We recently factory-unlocked our iPhone 4's that were fresh off our two-year contract with AT&T.
Here is our summary of findings (more details below):
- AT&T and Apple provide incomplete "official" instructions to unlock the iPhone 4.
- Not only are the instructions incomplete, the process to unlock is incomplete since it does not always incorporate verification of the unlock. (We are pretty much on our own to verify whether a phone was unlocked.)
- AT&T and Apple customer service personnel point to each other for deficiencies in customer service experience instead of taking ownership of issues tied directly to their products.
What follows is a more detailed account, with some potential suggestions for users wishing to unlock their iPhones, and some obvious pointers for AT&T (especially) and Apple management in case they come across this and wish to improve their dysfunctional customer service.
1. First, we submitted an unlock authorization request to AT&T at an AT&T store. This can presumably be done over the phone as well.
2. Upon submitting the request and verifying basic account holder information with the AT&T, we were handed a request number. We also got an e-mail with the number, and the following note:
"Your unlock request is presently being reviewed. Please retain your request number for reference. You will receive the status of your request at the email address you provided in 5 to 7 business days.
Your request is subject to iPhone unlock eligibility requirements. If we have further questions or instructions, we'll contact you by email."
Aside: The major, free web-based e-mail service provider whose system we used marked this message from AT&T as spam, which we thought was interesting. Point is, be sure you're checking your spam and junk folders.
3. Exactly seven days (and five business days) later, we got a confirmation e-mail from AT&T with instructions on unlocking our iPhone 4. Here's the e-mail (click to enlarge):
4. So as instructed, after waiting for several hours more than the 24 suggested hours following the receipt of the e-mail, we backed up our iPhone 4's using iTunes, and restored from backup (without the factory restore). Nothing.
5. Since we didn't see any notifications or alerts, and resorted to a Google search for help. The instructions from AT&T or Apple didn't say this, but as we found in numerous posts on the support forums of both att.com and apple.com, we should have gotten a message from iTunes saying, "Congratulations, your iPhone is now unlocked."
6. We repeated step 4 above, this time without waiting 24 hours, of course. Still no notes from iTunes or the iPhone.
7. Discovered one thread on Apple's forums that mentioned a factory reset is required for the unlock to go through. In retrospect, we don't have reason to doubt this -- more on this below.
8. Repeated the backup and restore (steps 4 and 6, a third attempt), this time a restore to factory settings which took about an hour and a half, since the phones were also upgrading to iOS6 in the mean time. (Factory resets aren't really resets to "factory settings", they automatically use the latest available OS from Apple -- we consumers have zero control over this.)
9. Once this restore was complete, we still didn't see any note from iTunes confirming the unlock. At this point, it was about 1:30 a.m. and we decided to resume unlock operations the next morning.
10. Good sleep can do wonders. The first thing we tried after waking up -- well, the first thing we tried after brushing our teeth and preparing some hot tea -- was to backup and restore again, this time using iOS6 as the baseline that was restored from. Yes, a fourth attempt.
This time, we almost lost one of our iPhone 4's. One of our beloved devices wouldn't start, iTunes just dropped it from its list of connected devices, as if it weren't plugged in at all. The Apple logo wouldn't appear when we tried to reset the phone. This went on for about 10 minutes, and then it magically appeared. Luckily, we got our phone back -- it wasn't dead!
11. By this time, we felt we had exhausted our possibilities, and called AT&T to see what our options were to get our phones unlocked.
12. Customer Service, after being on the phone for over 30 minutes, informed us that their systems showed our phones were unlocked. The rep directed us to our closest AT&T store for further verification, since only one of the rep's seven systems indicated our unlock actually went through.
Note: Based on the time stamp of the unlock per their system, the one backup and restore we did that worked was with the restore to factory settings (step 8 above).
Nowhere in the AT&T instructions (step 3) or the Apple instructions referred to in the AT&T instructions does it say this.
13. We then went to an AT&T store (the same one we visited to request the unlock) to ask if there was a way they could help us verify the unlocks went through.
This is where things got really very tricky, and at least in my view, rather telling of the quality of service we were afforded.
The customer representative at the AT&T Store we were assigned didn't appear to know how the iPhones are unlocked. The rep told us we couldn't unlock our iPhones without an 'unlock code', which was vastly different from every instruction we'd seen from AT&T or Apple. We shared this info with the rep, following which the rep gave us a business card of a "professional phone unlocker" -- complete with a reference, presumably for some kickback. The rep's exact words: "You're best off paying $50 for the unlock, that's the only way you can be sure."
Now, I wouldn't post the business card of the phone unlocking service. This one's clearly on AT&T and has nothing to do with the unlocking service, which we fiercely oppose using.
We did meet with another rep at the AT&T Store, and were told only Apple can verify the unlock status.
14. We called Apple Care and an Apple Store to see if we could bring our iPhones in and if there is any way they can assist us to verify whether our phones were unlocked. Their exact words were: "Don't bother coming in to an Apple Store. There's nothing we can do. Refer to AT&T"
Hey, at least they were honest and not beating about the bush.
15. Our last resort was -- yes, you guessed it -- another wireless carrier! So we ended up at a T-Mobile store. Why T-Mobile? Well, it was the closest other wireless carrier to us. We could've easily just ended up at a Verizon store.
At the T-Mobile store, we first disclosed that we had no intent to give them any business, and described our situation. We were honest. We requested a favor and they were kind enough to help us.
The good news
T-Mobile let us try a couple micro-SIM cards. Our AT&T iPhones were indeed unlocked.
The bad news
This whole process would've been a heck of a lot easier if we had some active, off-contract micro-SIM from another carrier the whole time. But really, how many of us would?
Through several points in our interactions with customer service, we didn't think anyone cared. Much to our dismay, we couldn't help but feel we were dealing with car salesmen (and women) through the process.
Perhaps we were guilty of having expected some responsiveness, but the fact is, AT&T and Apple could make the unlocking process far more efficient and pleasant. We've paid for these products and carried them through multiple-year contracts. We ought to be treated better.