As a long-time AT&T customer—my account dates back to my first Razr, at a time when the company was still known as Cingular—I was thrilled when they announced a major change in their unlocking policy earlier this year. After years of refusing to let even out-of-contract iPhones to be used on other carriers, AT&T had relented: if you had fulfilled your two-year deal, the company would unlock your iPhone, allowing you to use the device on another (and likely cheaper) plan from a different provider. It also meant you could use a local SIM card when traveling abroad, which would offer huge savings over AT&T’s international roaming plans. I unlocked my iPhone 4 as soon as it was eligible.
Fast forward a few months, and I’ve picked up an iPhone 5. It’s a great device, but it came with a drawback: it’s locked, again, to AT&T. That’s not normally a surprise, but this time it came with a twist, because Verizon is selling the same phone with an unlocked GSM band (the type of radio used by AT&T and many other carriers). So for someone like me who would like to use their phone abroad for a few days every other year, Verizon would charge nothing (because I could use a SIM bought abroad), while AT&T would force me to use a ridiculously expensive roaming plan.
Let me be clear: I happily pay over two thousand dollars a year to AT&T for the family plan my wife and I use. And I’m not trying to get out of that new two-year contract; I’ll still be paying almost two hundred dollars a month whether or not I’m using the plan—or whether I’m even in the country. Yet if I go to Canada for a few days, using our iPhones (like most smartphones, they suck in a lot of data pretty quickly) on AT&T will cost hundreds on top of our existing plan. If I had ditched AT&T for Verizon, it would cost as much as a Canadian SIM card. A call to AT&T customer service fell on deaf ears—despite the fact that their competitor offered the same phone unlocked, and despite the fact that I chose to stay with AT&T anyway, I was told that there was nothing they could do until 2014.
Originally developed for use with the Dell Streak, UnlockStreak Activations for iTunes is a separate version of the software that works on Apple’s devices. To use it, users simply visit the website and select their device, then place an order for the unlock ($49 for an iPhone 5, all other iPhones $29; UnlockStreak provided an unlock at no charge for purposes of this review). Once UnlockStreak confirms that the IMEI can be unlocked, they begin the process and then send an email with the unlocking instructions once they’ve processed your IMEI (the hardest part of all was waiting for that email; it took four days to process my unlock, but UnlockStreak mentioned that my IMEI took a particularly long while to unlock for some reason). The actual unlock is done on the user’s own computer. For iPhones, it’s all done through iTunes, making it a familiar process for most users. It takes only a few minutes from start to finish: backing up and restoring your iPhone is more or less all it takes. In all, it took me about three or four clicks to make it happen:
One important note: although UnlockStreak performs a permanent unlock, the service only works if the device is tied to AT&T. If you have a Sprint iPhone, or a phone from another provider, you won’t be able to use the service. For AT&T users, however, it’s a great alternative to pricey roaming plans. The company also points out that because there is no jailbreak involved in their unlock service, your iPhone’s warranty will remain intact. And because it’s a “factory” unlock, devices should stay unlocked permanently regardless of software updates or restores, something that greatly increases the resale value of a used iPhone.
For the vast majority of people using AT&T, an unlock will probably never matter. But if you’re someone who does need an unlock—and for whatever reason doesn’t want to make the jump to Verizon—then UnlockStreak is a bargain, and one that doesn’t require you to navigate the shadier portions of ebay, where many iPhone unlock offers come across as something less than legitimate. There are certainly cheaper unlocking offers out there, but for many users ease of use and peace of mind are worth a few extra dollars. (The company is also giving away an unlock every few days in this iMore forum thread.) If you’re planning a trip abroad, or just need to use your iPhone on a different carrier here at home, UnlockStreak is worth a look.