There is almost no way around it, if you want to have your AT&T iPhone unlocked, you need to go through the proper channels. The proper channels are through AT&T and AT&T has a few very strict and rigid rules regarding unlocking an iPhone. Indeed, many people are frustrated regarding the restriction of being able to do with what they please with what they deem ‘”their” phone and are moving away from reduced upfront costs but 2-3 year contractual obligation model and biting the bullet and paying the unsubsidized cost to own a phone free and clear.
Currently, this is what you need to do to get your AT&T iPhone unlocked. First, you must be a customer or a former customer of AT&T and you must be in good standing. Second, your phone must be payed off. Most iPhones are being subsidized by crediting the customer per month for 2 years and therefore, it takes 2 years to pay off an iPhone. Before the 2 years is up, customers cannot have their iPhones unlocked. Therefore, if you take a trip overseas, you cannot simply purchase a local SIM card from Cellular Abroad or when you arrive and expect it to work with your phone.
AT&T customers are allowed to unlock up to 5 phones per year. That does not mean that they can unlock ANY phone. For example, you cannot purchase a phone from Ebay and unlock it simply because you have an AT&T account or ask someone who does to unlock it for you. AT&T requires additional information including what the phone number was that pertained to the phone as well as the last four digits of the social security number.
Another way to unlock an iPhone is to go online and pay a vendor to unlock it for you. Today’s going rate is $100-$150 to factory unlock it. Factory unlocked means that AT&T has provided the unlock code for the phone and that once unlocked it will not be unlocked again. I tried to find out how companies like this are able to obtain the AT&T unlock code and, although I was unable to find out, my suspicion is that they have someone who works at AT&T who doesn’t mind risking his job to make a quick buck.
Alternatively, you can purchase a phone directly from Apple, or from someone who did, that has never been locked. While the upfront cost for an originally unlocked cell phone is several hundred dollars higher than buying one from AT&T, there are several benefits such as being able to change carriers at will in the US or when traveling abroad. In the US there are scores or MVNOs who compete for the best rates. An MVNO is short for mobile virtual network operator and is essentially a smaller provider who uses the same network as a larger provider such as AT&T or T-Mobile and establishes their own rates. Once such company is Lyca Mobile. Currently, they offer plans with unlimited calls and texts and some data for just $16 per month. While MVNOs are not for everyone, they are certainly for some and the possibility of being able to have more options as opposed to less options is certainly a good thing.
Consumers are becoming fed up with not having choices and the proof of this is how successful their current trend of BYOP or bring your own phone is becoming. This allows consumers not only to use whatever provider they want and switch if and when they find a better deal not only in the US but while traveling abroad.