How to unlock your O2 iPhone

Apple iPhone 3GS

Paul Ockenden reveals why you don't have to jail-break your iPhone to escape O2

I've received quite a few emails from readers who own original O2-supplied iPhones that are now out of their contract term, asking about various ways to unlock these phones so they can be used on other mobile networks.

A couple of you noticed that the previous solution I recommended a while back – a SIM-shim called the Rebel Simcard – doesn’t work with iPhones running OS 3 or later, which is true and I probably should have mentioned it here before now. I still rate the Rebel Simcard as an unlocking solution for other phones, but up-to-date iPhone users will need to look elsewhere.

Another reader asked whether “jail-breaking” his phone would allow it to be used on other networks, and it’s certainly possible to jail-break just about any iPhone (although if you’re running OS version 3.1.3, it can be trickier).

Jail-breaking an iPhone doesn’t remove the network lock but merely loosens Apple’s grip on the device

However, contrary to what many people believe, jail-breaking an iPhone doesn’t remove the network lock but merely loosens Apple’s grip on the device, allowing you to install software that hasn’t received the Jobsial blessing. Oh, and it also lets you install an ever-increasing range of pirated and cracked software, which is the reason I’m not going to print any “how to jailbreak your phone” details in this column. If you really want to do that stuff, let Mr Google guide you.

However, if your phone has been jail-broken already then you can, in theory at least, install software that will remove the carrier lock from the device. The only problem is that – at the time of writing – all attempts to unlock an upgraded phone have failed. It doesn’t even help to downgrade the phone back to a previous OS version, because 3.1.3 also upgrades the “baseband”, which is essentially a mini-OS stored in firmware that looks after the GSM/GPRS/3G radio module.

The new baseband that 3.1.3 installs (called version 05.12.01) has so far proven difficult to unlock, and putting the phone back to 3.1.2 or earlier doesn’t restore the earlier radio code, so you’re stuck with the tightened-up version. A few people claim to have broken into this more secure baseband, but to date none of them have released a working unlock application.

Escaping O2

So what’s a poor iPhone user to do once their initial 18 or 24 months with O2 are up? For once the answer is very simple indeed: rather than waste time and effort trying to hack your phone with hardware or software, which can all-too-easily end by “bricking” the device, just ask O2 to unlock it for you!

That’s right, O2 will be happy to remove the lock from any iPhone it originally supplied. O2 even provides an unlocking web page to help you do this (although it isn’t publicised particularly well).

What you might find surprising is that this unlocking service is free, and O2 will even unlock iPhones that are still under contract, although it goes without saying that you’ll have to honour what remains of that contract. They’ll also unlock PAYG phones, although there’s a £15 charge for that.

I used this facility to unlock an iPhone 3G that Apple’s PR team gave me some time ago – I simply shoved an O2 SIM into it, loaded it up with £20 credit and then filled in the unlock form. Within a few days a message popped up on my phone saying that it was unlocked.

Actually, it wasn’t really unlocked – if you shove another network’s SIM in it you’ll get the dreaded “invalid SIM” message. What you need to do is, with this other SIM in the iPhone, connect to your PC or Mac and fire up iTunes. It will reboot itself and then it will recognise the SIM.

If that SIM comes from one of Apple’s official mobile network partners (O2, Vodafone and Orange in the UK), you should even find the APN correctly configured for network access. It’s a shame that more iPhone owners don’t realise that O2 offers this service, but perhaps this column will go some way towards remedying that.