I know have a jailbroken iPhone. Here's a good guide. It's legal (you own the phone don't you?) but it voids your warranty.
posted by plexi at 10:51 AM on December 31, 2008

I believe there will be an unlock for the 3G released tonight by the iPhone Dev Team. I think it was completed a while ago, so it's likely that the intervening time has gone into making it as fool-proof as possible.

As for the legality, I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that US law permits unlocking. Of course, it also permits Apple to exercise the clause in the contract under which that iPhone was sold that allows them to charge an extra sum ($250?) if it isn't activated on AT&Ts network within 30 days. I doubt that the person who gave you the phone would be expecting that charge.
posted by Good Brain at 10:52 AM on December 31, 2008

If you're a non-techie you might want to check around and see if you have any friends that have experience doing this, or if any of your friends have friends that have experience doing it. It's not entirely difficult (it was a lot easier with the first generation iPhone, not sure what the status is on SIM unlocks on the 3Gs yet). The curious question I would have is how the person bought one for you for Christmas when you have to sign up for a plan through AT&T with a 2 year contract in order to get one? As far as I was aware, you couldn't purchase the phone without a contract?
posted by genial at 10:53 AM on December 31, 2008

Minor clarification to Good Brain's comment. "Jailbroken" is not the same thing as "Unlocking". I have a jailbroken iPhone 3G which allows me to run all manner of programs on it and fool around with the device. It still, however, runs on the AT&T network. The term you're looking for is "Sim Unlock" and according to this article on the subject, it looks like the unlock is supposed to be You might be in luck!
posted by genial at 10:55 AM on December 31, 2008

plexi, jailbreaking isn't the same as unlocking. Jailbreaking your phone lets you use 3rd party applications from sources other than the Apple store. You need to unlock the phone for use on another network. Unless you live in one of the countries where unlocked phones are available for purchase from Apple or a carrier (at a much higher price than a locked phone), you'll have to unlock the phone somehow. There hasn't been a software unlock released for the 3G iphone, yet, but that should change tonight. (You will have to jailbreak your phone before running a software unlock).
posted by Good Brain at 10:56 AM on December 31, 2008

Sorry, clarification was meant for plexi's comment, not Good Brain, who's advice is also sound.
posted by genial at 10:57 AM on December 31, 2008

Unlocking is exempted from the DMCA, according to this article. Not sure if there's anything contractual between you and Apple/AT&T to the contrary, you'll have to sort that out for yourself.
posted by sinfony at 10:58 AM on December 31, 2008

genial, I should had clarified: i got a gift certificate for an technically I can use it on any apple product, but I do plan on using it for an iPhone. So, the person who bought it for me didn't have to sign up for AT&T.
posted by junipero at 11:11 AM on December 31, 2008

Thank you, all. I think my decision is to just switch over to AT&T. Reading some of these articles just confused me further (not your fault...I just really don't get this kind of stuff), and I'm fairly certain I would somehow end up ruining the phone (whether internally, or just by throwing it against the wall in frustration) and/or get arrested somehow.

posted by junipero at 11:21 AM on December 31, 2008

I think you'll find many options available, including buying a prepaid AT&T and using a dual sim adapter, or returning the iPhone and buying an unlocked Korean iPhone 3G off ebay, but I've no idea what measures currently work. But first just ask how the people who bought you one got it. If ebay, you might trace it, and find it unlicked regardless.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:25 AM on December 31, 2008

this may have changed, but AFAIK if you go to buy an iPhone, you'll have to sign up for AT&T service as well. if you buy the phone and cancel out of the contract or buy the phone and never sign up for AT&T, you'll pay more. (the iPhone 3G is subsidized. AT&T makes the cost back up over the 2 years you're locked in for service.)

the caveats to unlocking/jailbreaking include voiding the warranty on the device (so if your headphone jack goes out in that first year, tough luck), having to pay the additional cost for cancelling the AT&T contract (if you end up having to sign up for one, otherwise, the additional cost for the phone as it won't be subsidized anymore), and never being able to update the phone via iTunes again. it should work fine unlocked and jailbroken but you'll be beholden to the iPhone hacking community for software updates and whatnot, as applying the Apple ones will undo your changes (and may possibly disable or otherwise destroy the phone - there was some furor about this when the original iPhone was out). you'll probably want to wait a while before actually doing the unlock just to make sure other people try it out first. no sense in bricking a brand new phone with a brand new unlocker program that no one's really tried yet.
posted by mrg at 11:35 AM on December 31, 2008

Also, AT&T's 3G network uses different frequency bands than T-Mobile uses for 3G service, so your iPhone 3G will not be able to access ATT's high-speed network, which is not that stellar to begin with, imho.

The iPhone will work on T-Mobile's glacial EDGE network, however.
posted by DandyRandy at 11:46 AM on December 31, 2008

The legality of this hasnt been tested in court, but it does sound like a violation of everyone's favorite law: the DMCA. Someone has mentioned that this might be exempted, but the exemption is only for changing the firmware to switch to a different carrier. Jainbreak doesnt just do this, it breaks Apple's security. Apple does not let you install your own software on these things. You must go through the Apple store. This sounds like a violation of the anti-circumvention rule of the DMCA. Regardless, no one gets prosecuted for this, but if someone tried to openly sell the Jailbreak software then Apple would use the DMCA to shut them down. As a hobbyist project on the net, its not worth the bad PR to take down.

This is also how Apple is planning to shutdown Psystar, but probably wont attack the Hackintosh community.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:03 PM on December 31, 2008

I'd suggest looking into your options with T-mobile before you cancel and pay the fee. How long do you have left on your contract? You may be able to switch to a really cheap plan, which could be less than paying the cancellation fee if you are a good way into your contract.
posted by Good Brain at 1:20 PM on December 31, 2008

Let me take another run at that, please:

The iPhone 3G's radio frequencies are tuned for AT&T's 3G high-speed network (which is not all that, imho); T-Mobile uses a completely different bandset for its 3G service, so you will not be able to access T-Mobile's high-speed network with your unlocked iPhone 3G.

The iPhone will work on T-Mobile's glacial EDGE network, however.

Ah, much better - thanks.
posted by DandyRandy at 6:27 PM on December 31, 2008

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