When you want to get a new or pre-owned iPhone or cellular iPad, it’s good practice to verify if it’s locked or unlocked. An unlocked iPhone or iPad is not limited to a particular carrier. It connects to your mobile carrier of choice.
There’s a big difference in the price you pay as unlocked iPhones and iPads are generally more expensive than those locked to a particular carrier. Unfortunately, you cannot tell just by looking at an iPhone whether it is locked or unlocked.
Unlike other mobile phone makers, Apple does not allow iPhones or iPads to be branded by mobile carriers, so it’s not as simple as looking for a logo.
Unlocking an iPhone or any mobile phone for that matter is tough if you’re not the original contract owner. If you purchase a carrier locked iPhone and want to change mobile carriers, it adds time, frustration, and most probably cost onto your total iPhone purchase price.
- Quick Tips
- What’s a Carrier Locked iPhone Anyway?
- Using SIM Card to Check if Your iPhone is Unlocked
- Using IMEI Number to Verify iPhone Unlocked
- The GSM Blacklist
- About Unlocking Through Carriers
Follow these quick tips to check your device’s locked status
- Look at the Cellular Data Options (Settings >Cellular). If Cellular Data (also called Cellular Data Network) is a toggle, your iPhone is likely unlocked. If you don’t see that option, your iPhone is probably locked to a carrier
- Test your device using at least two SIMs from different carriers
- Find your device’s IMEI and use any CTIA-Accredited IMEI checker to search Apple’s GSX database
- Check your IMEI using a carrier’s website or visit their BYOD page (Bring Your Own Device)
- Call your carrier (or future carrier) and ask them to check for you
- How To Set Up a Used iPhone or iPad
- Used iPhone? Remove iCloud Activation Lock
- Activation Lock Lookup
- Remove iCloud Activation Lock
What’s a Carrier Locked iPhone Anyway?
The lock is a software code that’s put on the iPhone by the manufacturer to meet mobile operator requirements. These software locks are placed there to ensure you use your iPhone with a particular mobile company. These locks are in place until a different software code is entered to unlock the device.
So carrier locks are basically contract locks. The idea is that when you purchase a phone at a discount, you agree to a particular term contract (usually two years or so.) This deal makes up for the iPhone discount, i.e., the company recoups that price reduction during the term of your contract.
That’s why when you break a contract, the company charges you an early termination fee–so they get that discount back.
But even when you pay full-price, your iPhone is probably still locked to a carrier. Only iPhones that explicitly say “unlocked” are indeed not locked to a carrier. And that’s why it’s paramount to know the locked or unlocked status of your iPhone or the one you intend to purchase!
Why Unlocking Matters
It’s simple. Once unlocked, you can use an iPhone (models that are GSM devices with SIM cards) with any mobile carrier around the world providing GSM service. Just remove the current SIM card and pop in the new SIM card from your carrier of choice.
That’s why it’s so important to perform this vital check before any purchase. You should be 100% confident that the iPhone or other device is indeed unlocked.
So without further ado, here are some steps that help confirm iPhone unlocked status.
Using SIM Card to Check if Your iPhone is Unlocked
A more reliable way to check if the iPhone is unlocked is to use a SIM card. This test works on iPhones only since it requires you to make a phone call. Please note, that for this test you will need two SIM cards from two different carriers. So ask a friend or family member if you can temporarily borrow their iPhone’s SIM.
Once you have two SIMs, follow these steps
- Switch off your iPhone using the Sleep/Wake button
- Eject the current working SIM card using the ejector tool that comes with your iPhone or a paper clip
- Now insert the other SIM card
- Switch on the iPhone
- Check if the new carrier SIM works on your iPhone (you’ll see the name of the carrier on the top left corner)
- Make a call now to confirm if the current SIM works
- If you successfully make a call, your iPhone is unlocked
- If unsuccessful, your phone is locked to the carrier of the first SIM card
Using IMEI Number to Verify iPhone Unlocked
Another method to check the lock status of your iPhone or iPad is to use the IMEI number. Your IMEI is the serial number of your iPhone or iPad. It communicates with Apple servers and provides all the information about your iPhone or iPad.
This method is a reliable and secure way to verify your iDevice. You find the IMEI number in the following ways:
- From the back of the iPhone
- (Settings > About), here you can see the IMEI number
- By connecting your iPhone or iPad with a computer and launching iTunes
- When using iTunes go to Device Summary
- For iPhones, click on the phone number, and you will see the IMEI serial number
- For an iPad, click Serial Number to find the IMEI
- If you still have your device’s original packaging, check the barcode for the IMEI
- For certain iDevices, look at the SIM card tray, the IMEI is printed there
Check the IMEI for iPhone unlocked
Once you have obtained the IMEI, go to any CTIA-Accredited IMEI checker that searches Apple’s GSX database–find these via your favorite search engine.
Some of these CTIA-Accredited IMEI checkers are free but the most reliable charge a fee. And some marketplace sites, like Swappa and Orchard, include an IMEI Checker that run through both GSMA blacklist check and whitelist check and detect any carrier activation issues.
Excellent Reader Tip!
Thanks to our reader Zisis for pointing out some very important things about the iPhone IMEI Check services
- Unfortunately, there are NO FREE services for doing a proper iPhone IMEI Check service (The reason is that to make a proper iPhone IMEI Check you need to have access to Apple’s GSX database. Only a few companies have access to those databases, and they also get charged for accessing them – So it is impossible to offer it for FREE!).
- An iPhone IMEI Check service must have access to Apple’s GSX databases, else the information you will receive will not be accurate. Only GSX databases have up to date and accurate information on an IMEI number, and it is important to have the latest status of your iPhone!
- The iPhone IMEI Check report, will not unlock your iPhone. However, it will make clear of what unlock service to choose (Or what Mobile Network to call and arrange the unlock – If you are eligible).
- There are many iPhone IMEI Check services/companies out there, but always make sure to pick the ones that have GSX access (Check if they have a sample of their report and see if they have the “Next Tether Policy:” value. If they have it, then this is a GSX report!).
A few years ago, Zsis recalled that there were some websites that could provide free GSX IMEI Check reports, BUT due to a massive leak of GSX accounts, today everything is much more strict.
So, if you find a website that offers free IMEI Check, most likely it will be from a private OUT-DATED database (not accurate info), or they will try to charge you after you provide them your IMEI number.
Check With Your Current or Future Mobile Carrier for iPhone Unlocked
Many wireless carriers also have IMEI checkers for consumers to use. AT&T has their own IMEI checker as does T-Mobile.
So check with your mobile carrier and see if they offer their own IMEI Checker.
These checkers provide you all the details about your iDevice including its lock status. And using them helps ensure your transactions are safe.
Some carriers like AT&T, have a device unlock portal that also allows non-customers to enter their device’s IMEI number and fill out an unlock request.
As reader Andrew points out, however, this checker does not work for all IMEIs especially those that are still active on someone’s AT&T account.
So once you decide on your IMEI checker, input your specific IMEI number. And take a look at your results.
Some of our readers report they got errors or insufficient data. So if one IMEI checker provides no information or is incorrect, try another.
Call a Carrier
If you’re seeing inconsistent results, then either call your carrier and ask one of the support staff to check for you the status of the device.
When contacting your current carrier, ask them to unlock your device.
If your account and device their meet requirements for unlocking, they are obligated by law (in the US and many other countries) to unlock the device within a specific timeframe (usually 24-48 hours).
The GSM Blacklist
Before you visit any mobile carrier, find out if your locked iPhone is on the GSM blacklist. The Blacklist is for all iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices reported as lost or stolen. Once reported, the iPhone or iPad is put on this GSM blacklist and identified via its unique IMEI number. IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity and its how your phone or other mobile device is recognized by manufacturers and mobile carriers.
Blacklisting also occurs if the user of a device is no longer able to pay for their contract or if the device was acquired through fraud. The GSM Blacklist is maintained by mobile carriers and includes national and global databases to share devices listed as lost or stolen.
Since the creation of these blacklist databases, it’s easy for consumers to check the status of any device with the proper tools. This helps everyone make informed decisions as opposed to blindly purchasing a used device.
Tools to Identify Blacklisted Devices
- Any CTIA-Accredited IMEI checker: These IMEI checkers reveal if a phone is blacklisted. If you’re looking to buy a pre-owned or new iPhone or iPad from a stranger, always ask for the device’s IMEI. Use an IMEI checker to make sure the phone wasn’t stolen or reported lost
- Wireless Carriers: If unsure about using any of these services or if getting mixed results, call any wireless carrier. They should answer any questions about an iPhone blacklist.
If the iPhone or iPad is blacklisted, it’s often tough to get it iPhone unlocked. Mobile carriers are the only ones who have the power to reverse a blacklisted iPhone. If you know the carrier associated with the iDevice, contact them directly to ask about IMEI status.
If you discover that your iPhone is locked AND NOT on the GSM Blacklist, there are ways you unlock it. Contacting the phone’s current mobile carrier is usually the first route to get the iPhone unlocked. They should unlock it for you.
Use BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) To Check Blacklist Status
Reader Andrew points out that is now much easier to check if an iPhone or iPad is blacklisted. Visit any carrier’s BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) page and enter your device’s IMEI number.
If the iPhone (or iPad) is blacklisted, the page shows that information.
An added bonus is that the BYOD IMEI checker also lets you know if that particular iPhone/iPad model is compatible with the carrier’s network!
About Unlocking Through Carriers
In the US, the FCC requires carriers to unlock phones at the request of the consumer, provided the consumer met certain conditions (as outlined below.)
This policy requires US Mobile Operators to:
- Post on their websites clear and accessible information about how to unlock devices
- Unlock devices for consumers who have completed their contracts when requested
- Unlock prepaid devices within a year of activation allowing for reasonable time, payment or usage requirements
- Notify customers when their devices are eligible or automatically unlock them
- Initiated unlocking device within two business days of an eligible request
- Allow all military personnel deployed overseas to unlock their devices even if contracts not completed
So if you meet these requirements, go ahead and call your mobile operator or visit their website to start the process of unlocking your iPhone. Or if purchasing a pre-owned iPhone, ask the current owner to unlock it first, especially if you don’t know its locked status.
- Connect the iPhone to iTunes and click the Restore As New button (NOT Restore from Backup.) If the phone is unlocked you should get the message “Congratulations; your iPhone is unlocked” when the restore completes. If you do not get the message, the phone is locked to a carrier. Try this process again in a few days. If often takes a while a carrier to process an unlock request
- What reader Steve found really helpful AND FAST was going to Apple’s support site, selecting his iDevice and then jumping on a quick chat or phone call with Apple Support. They ask for your device’s Serial Number (not IMEI) and can tell you if it is carrier-locked or not as well as what carrier/account it currently shows. Find your device’s serial number in Settings > General > About or turn your device on its back and find the serial number there. If you saved the packaging, it’s also listed there.
It’s crucial to know if your iPhone is locked or unlocked. This is especially true if you buy a pre-owned iPhone/iPad or if you purchase a new iPhone/iPad from eBay, craigslist, or from any local or online reseller. Before purchase, ask for the IMEI. If the party is unwilling to provide it, best to move on and find a dealer who does offer you the IMEI before you purchase the iPhone or iPad.
For most of her professional life, Amanda Elizabeth (Liz for short) trained all sorts of folks on how to use media as a tool to tell their own unique stories. She knows a thing or two about teaching others and creating how-to guides!
Her clients include Edutopia, Scribe Video Center, Third Path Institute, Bracket, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Big Picture Alliance.
Elizabeth received her Master of Fine Arts degree in media making from Temple University, where she also taught undergrads as an adjunct faculty member in their department of Film and Media Arts.