October 13, 2011, 5:03 PM — Sprint cleared up its policy regarding international roaming on the iPhone 4S Thursday, announcing its intent to lock the phone's micro-SIM slot and then unlock it for good customers only by request.
On Tuesday, I reported that Sprint and Verizon would handle "international unlocking" of the new iPhone 4S. The new phone is capable of working on those carriers in the U.S. and switching to the more common GSM radio standard for the rest of the world. My report said that Sprint's iPhone 4S would come with its GSM card slot "unlocked," meaning you could insert a pre-paid SIM card bought while traveling overseas if you wanted to save some cash on international phone surcharges.
On Wednesday, numerous other media reports said that Sprint had claimed my report wasn't accurate, and even suggested it might not be accurate for Verizon, either. (For the record: Verizon has never waivered in its explanation of its policy--Verizon will unlock your phone's micro-SIM slot for international roaming once you've had it for 60 days so long as you're a customer in good standing.)
On Thursday, Sprint spokesperson Michelle Leff Mermelstein issued a new statement to me regarding the iPhone 4S and international unlocking for Sprint customers. Here's the deal:
Indeed, the Sprint iPhone 4S will ship with its micro-SIM slot unlocked. However, Sprint now says that it will be locking that slot "shortly after launch" via an update pushed to those devices. After the slot has been locked, Sprint says that it will allow customers in good standing to unlock the SIM for international use in the future.
So far as I can tell, this means that after a short period of the phone shipping completely unlocked, Sprint will revert to a policy more or less in line with Verizon's. If you are a good customer and pay your bills on time, you can call Sprint and ask the company to unlock your microSIM so you can slip in a foreign, pre-paid SIM.
Of course, lots of people won't want to fiddle with pre-paid SIM cards. That's okay: Both Sprint and Verizon will ship their phones with a "roaming SIM" that's tied to your account with those carriers and uses the networks of their international partners. So if you take your Sprint or Verizon iPhone 4S overseas and never pop out that SIM card, it'll work just fine--you'll just pay the higher data and voice rates that come with international roaming.
Just so there's no confusion, here's Mermelstein's verbatim statement: