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.