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AT&T announces it will unlock smartphones at end of contract

updated 10:53 pm EST, Fri March 8, 2013

Current US ban on self-unlocking likely to be reversed

Following a decision by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress that ruled that unlocking an iPhone without carrier permission is now illegal -- and pressure from both President Obama and the FCC to reverse the ban -- AT&T has clarified its policy and will unlock customer smartphones that have completed their contract. The move requires a customer's account to be in good standing with no unpaid balance, but the company has not mentioned an extra fee for the service.

AT&T has been known to unlock customer's phones before today's announcement in some cases, but the policy was inconsistently applied -- even requiring requests directly from Apple CEO Tim Cook to get the carrier to unlock a device. For many years, the company refused to unlock smartphones entirely, even after the contract was completed. The new Copyright Office ruling not only banned customers unlocking their own phones, but imposed severe financial penalties and even jail time for doing so without permission of the carrier.

The draconian penalties prompted a petition to the Obama administration's petitioning website, We the People, and achieved the required 100,000 signatures in order to prompt an official response from the administration. The response strongly agreed with the petitioners that the ban circumvented competition and harmed consumers, and urged Congress to draft legislation undoing the Copyright Office's decision, which was based on the much-criticized DMCA laws that severely curtailed consumer rights with regards to any sort of digital media or equipment.

Several bills are now pending before Congress to undo the ban, but all only allow unlocking of smartphones after the completion of a contract with a cell provider. AT&T has reacted to the prevailing sentiment that the current restrictions are unfair and clarified its unlocking policy, and other carriers are expected to follow suit if they did not already have a clear unlocking policy. AT&T has even set up a web page to allow iPhone users to request unlocking online.

At present there is no method for a permanent unlock on the latest models of iPhone running recent versions of iOS 5 or 6 without the aid of a carrier or similar agent that can obtain the unlock code from the manufacturer. Earlier versions of iPhone hardware and software could be jailbroken and unlocked through security hacks, allowing them to use SIM cards from other carriers or international providers.

AT&T further added that users who bring an unlocked compatible phone to an AT&T store (that has not been reported lost or stolen) can obtain a SIM card and optional prepaid month-to-month agreement. The company says that its current policy -- and the Library of Congress decision -- should not affect any existing customers, including those who are no longer under contract.



By Electronista Staff
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Comments

  1. benjitek

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 10-24-11

    Info Incorrect

    AT&T has long allowed for the unlocking of iPhones that are out of contract, per the requirements outlined above -- it's nothing new, and nothing has changed since the new law went into effect. Would be nice if info was better researched prior to being presented as 'news'... Speaks to credibility. The online form is cut 'n dry, there's nothing 'inconsistently applied' about it. Obviously, someone is cut 'n pasting stuff without looking into it :-( Personally, I unlocked my iPhone 3GS; iPhone 4 & 4S prior to selling them on eBay after I purchased the iPhone 5. I received my unlock approvals within minutes of submitting the form:

    https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/client/en_US/

  1. macjockey

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-23-04

    comment title

    Which is true because AT&T unlocked my iPhone upon my request after my contract so I could sell it more easily. They unlocked it immediately over the phone with no mess and no fuss.

  1. Eriamjh

    Addicted to MacNN

    Joined: 10-20-01

    AT&T Unlock

    Note: If you replace your phone with a new phone before the 2 years is up, AT&T will not unlock the old phone until 30 days has passed (the return period for the new phone). Otherwise, they will happily unlock your out of contract iPhone here:
    https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/client/en_US/termsAndCondition

  1. Inkling

    Junior Member

    Joined: 07-25-06

    Disgusting AT&T

    Quote: "The move requires a customer's account to be in good standing with no unpaid balance...."

    And what if you're like me? I bought a 3GS from a AT&T customer who fit the criteria but I run it on T-Mobile to save money. Even though it's been fully paid for the phone and AT&T knows that from it's own records, the company refused my request for an unlock because I didn't have the proper paperwork.

    That's why, with the exception of T-Mobile, I loathe these cell phone companies. They're run by jerks.

  1. jdsonice@gmail.com

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 10-18-09

    AT&T Was Unlocking Phones

    AT&T has been unlocking phones for the past couple of years without any issues. I have had three iPhones unlocked and all it took was a call. Now AT&T has streamlined the process even further. Go to this website

    https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/client/en_US/

    Fill in the form and a couple of days later you get an email that tells you how to unlock your phone. No need to wait on the line.

    While I am not a big fan of AT&T policies, they have done a good join here. I give them credit for that.

  1. chas_m

    MacNN Staff

    Joined: 08-04-01

    Sorry gang, but you have to read the article beyond the headline. The article is in fact accurate, to wit:

    a. The article starts off by saying that AT&T has *clarified* their policy. Maybe you guys don't know what "clarified" means, but if you click the link for those very words, you are taken to an article on the AT&T company blog -- written the day before the article -- that explains that they will now unlock a customer's phone when the contract is over. If "everyone" knew that and "everyone" got their phones unlocked, there would be no reason to write that blog post.

    b. The article says (in the FIRST SENTENCE of the second paragraph) that AT&T did unlock phones prior to the new announcement, but that it wasn't consistent. Click on the link under "inconsistently applied" and you will see a story from APRIL (not even a year ago) that enough people could NOT get their phones unlocked by AT&T that Tim Cook's office had to get involved. I'm sure they have been unlocking smartphones for some people for "a couple of years now" but I would remind you that they've been selling the iPhone for SIX years, and clearly some outlets WEREN'T unlocking the phones on request (having met the conditions).

    c. My own personal experience says you're wrong. I tried to get AT&T to unlock my *original* iPhone -- remember that one, the one you paid $500 *and* had a two-year contract? -- last February, and despite visits to outlets (AT&T outlets, not reseller stores) and calls to AT&T, they flat-out REFUSED to unlock my phone and said, quote: "we do not unlock iPhones under any circumstances." Luckily, the 2G iPhone can't go higher than iOS 3.1.3 so I could unlock it myself, but I would have much preferred -- even paid a fee -- to have it carrier unlocked.

    I would call that an unlocking policy that was "inconsistently applied," wouldn't you?

    I am very happy that they have RECENTLY streamlined and clarified their policies so that (hopefully) no customer will ever get bad information like I did. I'm pleased that some of you had no problems getting your iPhones unlocked when your contract was up -- that is how it should be. But there's nothing in the article that contradicts what you're saying, only that AT&T took a recent opportunity to make their current policy -- which they have NOT always had -- clearer.

  1. Le Flaneur

    Senior User

    Joined: 10-14-99

    just use an unlocking service!

    Inkling, I also had purchased an iPhone 3GS from someone on Craig's List, and AT&T refused to unlock it. I was stuck with a software solution (Ultrasn0w) until I paid about $5 for a permanent, factory unlock on eBay. This was during the period when it was legal, of course.

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