iPhone 4S: Even Unlocked, You Won’t Be Network Swapping This Phone

The iPhone 4S decisions looms. But can I buy an unlocked iPhone and swap it as I like? Nope. In fact, buy an iPhone 4S on Verizon or Sprint, and you can’t easily use that later with AT&T, it seems. You might not be able to use it between Verizon and Sprint, either.

Two key pages have information all this, the iPhone FAQ and the small print on the Compare iPhones.

AT&T = No CDMA Activation

The FAQ is very clear that if you go AT&T, you’re not going to have the CDMA portion activated, which you need for Verizon and Sprint:

If you choose AT&T as your wireless carrier, your iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S will use only GSM cellular technology for voice and data services, and it can roam internationally on 200 GSM carriers around the world.

International Roaming Doesn’t Mean SIM Swapping

So do that, because of all the global access GSM allows, right? Well, keep reading:

If you choose Sprint or Verizon Wireless as your wireless carrier, your iPhone 4 will use only CDMA cellular technology for voice and data services. An iPhone 4S activated on Sprint or Verizon Wireless will use CDMA technology too, but it also has the ability to roam internationally on GSM networks using the provided GSM micro-SIM.

Interesting. Ideally, here’s how you “roam” globally. You buy a new SIM card in the country you’re in, then pay local rates (though your old number won’t work). I’ve done this in both the UK and Australia. It’s awesome.

But the phone has to be unlocked to work this way. Buy AT&T, and the phone is probably locked and won’t use another SIM. You can roam, but that means roaming where your AT&T SIM card talks with other networks — and charges you a lot.

NOTE: This especially seems the case now that more is live on the Apple site. If you want to swap SIM cards, it looks like an unlocked phone is the way to go. See further below.

Buy Verizon or Sprint, and maybe you can slot in a micro-SIM (these aren’t common, but you could always cut one down). Even if you do, I’m betting they’d be locked. More likely, the SIM is designed to let you roam with billing through Verizon or Sprint.

NOTE (12:26am): Now that I’ve been through the Verizon sales process, to enable the global SIM option, you have to choose to enroll in a global roaming package, which starts at $30 per month. Chances are, you could do this for a month and cancel — or enroll at a later date if needed be.

Expired Contracts May Still Prevent Swapping

In the end, it’s a wash up. Buy the phone on any of these networks, and chances are, you’re not swapping it between them easily.

But wait! What if you break your contract. Certainly your new provider will activate it for you, right? Maybe not. Consider this small print:

The iPhone model you purchase is subject to your wireless service provider’s policies, which may include restrictions on switching service providers and roaming, even after conclusion of any required minimum service contract.

WTF?!!! You mean if I buy the phone, pay for it in full (which you effectively do, if you break your contract), I might still be stuck with a phone I can’t use with another provider? Yep. Which, really shouldn’t be a surprise. Take one of your old iPhones that are fully paid for into an AT&T store and ask for it to be unlocked. Doesn’t happen.

Unlocked iPhone 4S = GSM Only

But what if you buy an unlocked iPhone 4S. Is there even such a thing? Well, yes. The FAQ says:

If you have selected an unlocked GSM phone, you will need to acquire a micro-SIM from the supported GSM carrier of your choice and activate it in order to use your iPhone.

And the small print of the compare page says:

For those who are not qualified customers, are not eligible for an early upgrade, are purchasing an unlocked iPhone (for supported GSM wireless service provider networks only), or wish to buy an iPhone as a gift, see your carrier, an Apple Retail Store Specialist, the Apple Online Store, or an Apple Authorized Reseller for pricing.

That suggests there are unlocked iPhones, but that they’ll only work for GSM networks. But in that case, I think it’s more likely that if you did go to another provider (Sprint or Verizon), they’d probably have a way to activate your CDMA part. You’d hope. Potentially not.

NOTE: The Apple site now says an unlocked iPhone 4S is coming in November, and that it will be for GSM networks only. If you want to swap SIMs abroad, this is the phone for you. From Apple’s unlocked iPhone page:

The unlocked iPhone includes all the features of iPhone but without a contract commitment. You can activate and use it on the supported GSM wireless network of your choice, such as AT&T in the United States.* The unlocked iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S will not work with CDMA-based carriers such as Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

If you don’t want a multiyear service contract or if you prefer to use a local carrier when traveling abroad, the unlocked iPhone is the best choice. It arrives without a micro-SIM card, so you’ll need an active micro-SIM card from any supported GSM carrier worldwide. To start using it, simply insert the micro-SIM card into the slot on your iPhone and turn it on by pressing and holding the On/Off button for a few seconds. Then follow the onscreen instructions to set up your iPhone.

Meanwhile, now that I’ve actually been through the Verizon order process, you can buy phones there on a month-to-month non-contract basis, ranging from $649, $749 and $849. This means they might be unlocked. Or, they simply might be higher priced with no contract but still locked. Given what Apple’s saying, I suspect they’re locked.

In the end, it’s sort of a non-issue. I don’t think that many people are going to buy the new phone off-contract. And if they do, the huge prices to break a contract probably will keep them from moving to a new provider. By the time their contract is up, a new iPhone will be coming along.

Looking for more tips? Might I suggest here, on Techmeme, where iPhone 4s sale stories are beginning to cluster.

Postscript: See my follow-up post, Crazy Carriers: Why It’s Cheaper To Cancel AT&T & Jump To Verizon For The iPhone 4S.


  1. gregorylent says

    yet another example of the backwardness of america … and how it is owned by corporations … #occupytelcos?

  2. says

    In other words… no real change from the situation with the previous models– you have to choose GSM or CDMA at purchase time, and if you choose unlocked GSM, you can use the phone on any compatible network worldwide with any SIM that isn’t locked to a specific handset, so that you can change operators at will and avoid international roaming when traveling.

    Choose CDMA, and you’re subject to how CDMA operators run their businesses: they don’t want you changing operators, they don’t want you avoiding roaming, and they don’t want users fiddling with SIM cards– they want to provision the handset on their side.

    This isn’t a problem with the iPhone 4S, beyond the fact that it includes a CDMA radio, and CDMA operators are a problem.

  3. says

    Existing Verizon and Sprint “world phones” bill through your carrier for international GSM roaming. VZ phones use a Vodafone SIM (Vodaphone owns nearly half of VZ Wireless).

  4. RJ says

    This kind of sucks, but it is not like it is that big of a deal. I am sure someone will figure out how to flash an iPhone 4S so it works on other CDMA carriers, this is nice since there are more of them in the US with lower prices when compared to GSM carriers. As for those that get an unlocked GSM phone, hey you should already know your options on limited in the US. TMobile is an option, but the UMTS frequency is not the same so no 3G or HSPA for you just EDGE. This might not be a problem for some since I have heard many say they mainly use wifi. For all of you that still are grandfathered into the unlimited plan on at&t and opted for the 35$ unlimited data and 200 text plan I am right there with you. Just sucks since I live in a major US city that isnt New York or LA and there are many places I dont get coverage. Hey its the price for a widely used umts frequency in the US.

  5. Dan says

    Seems awfully complicated to me – some iPhones 4S are unlocked, but some are more unlocked than others. This is the problem you in the US have with too few carriers all with somewhat incompatible systems.

    The unlocked phones should be unlocked for every system.

    Here in the UK we have at least 6 carriers, all using the same system – GSM.

  6. jm says

    in Europe you can ask the carrier to unlock any phone after 3 months in the contract, including iphone. It’s the law.

  7. says

    3 months? Where did you hear that fairy tale? Ever tried it? After your contract is over (most are 24 months) they’ll remove the SIM lock.
    One word: Protectionism.

  8. Ernest says

    Verizon will likely SIM unlock the phone for you if you call their customer service line. I’ve done this with two Blackberry world phones; one in 2008 while still on contract and one just two months ago that was off contract. I visit family in Russia periodically and Verizon’s global service doesn’t extend outside of Moscow (at least it didn’t the last time I checked, a couple of years ago). AT&T still has the right to withhold service from a handset they don’t want on their network but the current “DMCA Section 1201 Rules for Exemptions Regarding Circumvention of Access-Control Technologies” published by the Librarian of Congress legally allows you to unlock your phones at least through 2013. Check the July 2010 Library of Congress press releases.

  9. Kevin says

    I’m still confused about where the verizon phone will actually work. Verizon doesn’t list their phone as a quad band and this the CSC folks say it will work everywhere, I’m a bit skeptical.

    Any thoughts?

  10. says

    Just to clarify the below comment. Verizon does NOT offer a SIM-unlock (enabling you to swap sim cards overseas) for $30. The $30 option he’s referring to is just the basic international roaming activation. And for the record – the $30 is actually one of their overseas data plans. Its NOT for voice or texting.

    “Buy Verizon or Sprint, and maybe you can slot in a micro-SIM … More likely, the SIM is designed to let you roam with billing through Verizon or Sprint. NOTE (12:26am): Now that I’ve been through the Verizon sales process, to enable the global SIM option, you have to choose to enroll in a global roaming package, which starts at $30 per month.”

  11. says

    I have also phoned Verizon. The final word on this: They are not offering a SIM unlock. They repeated to me numerous times – Apple controls what can be done with the phone, and Apple has locked CDMA on the unlocked iPhone 4s. Looks like im switching back to AT&T. Someone shoot me please.

  12. Chris says


    When you buy a subsidized phone, the company is giving you a large discount in exchange for a contract obligating you to two years of service. It’s a contract between the two of you. They give something, you give something. Get it?

  13. tmo says

    Steve wildstrom,
    4s will work just fine with Tmobile network but except users will potentially not see much improve in data compare to previous versions 2/3G, 3Gs, and 4 where network is not available in a certain regions in U.S. Most popular regions in NORTH EAST and Southwest where I locate should not see much of a problem. The bottle line people choose Tmobile because it’s cheaper if you don’t do alot of online things with the phone or save $$$ get wifi whenever you can.

  14. says

    Fellow Verizon customer’s, I am not sure if the Verizon customer service is intentionally trying to withhold this information from you, but they have to unlock your Iphone 4S, if you have been a customer for over 60 days, and have an account in good standing. It’s possible that some of the operators are not aware of this, as well. However, if you want to unlock your iphone 4S demand to speak with Global Support, and Global support only. Good Luck!

  15. za200z says

    Friends, i found an unlocked Verizon iPhone 4s last night in a bar here in Berlin! :-) Will the phone be bricked by Verizon once the user reports it as lost to the company?