Guide to purchasing an unlocked iPhone

Apple iPhone family

Purchasing a new phone can be a challenging task. First you will have to choose a platform, then a brand you like and hope your carrier offers the device you want on their network. In this guide I wanted to talk about the issues I faced when I was looking to purchase an unlocked Apple iPhone.

Locked vs. Unlocked iPhones in the U.S.

If you are living in the U.S., you would ideally purchase your iPhone with a carrier contract. This means the device is locked to use with that particular carrier, and you won't usually be able to use a locked device on a different carrier. Fortunately locked devices are subsidized by the carrier and you wont have to pay the full device price. This means you can purchase the newest iPhone for just $199 on your favorite carrier. While you do get to enjoy the subsidized pricing for your iPhone, you have to settle for paying premium prices on your monthly bill. 

An unlocked iPhone on the other hand can be used on any network. The unlocked GSM model will usually work on AT&T, T-Mobile or any other compatible GSM network, while an unlocked CDMA model (which is rare) will work on Verizon, Sprint or other compatible CDMA networks. If you are purchasing an unlocked iPhone, you have to be willing to pay the full cost of the device, unless of course you are willing to purchase a used iPhone.

Should I purchase a new or used Unlocked iPhone

You can purchase a new iPhone from Apple, where you will have the option to purchase a device with a carrier contract or factory unlocked. The factory unlocked is a GSM model which can only be used on compatible GSM networks. You generally have three iPhone models to choose from, the newest model will cost you around $650. The most affordable option (usually two generations older) will be priced at $450. So purchasing a new iPhone unlocked can be quite costly.

If you consider purchasing a used iPhone you will likely check out eBay or Amazon. Both online stores offer used (unlocked) iPhones at reasonable prices. When you purchase a used phone (especially in the U.S.) You have to first establish if its unlocked, and then make sure it has been used in an acceptable condition. 

Now purchasing a used iPhone has its risks. You have to trust the individual to be honest with their sale. Stores on eBay and Amazon, usually have good return policies, but you have to go through them carefully before purchasing your iPhone. Since some carriers unlock their iPhones after the customer's contract is over, its important to make sure that the device you are purchasing is truly unlocked to use on any network and not still locked to a particular network.

Why I purchased an iPhone on Amazon

If you are familiar with Amazon, you would have probably come across the Unlocked phones section on their website. Here the company has listed the unlocked iPhone 5c and "Deep Discounts" on pre-owned iPhones.

Unlocked Cell Phones on Amazon

The pre-owned iPhones are iPhones previously used on a particular network and they are sold by 'Amazon Warehouse Deals'. Here you will find the devices have been categorized by Amazon as No-Contract Cell Phones and Unlocked Cell Phones. The definition for these categories should be quite clear No-Contact devices are usually still locked to a carrier, but don't require the user to sign a two-year pact. The unlocked as its name suggests can be used with any carrier.

Unlocked Cell Phones on Amazon

Amazon did have one exception in this listing, with an iPhone 3GS, which was listed as "NOT UNLOCKED" and for use with AT&T in the US. Which again was understable, as the iPhone was exclusive to AT&T when it first launched in this country.

Selecting an unlocked iPhone to use with your carrier

Now if like me, you are looking to purchase a used unlocked iPhone, you are likely someone on a budget. So you are likely looking to use this iPhone with one of the smaller MNVO carriers. These carriers offer contracts that are affordable and allow you to pay monthly fees without tying you down to their network.

I wanted to try out FreedomPop, which happens to be an MNVO on Sprint's network. They offer a no-monthly cost plan with 200 mins, 500 texts and 500MB of data. So I needed a Sprint compatible iPhone to use with FreedomPop. 

Since Sprint iPhones can only be used on the U.S. it made sense that the used devices were quite affordable. You could get (what was listed as) an unlocked Sprint iPhone 5 with 16GB for anywhere between $200 and $300 based on the condition of its usage.

Is Amazon's unlocked iPhone really unlocked ?

Now since you are purchasing an unlocked iPhone, you will assume it will work with any carrier. So once I received my unlocked Sprint iPhone 5, I assumed it would be activated when I popped in my T-Mobile SIM card.

"No. iPhones listed as Unlocked on 

Amazon Warehouse Deals are actually locked."

Even though Amazon has listed the device as an Unlocked Cell Phone, it is still locked to Sprint's network. While the company does have a separate listing for No-Contract Cell Phones, they have chosen to list these phones which are locked to Sprint's network as Unlocked.

How Amazon deals with their own mistake

So you have purchased an iPhone from Amazon, assuming it is unlocked, only to find that your device is locked. You cant get past the activation screen and you are stuck with nothing more than a well designed paperweight unless you can get the device unlocked... The only way to get this iPhone unlocked is to get a SIM card from its carrier, which in this case is Sprint.

Ideally you will assume Amazon is responsible for their sale, so my first step was to contact Amazon regarding the status of their device. I reported that they had listed it incorrectly and if they would send me an unlocked iPhone. 

The rep was very helpful, initiated the return and sent me my refund immediately. Since Amazon Warehouse Deals are based on availability, their is no guarantee that you will receive the device you previously purchased. So I had to select a different unit. The rep promised me that this would never happen again... But it did..

Since I wanted to use the device on FreedomPop, I didn't really mind that it was locked, but I did need a Sprint SIM card in order to get past the activation screen. Amazon had essentially sold me a device which I could not use. Amazon was not even willing to rectify the issue by sending me a Sprint SIM card to unlock my device. The only solution they had was for me to send back the device, so that I can get another one. They even suggested that I purchase a SIM card separately from Amazon.

So How do I use my locked iPhone

Since Amazon is of no use, you are left with a two options - Find someone else who will give you a Sprint SIM card or return your device to Amazon. If you are purchasing an iPhone 5 to use with FreedomPop, you do need a Sprint SIM card. You can skip past the activation screen by borrowing a Sprint SIM from a friend, but you will need one of your own, if you want to use your iPhone 5 with FreedomPop. Since FreedomPop doesn't issue SIM cards themselves, you will have to head over to an Apple Store or a Sprint Store before you can activate your iPhone on FreedomPop.

I first decided to try Sprint and Apple on chat. Both offer good online chat services through their websites, so it made sense that I would get an answer from one of them. Sprint said they only issue SIM cards to customers, so I needed a SIM to get a SIM ? This didn't quite make sense. The Sprint chat rep suggested that I ask Apple for the SIM card... Again, this wasn't going to happen. Apple suggested that they I should get my SIM card from Sprint. They said that they do not issue SIM cards unless I had purchased one from them, and that I should ask my seller (Amazon) for a SIM card.

Amazon > Sprint > Apple > Amazon

The next day I decided to try calling Sprint and Apple, before trying to purchase a Sprint SIM card. I first called all the Sprint stores around my home, but none of them had SIM cards in stock. Next I decided to call the Apple Store, which is around 10 miles from where I lived. Fortunately it looked like my luck was about to change, as they had Sprint SIM cards in stock.

You can continue reading the Apple iPhone 5 and FreedomPop for more information on using this device on FreedomPop.

Lessons Learned

Its clear that Amazon is in fault with their listing. The iPhones listed as unlocked under Amazon Warehouse Deals are in fact locked. They can be activated on their respective networks only. If you are looking to purchase an unlocked iPhone, I suggest you consider Apple as your top choice. I chose to trust Amazon instead of a third party seller when I purchased my iPhone and I was badly let down.

While Apple doesn't offer refurbished (used) iPhones on their website, you may consider Apple Certified, Factory unlocked iPhones on eBay. Keep in mind that much like the unlocked iPhone from Apple, these are GSM only devices.

If you are OK, with getting a locked iPhone to use with a carrier, you should still consider Apple your top choice for making the purchase. Here you will get a SIM card with your iPhone, which you will then have to activate with your carrier.. Your carrier is the next best choice. You can get the iPhone you want and you will likely get a better deal than Apple.

If you want a used locked iPhone to use with an MNVO, Amazon is still likely the best choice. Here you will get an affordable device from Amazon Warehouse deals, but keep in mind that you will have to visit your local Apple Store for a SIM card. Amazon will not help you in the matter.

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