It’s been a tough few months for those of us on that other 95% of the planet that isn’t inside the borders of the United States. Escaping iPhone news has been next to impossible, with no relief to be found in the form of announced launch dates in any other country.
The good news is that the situation has been changing over the past few months, and having been subjected to continuous scrutiny since the late June launch, it’s mostly a solved problem. This afternoon saw a watershed moment when the first freely available open source iPhone unlock hit the scene.
What this means is that, with the minor exception of the visual voicemail feature, the iPhone’s entire feature set is usable on any compatible carrier, anywhere in the world. (Compatible in this sense meaning GSM and not CDMA networks. In Canada, that means Rogers/Fido. Outside of North America, GSM is fairly common.)
But the methods that enable this are ever-changing, and the general process isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re worried about owning a useless chunk of $400USD plastic, this isn’t for you. If you’re worried about legal formalities, you’d best avoid it. If you have any reservations at all, best stop reading now. That being said, here’s how you too can have your own iPhone, no matter where you are on this planet.
There are basically three steps to follow, each of increasing difficulty.
- Buy an iPhone
This part’s easy. You can walk into an Apple Store next time you’re in the US and simply throw down cash and walk out with it, the same way you’d buy an iPod. You don’t need to sign up for service or enter a contract to get it. As far as Apple is concerned, establishing a relationship with AT&T is entirely up to you. (This is how I did it).
Obviously the geography is a factor however, so you may need to pursue the other option. Check craigslist or eBay. With the recent price drop, there are a lot of sellers looking to recoup their losses, so you’re not likely to find many good deals at the moment. Over time the prices will presumably even out a little. But if you can’t make it to the US any time soon, you’ll have to buy through someone else, which means paying at least some markup.
- Activate It
Activation is an iPhone-specific concept. A brand new iPhone is pretty but useless — in order to even see the basic menus and included applications, you need to first connect it to AT&T and activate it by attaching it to a contract.
This one’s a bit harder to crack, but again there are some choices. If you have a mailing address in the US (via a sympathetic friend or family member), you can sign up for pay-as-you-go service through AT&T. This basically means a charge to your credit card, and credit toward a US phone number you can use while you’re in the country. Handy if you’re in the country a lot, and it also has the side effect of activating your iPhone. Though, make sure to read the terms of service to find out what you’re getting into.
That’s probably the easiest choice, but there are other methods which completely bypass AT&T. Even if you do it that way, you’re most likely going to need one of the other software methods as backup while unlocking the phone later. There are a bunch of applications and processes out there that will make short work of the activation process. Some are described here, others you might need to do a bit of googling to find. Which one you use depends on your platform and your comfort levels, but I’d recommend doing some research and familiarizing yourself with the latest methods, as things are still changing fairly quickly.
If you stop here, you’ve activated everything except the phone. iPod, Safari, calendar, mail — it all ought to work over wifi at this point. Which is cool enough, sure, but if you want the whole enchilada, you need to keep going.
- Unlock It
The standard practice amongst North American wireless carriers is SIM locking consumer phones to their respective networks. In many (most?) other countries this is relatively unheard of, but since the iPhone originates on this continent, it’s relevant to the discussion. Historically, unlocking a SIM locked phone to work with any carrier is usually possible, though it’s not always easy, or even officially-sanctioned by the manufacturer.
Anyway, the iPhone has no official unlock method as of yet. In the past few weeks, some hacks have surfaced that allow unlocking. When I say hacks, I mean hope you like soldering. Then there was the slightly less intrusive TurboSim method which basically became unavailable after they (rapidly) sold out. But what most people have been waiting for is a less invasive software-only unlock method. A service launched early this week that was offering just that, for the low low price of a hundred bucks. But it’s moot now.
The various gadget sites were ablaze with iPhone news this afternoon. It first came out around 4pm my time (GMT -8) that a free software hack was about to be released. Then came the files, and then finally instructions and confirmation from multiple sources that yes indeed, this was the real deal.
Right now, the most current method of unlocking the iPhone involves some pretty serious command line hacking. If you don’t already know what ssh and chmod do, hold off. (If you do, even then you might want to hold off. It does work, but it’s a bit hairy around the minicom part. )
There’s work happening toward a much more automated unlock method that should make the process a snap. Given the speed at which things are happening at the moment, it’ll likely be available within hours of this post. Monitor Engadget or Gizmodo for the latest.
The first automated GUI version is out now. In order to use it you’ll need to accomplish a jailbreak, install BSD subsystem and SFTP (I did so using Installer.app), and SFTP into the phone from a computer. Still not exactly plug and play, but if you’re determined and knowledgeable (or know someone who is) this ought to be a lot easier than the command line scripts I used last night.
owing to my reluctance to do anything on the Edge network I hadn’t actually tried using wireless data until this morning. Turns out there’s an extra step to get that working, which should be easy if you’ve made it this far. You need to go into Settings > General > Network > EDGE and replace the Cingular/AT&T information with that of your local carrier. You’ll need to look up those settings, but in Canada you can find them here.
It’s been over two months in the coming, but as of tonight I now have an iPhone that works on Rogers Wireless, my local carrier. And theoretically when I travel, I’m also able to buy a prepaid SIM card and swap it out to cut down on roaming rates.
There are a few gotchas you ought to be aware of before attempting. The biggest concern is, what next? Will Apple attempt to re-lock the phone in the next software update? No one knows. If you’re the optimistic sort you could read into this recent statement by an Apple marketing person as leaning toward laissez-faire unlock management from the company (though it’s already been clarified…) They do make money no matter where the phones were bought after all, it’s only AT&T that’s missing out on most of the recurring revenue. Who knows how it will play out though. I’m going to wait-and-see as new versions of the firmware are released before upgrading so I don’t break anything. The good news is that the development community is super active, so I’m betting that no matter what screwballs get sent out from Cupertino, there will be a workaround sooner or later.
More and more is becoming clear about how the unlocks and future firmware updates will interact. See the newer post iPhone + Icons for more detail.
There are also reports that some people have lost the YouTube app as a result of the unlock. That problem appears to be addressed already (see Update 2), but I didn’t experience it myself, so it’s sporadic anyway.
If you’re an American iPhone owner, you probably still remember what June 29th felt like. To a lesser degree, that was what today felt like for the rest of the world.