I had a nice breakfast with my friend Andy Abramson last week and he expressed his frustration with AT&T's lack of support for unlocking his old, contract complete Apple iPhone. Andy is an avid international traveler (you must check out his excellent series on international travel) and generally takes along Nokia phones to use with SIM cards outside the US and wants the ability to travel with his older iPhone as well (he has a new iPhone 4 for US usage). Andy said he contacted Apple about unlocking his iPhone and was told to contact AT&T. He contacted AT&T and they said to talk to Apple about it so he is getting the runaround with no solution in sight. This discussion was interesting to me since I have had success in the past with both AT&T and T-Mobile getting my phones unlocked for foreign travel so I decided to look into this issue a bit more.
Back when the original iPhone was launched in 2007, questions were raised immediately by those people who wanted to take their iPhone outside the US and use foreign SIM cards or international SIM cards to continue working and staying in touch. USA Today put together an article talking about some of the differences between the US wireless industry and the rest of the world. The US is a country of consumers that have come to count on low initial priced subsidized phones that come with at least 2-year contracts and minimum voice and data plan subscriptions and even though a higher initial phone price and flexibility in plans and contracting is cheaper over the long run I do not see many in the US changing their ways. With the different wireless frequencies used by carriers here in the US, it actually makes little sense to worry much about modeling our country after Europe and others since the frequencies themselves lock you into a carrier anyway. Actually, T-Mobile USA has their Even More Plus option that is very much like their parent T-Mobile system in Europe where you have no contract and pay full price for phones.
I have been with T-Mobile for something like nine years now and I travel outside the US 2 or 3 times a year, on average. T-Mobile has been very good about sending me SIM unlock codes for subsidized phones so that I could travel and use an international SIM or foreign SIM when I get to other countries. In general T-Mobile requires something like 90 days of ownership after purchasing a new device or some length of time that you have been with the carrier, but I have never had an issue unlocking devices with them. I have been able to do the same with AT&T phones when I was with them for a couple of years too. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology so their phones cannot be used outside the US with a different SIM, unless you happen to purchase one of their devices with a SIM card as a world phone. Given these experiences and policies from both AT&T and T-Mobile you would expect these practices to apply to all phones equally and that is where the problem lies.
AT&T and/or Apple treat the iPhone differently than every other phone in their lineup. It still isn't clear if AT&T or Apple is driving this decision, but as stated clearly on the AT&T site, the "iPhone cannot be unlocked, even if you are out of contract." If you want to use the iPhone outside the US then you need to pay the AT&T international rates and roam on networks in the countries you are visiting. Is AT&T driving this policy so they can capitalize on international roaming fees or is Apple driving this so people buy iPhones in the countries they are visiting?
Given that the iPhone is available around the world, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me that Apple really cares whether the AT&T iPhone can be unlocked or not so I tend towards AT&T being the block in the road here. I suppose if the iPhone eventually does come to T-Mobile we may see if it is the carrier or Apple that is prohibiting SIM unlock of the iPhone. The carrier does have to get the unlock code from the manufacturer, which is why some phones cannot be unlocked, so maybe Apple is indeed not providing these to AT&T.
There are easy methods to both jailbreak and then unlock your iPhone, but many people do not want to perform these "hacking" procedures and simply want a stock iPhone that allows them to pop in whatever SIM card they want. This is NOT an unreasonable expectation since just about every other GSM phone can be unlocked with a simple code or update. The Librarian of Congress recently determined that methods to SIM unlock a device are not prohibited (class 3 in the list), but there is no law that requires AT&T to unlock the iPhone. Even though there is no law requiring it, doesn't it make common sense and promote good customer relations to at least provide a simple and legal unlock method for previous generation iPhones that are past their contract period?