How to permanently unlock your iPhone: A step-by-step guide to unlocking iPhones from major networks and carriers including Vodafone, Three, EE, O2 and more.
If you’ve bought an iPhone second-hand, either from eBay, family or friends – or you’ve finished your contract and you want to switch providers – then you might well need to unlock it to make it useable on a different or new network.
Simply put, a 'locked' phone is a phone that's restricted to use on a specific mobile network. For example, if your phone is locked to O2 you won't be able to use a Vodafone SIM with it until you’ve had it unlocked.
The easiest way to get your phone unlocked is by contacting the carrier that it's tied to. If you’re an existing customer with a contract, it's definitely the best course of action, as it ensures you don't break any terms and conditions.
Different networks have different policies when it comes to phone unlocking. So we’re going to run through each provider's approach, including whether you’ll be charged, if it can be done while still in contract, as well as how long it’ll take to be completed.
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How to unlock your iPhone – EE
EE pay-monthly customers can only apply to have their phone unlocked if they’ve had the device under contract for more than six months. Pay-as-you-go users, on the other hand, can request that the process be carried out at any time.
The cost of unlocking a phone with EE is £9 and it normally takes up to 10 working days for an iPhone.
You can ask EE to unlock your phone via this online form. If you've bought a second-hand phone that's locked to EE, you'll have to register with the company on a PAYG basis, as EE will only unlock devices for account holders.
Once you've signed up and added some credit to your PAYG account, just complete the online form as usual – ensure you have at least £9 to your name and it'll automatically deduct from your balance.
How to unlock your iPhone – O2
O2 has two different policies for unlocking your phone depending on whether you're a pay-monthly customer, or you're on a pay-as-you-go deal.
Pay-monthly customers will be relieved to hear that O2 offers them the service free of charge at any point during their contract, but bear in mind that you still have to see out your agreement.
The policy is different for pay-as-you-go customers – O2 will only unlock a PAYG phone after 12 months and it’ll cost you £15.
O2 asks customers to do this online, either through myo2.com or the online form they provide. Be warned, though, the online form can take seven days to be processed, so make sure you allow an ample amount of time.
How to unlock your iPhone – Three
If you bought an iPhone through Three after January 2014, it's automatically unlocked according to the network – to activate your iPhone's freedom, all you need to do is connect it to Wi-Fi or iTunes.
For older iPhones, you'll have to fill out this form on Three's website, request an unlock code, and then follow the network's instructions. The service is offered by Three free of charge.
You'll likely have to reset your iPhone to activate the code, so before you carry out this process, ensure you've backed up your device.
How to unlock your iPhone – Vodafone
You can ask Vodafone to send you an unlock code for your iPhone, but only if you're an account holder with the network and meet a few criteria.
Current Vodafone customers wishing to unlock their phone must have been under contract for at least three months if paying monthly, or have been using their Vodafone SIM for more than 30 days if on PAYG. The service is free provided you're eligible.
If you've bought a second-hand iPhone, Vodafone advises you to get a free PAYG SIM, use it for 30 days so you're logged as an account holder, and then complete the unlocking request.
You can apply for a network unlock code over on Vodafone's website.
How to unlock your iPhone – MVNOs
Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, use the infrastructure of another network provider, but otherwise offer an independent mobile service.
This is often called 'piggybacking' – for example, popular UK MVNO giffgaff piggybacks on O2's spectrum.
There are more than 60 MVNOs in the UK – giffgaff, Asda, BT, FreedomPop, iD, TalkTalk, Tesco, The People's Operator, and Virgin Mobile are some of the mobile virtual networks you might be familiar with.
Like the 'big four' networks, MVNO unlocking policies and charges vary. Google is your friend here: just search for the name of your network together with 'unlock' for further guidance.
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How to complete the iPhone unlocking process
Been through all the faff above and got a new SIM waiting? The final part is super-easy:
1) Remove your old SIM using the SIM ejector pin or a paper clip
2) Replace with the new SIM card.
If you do not have a new SIM then the phone will need to be erased and restored to complete the process:
1) Make sure you have contacted your carrier and requested an unlocking
2) Back up either to iCloud (Settings>iCloud>Storage&Backup>Backup now) or alternatively connect your phone to iTunes and perform a backup that way.
3) Erase phone (Settings>General>Reset>Erase All Content and Settings)
4) Turn your phone back on and complete setup assistant
5) Restore your phone from either iCloud or iTunes.
Alternative ways to unlock an iPhone?
It is possible to free your phone without contacting your carrier. We wouldn't recommend it, but you could visit any number of third-party stores that offer the service.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that you'll be unlikely to find the service for cheaper than what's offered by the networks themselves, and having your phone unofficially unlocked may void your warranty or violate the terms of your contract. Or both.
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Got any other iPhone unlocking tips? Let us know in the comments below.