The Lock screen on an iPhone XS.
Hadrian/Shutterstock

The Activation Lock makes iPhones less attractive to thieves. When you set up an iPhone, it’s associated with your iCloud ID. Even if someone steals it, they can’t set it up and use it unless you remove the Activation Lock.

Unfortunately, criminals aren’t the only people frustrated by Activation Lock. If you buy a used iPhone and don’t realize it’s locked, for example, you might end up locked out of your new phone. Here’s how to bypass it.

What Is Activation Lock?

When you first activate your iPhone, Apple makes a note of the device’s unique identifier and your Apple ID. It then ties your iPhone’s unique identifier to your Apple ID. This is to prevent any other Apple IDs from using the device. Without the username and password combination for your Apple ID, your iPhone cannot be reset and used by another person.

You likely won’t notice the presence of Activation Lock until you reset your iPhone or install a major iOS upgrade. At that point, you have to sign in with your Apple ID to verify your identity and activate the device.

The Activation Lock screen on an iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
Apple

This security feature is closely tied to another called Find My iPhone, which helps you locate a missing device. If you enable Find My iPhone on your device, you also enable Activation Lock. By default, both are enabled on all iPhones and should remain so.

If you want to see if Find My iPhone (and Activation Lock) is enabled, head to Settings > [Your Name] > iCloud > Find My iPhone, or log in to icloud.com/find to see your device’s current location.

While people most often encounter issues with Activation Lock on used iPhones, the feature is also on iPads and Apple Watch. Just like it does on iPhones, Activation Lock locks an iPad or Apple Watch to the Apple ID used to set it up.

How to Recover Your Apple ID Password

To activate an iPhone, you simply log in with your Apple ID. You do have to know your email and password. If you use two-factor authentication, you can tap “Unlock with Passcode,” and then type the single-use numeric code Apple sends you instead.

If you don’t know your Apple ID email address, you can look it up on Apple’s iForgot website. If you’re unsure what your password is, or you want to reset it, you can also do so on iForgot. In addition to activating your device, you also need your Apple credentials to set up the App Store, FaceTime calls, and iMessage.

The input page on iforgot.apple.com.

If you can’t reset your Apple ID password or recover your email address, call Apple Support. If you’re in the U.S., the phone number is 1-800-APL-CARE. And you don’t have to have an Apple Care plan to call.

Ask Apple to Remove Activation Lock for You

If you still can’t activate your iPhone, there’s one more thing you can try. Apple will remove Activation Lock from a device for which you have a valid proof of purchase. You can do this in one of two ways:

  1. Make an appointment at your local Apple Store. Take your device, your proof of purchase, and your best smile.
  2. Call Apple Support and explain the situation. Ask the rep to remove Activation Lock from your device remotely.

We called our local Apple Store, and both these options were explained to us. The representative told us the removal of Activation Lock from devices (both in-store and over the phone) usually “falls within the sphere of our free services,” so, you shouldn’t need Apple Care for either.

The rep will warn you that there’s a good chance your iPhone will be erased during this process. The support staff we spoke to said not all iPhones end up erased, but you do have to sign a waiver for any work Apple performs.

This is just one reason why you should always have an iPhone backup.

Avoid Activation Lock When Buying a Used iPhone

One of the biggest drawbacks of Activation Lock is how it affects second-hand sales. Many people don’t realize their devices are locked to their Apple IDs when they sell them. Likewise, many buyers are unaware of it when they purchase a second-hand iPhone.

If you buy an iPhone through a service like eBay, you should be covered by buyer protection for anything you cannot use. Unfortunately, this protection doesn’t extend to face-to-face transactions. Here are some ways you can avoid buying a device you can’t activate:

  • When you turn on the iPhone, you should see the “Hello” set up screen inviting you to “Set up your iPhone” for the first time. This means it’s activated and not locked to another Apple ID.
  • If the device asks for a passcode, it hasn’t been erased. Ask the seller to go to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings and erase the device. After this is done, the “Set up your iPhone” screen should appear.
  • If the device asks for an Apple ID and password, it’s locked and worthless to you in its current state. Ask the seller to log in with his Apple ID and password to activate the device. He’ll also need to go to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings to erase the device. Again, if this was done, you’ll see the “Set up your iPhone” screen.

If the seller refuses to do any of the above, walk away from the sale. After you’re satisfied the device is unlocked (and that it works), proceed with the sale.

Be extra careful if you decide to purchase a second-hand iPhone over the internet—particularly from classified sites, like Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji, and GumTree. These websites offer little to no buyer protection, so you’re far more likely to get stuck with an expensive paperweight.

Ask a Seller to Disable Activation Lock Remotely

If you already purchased an iPhone that’s locked, all hope is not lost! In a perfect world, the seller merely forgot to disable it or didn’t realize the feature existed in the first place. Luckily, the seller can remove the device from her account remotely.

You have to communicate with the seller for this to work, so don’t burn your bridges too soon if you feel like you were scammed. To untangle the device from the previous owner’s Apple ID, the seller needs to complete the following steps:

  1. Login with her Apple ID at icloud.com/find.
  2. Click “All Devices,” and then select the relevant iPhone.
  3. If “Remove from Account” is available, she should select it;
  4. Otherwise, she can click “Erase iPhone,” and then “Remove from Account.”

The "Remove from Account" option on iCloud.com.

The iPhone in question should no longer be locked to an Apple ID. You might have to restart the device before you see any changes.

Third-Party Services That Offer to Unlock Your Device

Many third-party services will unlock your device for a fee. However, some do so to exploit vulnerabilities in Apple’s software, and others are used by law enforcement. None of them are official, and there’s no guarantee they’ll work.

Some “divorce” your device from Apple to circumvent Activation Lock. This allows you to access the iPhone, but Apple will likely blacklist it. This means it won’t receive any future iOS updates, nor will you be able to use iMessage, make calls over FaceTime, or download apps from the App Store.

The iCloud Removal Service website.

The only legitimate and trustworthy methods to unlock your iPhone are those we covered above.

Selling Your Old iPhone? Disable Activation Lock

Before you sell your iPhone, you should do two things: disable Activation Lock and erase the device back to factory settings. The first ensures the seller can use your device, and the second keeps your data private.

Follow these steps to disable Activation Lock:

  1. In Settings, tap your name at the top of the list.
  2. Tap “iCloud,” and then tap “Find My iPhone.”
  3. Toggle off “Find My iPhone,” and then type your Apple ID password.

You can now follow these steps to reset your device:

  1. Go to Settings > General > Reset.
  2. Tap “Erase all Content and Settings,” confirm your decision, and then wait for the procedure to complete.

When you see the “Hello” screen that says, “Set up your iPhone,” you can sell your device.

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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