How to Unlock an iPhone for Travel

iPhone selfie in Rome
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If you're heading out on a trip anytime soon, one thing that should be on your checklist is getting your iPhone unlocked. Don't worry -- it sounds like a complicated process, but it's actually very easy. And it's definitely worth doing, too -- with an unlocked phone, you'll find that travel instantly becomes easier and more affordable. 

Why Should I Unlock My Phone?

Depending on who you bought your phone from, it may come locked or unlocked. What does this mean? If your phone is locked, it means you can only use it with the provider you bought it from. If, for example, you bought your iPhone 7 from AT&T, you may find that you'll only be able to use AT&T SIM cards in your phone -- this means that your phone is locked. If you can use SIM cards from other cell providers in your phone, you have an unlocked phone, which is useful for travelers.

There are many benefits to unlocking your phone for international use. The main one is getting to avoid horrendously expensive roaming charges while you're traveling. With an unlocked phone, you can turn up in a new country, pick up a local SIM card, and have all the data you need at affordable rates. Outside of the United States, you'll find that many countries offer very inexpensive data options. In Vietnam, for example, for just $5 I was able to pick up a SIM card with 5GB of data and unlimited calls and texts.

How Can I Unlock My Phone? 

It's much easier than it sounds and Apple has a useful guide for how to get yours unlocked. Once you've clicked the link, scroll down to your phone provider and click the link for "unlocking" to gain instructions for doing so. 

Once you've found the unlocking instructions, call up your cell provider and ask them to unlock your phone for you. They should be able to do so in a matter of minutes. If you've owned your phone for a year or more, your provider will have to unlock it, so make sure they're not trying to take you for a ride if they refuse to. 

I need to make a quick note here on GSM and CDMA technologies. All cell providers apart from Verizon and Sprint use GSM, and GSM is the technology that allows you to unlock your phone and use it abroad. if you have a Verizon iPhone, you'll have two SIM card slots in your phone -- one for CDMA use and one for GSM use, so you'll also be able to unlock your phone and use it overseas. If you're with Sprint, unfortunately, you're out of luck. You won't be able to use your iPhone outside of the United States because very few countries (Belarus, the United States, and Yemen) use CDMA.

 

If you are with Sprint, then, your best bet is to have a thought about picking up a new smartphone for your trip. You can get many budget smartphones for under $200 (we link to some at the end of the post) and the amount of money you'll save through using local SIM cards makes it more than worth it. 

What Happens if My Provider Won't Unlock My Phone? 

In some cases, a network provider won't agree to unlock your iPhone. When you sign up with a provider, you'll usually be locked into a certain time period (usually a year after buying the phone) when you have to use that provider and won't be allowed to unlock your phone. After this time period, however, the provider will have to unlock your phone at your request.

So what happens if your provider refuses to unlock your phone? There is an alternative. You may have noticed small independent phone stores while you've been out and about, who offer to unlock your phone for you. Pay them a visit and they'll be able to unlock your phone in just a few minutes and for a small fee. It'll definitely be worth it. 

If that's not an option, you can try doing it yourself. A company called Unlock Base sells codes you can use to unlock your phone for just a few dollars -- definitely worth trying out!

What Should I Do Now My iPhone is Unlocked?

Celebrate that you won't have to pay extortionate fees to stay connected on your travels. 

Buying local SIM cards on your trip is an affordable and hassle-free experience. In most countries, you'll be able to buy one at the arrivals area of the airport.

If you can't find a phone store there, a quick search online for "local SIM card [country]" should bring up a detailed guide for buying one. It's rarely a complicated process -- you'll typically just ask someone for a local SIM card with data and they'll tell you the different options. Choose the one that best suits you and they'll set up the SIM so that it works in your phone. Simple! 

Local SIM cards are cheaper and have inexpensive data rates. Trust me -- you don't want to rely on data roaming while you're overseas unless you don't want to end up with a five-figure bill when you return home. They're also easy to get your hands on -- most of them are available from an airport, and if not, most grocery stores stock them and can help you get yours set up and working before you leave. 

What if You Can't Get Your iPhone Unlocked?

If you're not comfortable with getting a stranger in a dark store to unlock your phone, or you're a Sprint customer, there are still some options available for you. 

Resign yourself to using Wi-Fi only: I traveled for several years without a phone and coped just fine (although definitely got more lost!) so a phone isn't a total necessity. If you can't get yours unlocked, you could just resolve to use Wi-Fi and put up with not having data. It'll mean you'll have to do your research before you leave, cache any maps you'll want to use before exploring, and save those Snapchats for when you get back to your room, but for the most part, it won't affect your travels much more than that.

Wi-Fi is becoming more and more common, so in emergencies, you can always find a McDonald's or Starbucks. 

Pick up a cheap phone for your trip: I wouldn't recommend doing this if your trip will be lasting less than a month (it's simply not worth the expense and hassle), but if you'll be traveling for longer (several months or more), it'll be well worth picking up a cheap smartphone for your travels. I'd recommend picking up one of these budget smartphones (under $200) for your time away.

Use a portable hotspot: You can buy or rent a portable hotspot for your trip, depending on how long it is. If it's a short trip, rent a hotspot from a company like Xcom and you'll have unlimited data for your trip (at a high price); if you'll be traveling for longer, you can buy a hotspot, put a local SIM card in it as you would your phone, and connect to the hotspot as if was a Wi-Fi network. 

Use your tablet: If you own a tablet that has a SIM card slot, you're in luck! These always come unlocked. If you can't unlock your phone to use it as you travel, use your tablet instead. This is definitely more convenient in a dorm room than when trying to navigate when walking around a city. 

 

This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff