Thursday, May 10, 2012

HOW TO: Get AT&T to unlock your iPhone

In April AT&T began to do something that it had never done before. It began unlocking iPhones. Previously AT&T had refused tp unlock iPhones sold for use on their network. Even if you had completed your contract or bought the phone at full price from AT&T they would  not allow you to unlock it. That has all changed now. Now AT&T will unlock your iPhone, but you have to meet certain criteria before they will do so. This can be a little tricky, and, as I found out, especially tricky if you want them to unlock an iPhone 4S.

AT&T's official policy
AT&T's official stance for unlocking an iPhone is that you must be the original purchaser of the iPhone and you must have fulfilled your iPhone contract obligations with AT&T. In short, you had to buy the iPhone yourself and your contract has to be up. This sounds fairly simple but it brings up several questions. What if you bought the phone from AT&T at full price? What if you want to unlock your iPhone 4S or an iPhone 4 that is still in contract? What if you bought a used iPhone from somebody?

My story
I have an iPhone 4S that I bought the first day it was available in October 2011. Obviously this phone was still under contract. In fact it's fair to say that any iPhone 4S that was purchased from AT&T at the subsidized price is still under contract because the earliest anybody's iPhone 4S contract can end is October 2013. With this in mind I decided to see what my options were for unlocking the iPhone 4S through AT&T.

My first contact with AT&T about unlocking my iPhone 4S was through their online web chat portal. It has been widely reported that if you meet all the criteria you can save yourself some phone hold time and just make your unlock request through an agent on the web chat portal.

I went to the chat and explained what I would like to do. I told the agent that I was open to any options at all to get my phone unlocked, even if I had to pay the full ETF (early termination fee) on my contract to make it happen.

After several long pauses while I'm sure the agent was consulting with his peers I was told that my iPhone 4S was not eligible to be unlocked because I had not yet completed my contract. I was also told that even if I paid the ETF they would still not unlock the phone because "paying the ETF is not the same thing as fulfilling the contract". I then questioned the agent further, asking "So you are saying that AT&T is not unlocking any iPhone 4S phones at this time?" I explained that if AT&T wouldn't unlock a phone until the full two-year contract term was up then that would mean that nobody was eligible to unlock an iPhone 4S yet since it hadn't been out for even a year at that point. The agent said that the only way AT&T would unlock an iPhone 4S was if I had purchased it at full retail price and could show my receipt.

I don't think this is in the employee handbook...
Amazingly the AT&T web chat agent actually referred me to a third-party website where I could supposedly pay $100 to have the iPhone unlocked. I seriously doubt that this is something AT&T instructs its employees to suggest.

A very strange AT&T policy

Since I wasn't getting anywhere via the web chat avenue I decided to just call AT&T customer service and ask about unlocking an iPhone 4S. I explained the whole situation to the phone agent the same as I had through the web chat. I stressed with him that I was even willing to pay the full ETF if that allowed my iPhone to be unlocked. Again the agent had to put me on hold several times while he consulted with other employees (apparently my request was unusual since I was actually willing to pay the ETF).

After a lot of research the agent finally came back on the line and advised me that the only way that I could unlock the iPhone 4S was if I completely cancelled my AT&T service and paid the ETF. I asked if I could just pay the ETF but still keep my AT&T service and, shockingly, he said that AT&T does not allow that. I even gave him a scenario: "So I can cancel my service, pay the ETF, and then once the phone is unlocked I can just sign up this same phone, now unlocked, to my same AT&T plan?" He agreed and said he didn't understand the policy either since I was actually trying to remain an AT&T customer but yet AT&T wouldn't let me keep their service if I paid the ETF. I'm still a bit baffled by this policy as it does nothing but hurt AT&T.

After seeing that there were no other options I had AT&T cancel my service. The agent told me to wait about a week for the bill to post with the ETF fee included, pay the bill in full, and to then call back to have the iPhone unlocked.

Finally unlocked
Once the bill posted I immediately paid it online, and then, rather than calling back, I again went to the AT&T web chat portal. This time everything went completely smooth and the web chat agent informed me that they would put in the unlock request and that I should expect an e-mail within a week or so confirming that the unlock request was complete.

Exactly seven days later I received an e-mail from AT&T stating that the unlock request had been completed with Apple. To actually unlock the phone I simply did a backup and factory restore of my phone in iTunes. When the phone was restored iTunes displayed a message indicating that phone had been unlocked.

How to get your AT&T iPhone unlocked
Here's a quick summary of what I learned from my unlocking experience with AT&T. Pick whichever statement applies to you:

  •     "I have an AT&T iPhone that I purchased with a subsidy discount and I'm still in contract."
    Your only option is to completely cancel your AT&T service and pay the ETF. After you do this AT&T will unlock your iPhone.
  •     "I have an AT&T iPhone that I paid full price for (no subsidy discount)."
    AT&T will unlock your iPhone right now with no other actions needed.
  •     "I have an AT&T iPhone that I purchased with a subsidy discount but I have completed my two-year contract."
    AT&T will unlock your iPhone right now with no other actions needed.
  •     "I have an AT&T iPhone that I purchased from somebody else."
    AT&T will not unlock your iPhone. Only the original purchaser can have AT&T unlock the phone. The original purchaser can contact AT&T for you. The previous statements will apply when the original purchaser contacts AT&T.

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