If smartphone unlocking is technically illegal, it sure is easy

Trying to move an iPhone over to a no-contract carrier opened up some interesting doors

Credit: Photo via meddygarnet/Flickr.

Previously, on Escape from Contractville, our protagonist told us that he was going to try to set himself and his wife up with smartphones, on a decent data network, with a cheaper pay-as-you-go plan. The results?

After a few days, a few delicate scissor cuts, and some coverage map checking referenced against friends' recommendations, my wife and I are (or are very soon to be) paying $90 a month for unlimited talk, text, and web use, on pretty decent speeds. I'm almost happy. Almost.

Sounds like there was still something in the way. Actually, there were three things in the way. One was a security question, which, due to a misunderstanding with a representative, turn out not to be a Verizon stalling tactic, but a question I had set up with Straight Talk and forgotten.

Another issue was discovering that iPhones will prevent you from editing the cellular connection settings (technically the Access Point Name, or APN) if a carrier does not allow it (certain Android phones may do this, too, but I haven't seen it so far). Without correct APN settings, you can't connect to data services or MMS (multimedia text messages or, more simply, picture attachments). That is a problem.

On the gently used iPhone 5 I was working to get connected to Straight Talk's service, which piggy-backs on AT&T, APN settings were, in fact, disabled. There are ways around it, like with all phone things. There is a well-known site, Unlockit, that creates APN "profiles" that, once opened in Safari, are recognized by the phone and available for installation. And if Unlockit doesn't have the right data carrier for your phone, you can install the APN manually with Apple's iPhone Configuration Utility (typically used by IT administrators deploying numerous iPhones to employees).

There was also a very hack-ity method of plugging a T-Mobile SIM card into the iPhone, yanking it out, and trying to get back into the Settings before the APN configuration options disappear. You can look that up if you feel like your phone setup process needs more of a secret agent feel, and your marriage requires more strange looks and very late nights up alone.

The final quirk of setting up an iPhone on a no-contract carrier was finding out that the iPhone, bought on Swappa, was still locked to a particular AT&T SIM card. When you buy a phone at around $200 from a carrier, you're getting a roughly $400-$500 discount on the phone's actual price, because you are going to pay back that amount, and a bit more, over two years (or right away, painfully, with an early termination fee). To prevent people from buying discounted phones and selling them for more, carriers lock phones to certain SIM cards. I had bought an AT&T-capable iPhone, and was using Straight Talk on AT&T's network, but American Telegraph & Telephone was not ready to release its hold on this specimen.

You might have heard about how, back in January, phone unlocking without a carrier's permission became technically illegal in the United States. What followed was a petition that garnered more than 114,000 (digital) signatures, and a White House response. The response, in very short summary, was, "Y'all are right, you should totally be able to unlock a phone, even if a carrier is being lame about it." And then, well, smartphones remain illegal to unlock, unless your carrier says they're cool with it.

I requested an unlock from AT&T, and they asked me to email or fax my original contract invoice or device purchase receipt. I asked the seller, who said they were selling a friend's phone, which might make it tough. Also, AT&T wants the phone's current number, and I had already ported my wife's number to the Straight Talk SIM card. And there you have it: I was now an outlaw, looking down back alleys for a way to get over—in my own little laptop-centered world, anyways.

Did I jailbreak the iPhone for some kind of SIM-check work-around? No. Did I private-message some knowledgeable friends to try their contacts at cellphone stores? No. While looking around for solutions to my APN problem, I picked up a handful of links to unlocking services that have been around for quite some time. Most of those work by breaking the encryption code that creates unlocking codes from a phones unique IMEI number—tap in the code and you're good.

But, in a time crunch, I found a service that would remotely unlock the phone, such that it was entered into the databases of Apple and AT&T as such. How does that work? I'm not sure. My guess is that this UK-based unlocker is registered as an authorized buyer and seller of iPhones, and therefore have access to that kind of proving channel. In any case, I paid a small fee (they usually range from $5-$35), and literally 2 hours and 15 minutes later, I got an email notifying me that the phone was ready to roll. I plugged the iPhone 5 into iTunes, and it said:

Congratulations, your phone has been unlocked.

Not very excitable, that Apple. In any case, after the APN change and an unlocking, the iPhone and Straight Talk were finally talking. Learning why things weren't working took some time, but actually solving them was filling out a form and waiting a few hours. Overally, it was worth the long-term savings.

What did we learn? To always buy an unlocked phone when trying the no-contract waters. And that phone unlocking is, like most personal tech matters, not something the government is exactly great at crushing.

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