If you’re fed up with your current carrier and want to switch to a better one, you might be wondering if you can take your current iPhone with you. This is a lot more straightforward than it used to be, but there are still some things to keep in mind.
A few years ago, most (if not all) phones were carrier locked, which meant that your phone could only be used with the carrier you bought it from. So if you bought a Verizon smartphone, you could only use it on Verizon. Some phones still come carrier locked, some don’t.
If your phone is still locked to your carrier, you’ll need to take it in and have them unlock it for you. That allows you to use the phone on any other carrier…as long as your phone’s hardware is compatible with that carrier.
Different carriers use different cellular technology as well, so not every phone is necessarily compatible with every carrier.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and many global carriers use the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard, while Verizon and Sprint use an older standard called CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access). If your phone only supports one of those standards, you can’t take it to a carrier that uses the other. (You can’t use a GSM-only phone on Verizon, for example, but you can use it on AT&T and T-Mobile.)
The good news is that many phones today come with both CDMA and GSM chips inside, including some versions of the iPhone as far back as the iPhone 4. But not every iPhone has both chips.
The iPhone 6 and 6s, for example, were compatible with both standards. No matter where you bought your iPhone, you could bring it to another carrier as long as it was unlocked. This was true of the 6 Plus and 6s Plus as well.
The iPhone 7, 8, X, XS, and XR are a bit different. There are two versions of each phone:
So if you’re buying an iPhone from AT&T or T-Mobile, make sure you plan on staying with one of those carriers.
If you’re planning on upgrading to the iPhone and want the freedom to move to any carrier, it would be best to get the Verizon model, since it comes factory unlocked on day one and it will work with any of the big four carriers in the US without a problem. Sprint’s iPhone model is the same way, but it must be remained locked to Sprint for a minimum of 50 days.
Lastly, the iPhone SE is similar to the other iPhones, as there are two models. There’s one that works with Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, but there’s a different one that works with just Sprint. The former model can work on Sprint, but you won’t get full LTE speeds that Sprint offers. The iPhone SE has been discontinued, but it’s useful to keep this in mind in case you’re buying used.
It’s all a bit confusing, and the day when smartphones and carriers become much more simplified is the day when hell freezes over. Until then, we’ll have to wade through this mess, but hopefully this clears things up when you’re set to buy a new iPhone and want the best carrier freedom you can get.
Images by Apple, Darla Mack/Flickr