Before I get into using your iPhone abroad, I must preface with this: if you are only going abroad for a week or two, or even a month, the information in this post may not apply to you.
You may be better off reading about how else you can use your iPhone abroad with WiFi and airplane mode (for shorter periods of travel). Today’s post is for those of you who are moving or will be spending many months abroad and will want a fully-functioning phone (wifi, calls, texts, everything) while you are gone.
Related: A Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad, for Dummies
What does it mean for phones to be locked and unlocked?
In the US, an iPhone is usually “locked” when you buy it through a specific carrier (i.e. Verizon, Sprint, etc.), which essentially means it will only operate with that carrier. They do this so you won’t jump ship and start using another carrier.
If you buy your iPhone through Apple directly, or through a third party vendor (like a phone kiosk or general wireless store) it comes unlocked.
Update 2020: All [new] iPhone models are unlocked, except those purchased with AT&T installment plans.
However, many US cell phone carriers will unlock your iPhone for international use only. This will enable your iPhone to be compatible with SIM carriers in other countries. This basically means you could go abroad, purchase an international SIM card, put it in your iPhone, and use your iPhone abroad with that carrier.
It sounds simple, and sometimes it is, but it requires action on your part. Here are some helpful tips that will at least get you pointed in the right direction for using your iPhone abroad:
Apple Does Not Unlock Your iPhone
Check out what Apple has to say about how to unlock your iPhone. You must do this directly through your carrier.
How to Unlock an AT&T iPhone
Check out what AT&T says about eligibility and how to unlock your AT&T iPhone.
How to Unlock a Sprint iPhone
Check out what Sprint says about eligibility and how to unlock your Sprint iPhone.
How to Unlock a Verizon iPhone
Call your customer support line and request an unlock (don’t go into the store, just call). You may need to talk to a few people before you find the right one, but they will unlock your phone for you for use abroad. See this article for more details about Verizon’s unlocking policy.
Check out the World Phone Guide for information about CDMA versus GSM networks (and why this is important).
How to Buy an Unlocked iPhone
To completely avoid having to unlock your iPhone, don’t buy it directly through a specific carrier. Buy it through Apple or at an unaffiliated kiosk or store, where you get to choose through whom you connect your service.
For example, your phone may come locked if you buy it through AT&T or Verizon. Worse yet, it may not even come with a SIM card slot. Do NOT make that mistake!
Have you had experience unlocking your iPhone?
For the benefit of anyone reading this and trying to figure out how to get their phones unlocked, please share your experiences about getting your iPhones unlocked. It can take weeks to do the research and figure all of this out by yourself, so let’s try to help each other with any helpful advice!
Would you like to keep your cell phone number and have calls and texts forwarded to an international phone number/SIM card? Use Tossable Digits, which can keep your number safe for you while you cancel your service at home, and you can have calls and texts forwarded to your new number abroad. You only pay for what you use, and you can cancel anytime.
Travel Planning Tip: Pre-order a SIM card for 200+ destinations worldwide!