As I wrote in my book, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Traveling With Your iPhone, there are many ways to avoid the tremendously high international roaming fees that wireless carriers will charge you if you try to use your iPhone in another country. When taking a trip where one will be traveling around a country, as opposed to vacationing primarily at one resort or hotel, a great strategy is to purchase a pre-paid service from a wireless company in the country you will be visiting. It is usually significantly cheaper to buy a pre-paid service in-country than to use a United States carrier’s international plans – and definitely much cheaper than getting nailed with international roaming fees!
In preparation for an recent week-long trip to Costa Rica, I decided that I needed to purchase pre-paid wireless service for my family’s iPhones while we were in that country. I was going to visit my mom rather than staying at a single resort and she was going to take us all around the country. I wanted to ensure that my family and I had Internet access while on the road in between destinations. Each road trip was going to be at least a couple of hours, with some approaching 4 hours. With my work as a technology consultant, my wife’s work managing social media for her clients, and my two daughters’ appetite for Internet content, this decision was not hard to make!
In order to use a pre-paid service in a foreign country, one must purchase a SIM card from that foreign carrier and swap it into their iPhone. However, in most cases, phones are “locked” to the carrier they were purchased from and will not work with SIMs from other companies. In order to use a SIM card of a carrier other than the original, one must have their phone “unlocked.” In the time since I published my book, the rules regarding SIM unlocking have generally changed for the better. A law passed in 2014 requires that carriers must unlock phones for owners who have honored their service contract or otherwise paid off the phone. Above and beyond the stipulations of the new law, most carriers informally allow SIM unlocking for subscribers who are traveling internationally.
Unfortunately, AT&T is one of the stingiest carriers when it comes to SIM unlocking phones that are still under contract. It was true when I wrote my book a couple of years ago. It was true last year when a popular article was published by a (now former) customer railing against AT&T because they wouldn’t unlock his phone for international travel. And as I found out, it was still true as I was getting ready to travel to Costa Rica.
The Adventure Begins
Of the four members of my family, my wife and I have iPhone 6’s and my two daughters have our old iPhone 5S’s. To their credit, AT&T has a simple-to-use web site where you can request to have your phone unlocked. It is very easy to fill out the form and while they say it could take up to two days to complete the request, I found the requests to be completed in minutes. Based on my research of AT&T’s policies, which state that in order for phones to be unlocked they must be out of contract or paid off completely, I did not think that any of my family’s iPhones would be unlocked with this automated system. Since none of my family’s phones were technically paid off or out of contract, I fully expected that I would need to call AT&T and ask for an exception to be given. However, I had read that AT&T would offer exceptions in special circumstances (such as writing a scathing article about AT&T’s stingy SIM unlock policies) so my plan was to give the automated system a try first, then follow up with a call to AT&T. I started with my two daughters’ iPhone 5S’s and to my pleasant surprise, AT&T’s automated system quickly granted the unlock requests. So far so good! I now had hope that maybe AT&T’s policies had relaxed since that article drummed up a lot of bad publicity last year and it would be simple to unlock my and my wife’s iPhone 6’s.
Unfortunately, the automated system did not unlock our iPhones giving the reason that “You have not completed all the payments for your device according to your AT&T Next service agreement.” Well, that was what I expected in the first place, but I was still disappointed since my daughters’ iPhone were unlocked so easily. Perhaps it was the fact that my daughters’ phones were nearly 20 months into their contract so AT&T rules are less stringent in those cases. Regardless, I decided to call AT&T but at the time it was too late in the evening to get a representative on the phone. So not having my curiosity satisfied, I did some more research to see what new information I could find out.
One promising lead I discovered was the fact that certain people were claiming that AT&T’s automated system could be “tricked” into giving out SIM unlocks for iPhones still under contract or under the Next agreement if multiple repeated requests were made. Some people said they were given unlocks the first time, while others said that they attempted three or four times before their request was granted. Given that I had nothing to lose by trying, I went ahead and made several more requests on AT&T’s automated systems. Once again to AT&T’s credit, their automated system was quick in completing the requests, but unfortunately they denied my requests three more times each for my and my wife’s iPhones. So I planned on trying the requests one more time the next morning before calling AT&T.
Time To Grovel
As I figured, the automated requests were denied again the next morning, so I called AT&T customer support. As luck would have it, I was connected to Mike Shields, the most knowledgeable AT&T representative I have ever talked to. Big kudos to him for being very friendly and understanding exactly what I was trying to do and why. Apparently, he had been working as a customer support rep for three years and had worked with SIM unlocking many times. Given my explanation, he said that he would put in a support request for SIM unlocking exemptions because he felt my case merited it. He felt confident that the requests would be granted given my circumstances and his credibility with AT&T’s higher level support. He informed me that the requests may take up to two days to be completed which I expected given the automated system said this as well. So it seemed that things would turn out well, since as a longtime AT&T customer, I simply wanted to use my iPhone overseas, not screw over the company. The good news was that the requests were completed later that day, which I certainly appreciate AT&T for completing the requests so quickly. The bad news was that for everything Mike Shields tried to do to take care of my request, my unlock exceptions were denied.
In the meantime, I had tweeted that Mike Shields was the best AT&T rep I had ever spoken to. AT&T’s Twitter account called @ATTCares responded to this tweet thanking me for the shout out. When my SIM unlock requests were denied, I responded to @ATTCares letting them know. They responded with the standard policy line that the phones must be out of contract or paid off and asked if had I looked into their international plans. I let them know that I understood the policy and asked if an exception could be made for international travel. I gave them time to respond, but by the next day they had not replied so I decided to move forward with alternate plans.
On a side note, AT&T’s international plans just plain suck. They start at $30 for only 120MB of data per phone! The pre-paid plan I was intending to buy in Costa Rica was less than $20 for 2 GB of data. I later found a plan that was less than $5 for 600 MB of data. I’m not sure how AT&T thinks their international plans save anybody money in this day and age, but I guess they’re banking on their customers not being able to figure out otherwise.
A Walk on the Wild Side
Rudimentary research on SIM unlocking brings up a wealth of web sites offering the service of unlocking your phone, even if it is still under contract. Certainly I was wary of the companies offering this service, because unlocking a phone outside of the carrier’s policy seems shady to say the least. But at this point I was starting to run out of time and I wasn’t willing to wait on AT&T any longer. Plus my wife would have been very unhappy if her iPhone didn’t have Internet access in Costa Rica and I make it a point to never make my wife unhappy! So I did a lot of research and settled on trying the services of a few different unlocking companies, which I will detail at the end of the article. As I found out, I was merely beginning my SIM unlocking adventure. To make a long story short, let me sum up what I discovered over the course of a few days.
The first thing to understand is there is only one true way to unlock an iPhone (the same is usually true with other phones as well). Some companies offer dubious software unlocks that require jailbreaking your iPhone or a hacked SIM card that promises it will work with locked phones. These unlocking methods are often fraught with peril and may not work permanently. I recommend you avoid these types of unlocking methods. The only way to ensure that your phone is truly and officially unlocked is through what is called an IMEI unlock. The IMEI is a code that is unique to every cell phone made in recent years, which ensures that carriers can identify a particular phone on their network. Most manufacturers keep a database of the IMEI numbers for the phones they build and which phones are locked to a particular wireless carrier or are unlocked for use with any compatible carrier.
There are a range of prices when it comes to SIM unlocking services, even from the same provider. Often providers will offer a higher priced “premium” service that usually has a 100% guarantee of your phone being SIM unlocked. Many offer varied “express” services that promise shorter completion times, along with even higher prices. Finally, lower cost services exist for “clean” IMEI numbers. Many of the premium services I found were around $40 or more in price so in order to try to save money, I opted for some of the lower-priced services at first. Not knowing for sure what a “clean” IMEI was, I thought at the time it meant that a clean phone was not blacklisted due to theft or non-payment. Since my account was in paid in full and otherwise was in good standing (I have been an AT&T customer since 2009 and never to my knowledge have missed or been late in payments) I figured I had a clean IMEI. However, after testing several services for clean IMEIs, none had worked for me. Doing further research I discovered that a “clean” IMEI means that the phone is not under contract or otherwise ineligible by the carrier for an unlock. Since AT&T considered my iPhone not eligible for unlocking because it was still under the Next agreement, then I realized unlocking my iPhone was not going to work with the cheaper services for clean IMEI. The good news was that all the providers I tried offered money-back guarantees if they could not unlock your phone and each had honored them. So I wasn’t out any money for each attempt I made, but I was getting closer to running out of time. So I finally decided to bite the bullet and try a “premium” unlocking service that offered a 100% guarantee of unlocking my iPhone. As I mentioned, most of the services I found were around $40 for this service (some a lot higher) but after much research, I found a seemingly reputable service that offered a premium service for $25 with a 1-2 day turnaround time.
After my previous several failed attempts with other providers, I was getting nervous that I would not be able to get my and my wife’s iPhones unlocked in time for our trip. But I had not yet tried a “premium” service with a 100% guarantee of unlocking so I was hopeful this attempt would do the trick. To my great relief, 27 hours after I purchased this particular service I received a message from the company stating that the unlock was successful. I was a little giddy at having worked around AT&T’s roadblocks. However, as with anything technology related, I wasn’t going to be certain that my iPhone was truly unlocked until I had a chance to test it. That being said, I went ahead and placed another order with the same company to unlock my wife’s iPhone as well. In this case, however, my request extended out over a weekend and the company said it would not process on weekends. So I expected that the unlock would not happen for a few days, which would only leave me a day or two to spare before my family left for our trip! I placed my order on a Friday, and by Saturday the unlock had not happened, so I resigned myself to waiting until Monday. I was hopeful that the unlock would be completed by Monday and not extend out until Tuesday. However, to my surprise, I received a message Sunday morning that the unlock was completed! I guess they do work weekends! All my iPhones were unlocked with 3 days to spare. Whew!
To wrap up my story, I am happy to report that all four of my family’s iPhones were in fact unlocked and worked well with foreign SIM cards while in Costa Rica. I will detail the process of testing our iPhones to verify they were unlocked in an upcoming article as well as a third article describing the process of purchasing and setting up a SIM card from the Kölbi pre-paid service in Costa Rica.
Putting it All Together
To sum up, if you are an AT&T subscriber and you want to unlock your iPhone for international travel, here are the steps you should take:
- First, give yourself ample time to get an unlock completed. I would suggest a minimum of two weeks. I only gave myself a week-and-a-half and just barely made it.
- Attempt to use AT&T’s automated unlocking system first. If your phone is out-of-contract AT&T’s policy says they will unlock it. I would not expect that you should have any trouble in that case. But even if your phone isn’t out of contract, based on my experience it seems that the closer you are to completing the phone’s contract the better your odds are for having it automatically unlocked. Based on others’ experience, it seems that you might even have a chance to get the automated system to get an unlock granted if you are persistent and make repeated attempts. It can’t hurt, so give it a go and let me know in the comments of this article if you are successful with AT&T’s automated system.
- If you can not get an automated unlock request granted, you should next give AT&T customer service a call to ask for an exception to be made to their SIM unlock policy. The longer you’ve been with AT&T, the better your odds are. Also, make sure you’ve been a good customer and paid all your bills on time. If you aren’t current on your bills and/or have a history of late payments, your chances of getting an exception made are significantly lower. Be pleasant and polite when talking to the AT&T customer service rep. If your phone isn’t eligible for unlocking under AT&T’s policy, understand that the rep you are talking to will almost certainly not be able to grant your unlock request. Your goal is to get the rep to submit a case for an exception to be made. Explain that you are planning to travel to a foreign country and want to buy a pre-paid SIM in that country. Be genuine because if the rep thinks you are trying to scam them, you will likely not get them to submit a case on your behalf. Based on my experience at the time of writing this article in May 2015, calling AT&T to request an exception didn’t work. However, I have a feeling their policies will begin to relax in the future so it is probably worth giving this option a try anyway. Again, let me know in the comments if you have success with this method.
- If AT&T will not unlock your phone, your last option is to seek out the services of a third-party SIM unlocking company. Do your homework and seek out a company that has a good reputation, reasonable prices, and a money-back guarantee. If you have been unsuccessful in getting AT&T to grant you an unlock, then don’t waste your time with the lower cost options you will find. Those services (for “clean” IMEI numbers) are only able to unlock phones that are already eligible for unlocking from the carrier. If that is the case then you would have already been able to get a free unlock directly from AT&T. Make sure you use a “premium” service or one that offers a 100% guarantee for getting your phone unlocked. At the time of this writing, premium services like these are usually in the $40 range, but I found prices as high as $70 or $80. I found and used a service for $25. Some claim to offer “express” turnaround times, but if you shop around, you should find reasonably priced premium options that can complete your unlock in just a few days. If you have given yourself plenty of time, then you should not need to pay extra for a quicker turnaround. If you end up using a third-party SIM unlocking service, please let me know which company you used, how much you paid, and if you had success or any problems.
My Experiences with SIM Unlock Companies
In my little adventure, here are the first three companies that I used.
With the above companies, I attempted using their “clean” IMEI services with no success. But as I later found out, I didn’t technically have a clean IMEI so this was not the fault of these companies. They all honored their money-back guarantees, so that makes me feel these companies are reputable. However, caveat emptor.
SwiftUnlocks was the company I used to successfully unlock my and my wife’s iPhone 6’s still under the Next agreement. The primary reason I chose this company was they offered a 100% guaranteed “premium” service with a 1-2 day turnaround for only $25. As I mentioned, the first unlock only took 27 hours, and the second unlock, even over a weekend, was completed in less than 48. To be sure, this was my own experience with this company and it does not necessarily mean I endorse them. All I can report is in this instance they took care of my unlocking needs quickly and inexpensively. Your milage may vary.
A Final Thought
Once you have received word that your iPhone has been unlocked, I strongly suggest testing it before you travel. Look for my next article, which explains how to test and verify that your iPhone is actually unlocked.