What you may not know is that from the moment you bought your iPhone it has been “locked” to the AT&T network, so that even if you put in a Chinese SIM card it still won’t recognize the new network. You can use the WiFi but you won’t be able to make calls or use a data plan.
This happened to me this past year and I found myself carrying two phones – my Chinese “dumb phone” to make calls and my iPhone for everything else. I was sick of it and decided that I needed to unlock my iPhone.
Fortunately, it’s not a terribly difficult process, and there are a couple ways that the iPhone unlock process can be done.
Unlock the iPhone Through AT&T
The good news is that AT&T has provided a way to legally and safely unlock any iPhone that was bought through their plans. The process takes anywhere from a day to a week (mine took two weeks, but it was during the holidays) but when you’re done you can plug in any local SIM card and use the phone.
The Unlock Checklist
Before you ask AT&T to unlock your phone, save yourself a bit of hassle by asking these few questions:
- Was this phone originally bought through AT&T?
- Have I completed the 2-year contract associated with this phone?
- Do I know the phone or account number that was once associated with this phone?
If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, and the phone has never been reported as stolen, then for the most part you’re good to go.
(note: there are a few extra rules for things like pre-paid phones, which must have been active for at least 6 months, or those that still have a service commitment, which must still be in good standing)
Making the Unlock Request
The first step to unlock an iPhone to use in China is to use the Unlock Request Form on the AT&T website. It’s a weird page, I admit, but you have to scroll down to the bottom where you can click that you have read and agree to their stipulations (which I summarized for you above).
The next step is to provide all of the information that they require, including the wireless number associated with the phone, your contact information (including the last 5 digits of your social security number) and your phone’s IMEI number.
Don’t know where the IMEI number is? No worries. On your iPhone, go to the Settings app and click on “General”. The first category is “About” and this is where you can scroll down and find your IMEI number. It will look something like this:
Once you’ve input all the information and submitted the form, you’ll receive an email detailing your request number. You’ll want to keep this if you want to check on the status of your iPhone unlock.
Unlocking the Phone
Some people have reported getting a response from AT&T in as short as a few hours. Mine was over a week. They say to expect around 48 hours but to be prepared for 5 business days.
When you receive the email confirming your unlock request, just follow the instructions that they provide, which in summary will be:
- Hook up your phone to iTunes on your computer
- Do a backup of your phone
- Restore your phone to that backup
Voila! Your iPhone is now unlocked. Pop out that SIM card, which for an iPhone 3G is located on the top or on an iPhone 4 or 5 is on the side. Replace it with China Mobile, China Unicom or any of the others and make sure you tell them you want to add a data plan.
If that Doesn’t Work
So let’s say you bought the phone second hand, somebody gave it to you, or it’s still under contract. If you go through the process above you’ll get a nice email informing you that they have denied your unlock request.
There are still a few things you can do to remedy the situation.
#1 IMEI Unlock Services
It’s not necessarily the cheapest way to go about this, but there are services out there that promise to unlock your phone, regardless of the carrier, and free it up to use on other networks in China.
Take, for example, one such service named IMEI.org. It will cost you well over $100, but they can get your iPhone unlocked no questions asked. They claim that it’s perfectly legal and all you have to provide is the IMEI number and your email.
#2 Jailbreak your iPhone
If you’re desperate and you consider yourself tech-savvy, you can also look into jailbreaking your iPhone. In essence, “jailbreaking” an iPhone is setting it free from the native restrictions that Apple puts on the phone. You void your warranty but you get a usable phone.
The most common way to jailbreak is through a program called Cydia. I could go through the details here, but I’d rather leave it to the experts. Check out this awesome guide on how to jailbreak your iPhone by LifeHacker.
The only problem with working the system this way is that you can’t perform any software updates without losing your jailbreak, and therefore your “unlocked” status. It’s just the price you pay, which isn’t bad when you consider that jailbreaking is free.
#3 Unlock in China
As a very last resort there are services here in China that will jailbreak your phone. Sometimes you can have it done at the local China Mobile store, but more often you’re going to be going to a computer bazaar in the basement of some shopping building.
It’s cheap and its fast. Some people swear by it while others have had really bad experiences. Personally, I tried to get this done but couldn’t find anybody around where I lived who was offering this service.
Whether you’re coming to China for travel or plan to stay here to work, there’s no reason not to have your iPhone with you. Once you unlock the iPhone to use in China you’ll be free roam the country on whatever network you please!
It’s worth noting, however, that even an unlocked phone in China is still subject to internet censorship. In order to get past this to access sites like YouTube in China, Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, you should look into a personal VPN service for China. Services like these are relatively low cost and will give you much more freedom and security on your unlocked phone, especially out here in China.