There’s a lot of contradictory information available regarding the legality of unlocking iPhones and cell phones in general. Asking the wrong people will get you wrong answers because everyone has an agenda. However, the answer – for the moment – is “yes”. Unlocking an iPhone is currently legal in the United States, and in most other countries. However, let’s be a little more specific.
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Cell phone unlocking was a legal gray area in the United States for a long time, and until recently, the legality has not been exactly specified. Until 2010, service providers tended to argue that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA) – which prohibits the breaking of copy protection on electronic devices – made it illegal to unlock an iPhone, and this was explicitly recognized by U.S law in 2012.
However, this is no longer the case: in 2014, the White House, Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill that issued certain exemptions to the DMCA. Unlocking cellular devices was included in the exemptions (as well as jailbreaking!) making it legal to unlock iPhones. Unfortunately, this bill is up for reconsideration in 2017, and we have yet to find out if it will be renewed.
According to the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, cell phone carriers in the U.S must unlock cell phones after their service contract has expired, or inform customers that their phones are eligible for unlocking. Besides that, iPhones in the U.S are increasingly being sold directly from the manufacturer without a SIM lock, so if you don’t already have an iPhone, you can simply skip the unlocking process, and buy one unlocked out of the box.
As such, iPhone unlocking is currently as legal as breathing in the United States, and there’s really no need to endure a SIM lock unless (for some reason) you want to.
Outside the U.S
Outside of the United States, the practice of SIM locking is less common, and laws governing Digital Rights Management are more relaxed. This means that outside of the U.S, it’s generally safe to assume that unlocking your iPhone is perfectly legal. However, let’s take a closer look at some of the larger countries by cell phone use.
Unlocking is a little complicated in China. Technically, Chinese law actually prohibits telecommunication companies from locking phones in the first place if they are using the same network technology as other carriers.
It’s not surprising, then, that none of the three carriers in China use the same network technologies. China Mobile’s iPhone 6 is not compatible with any other Chinese networks, or networks outside of the country. So there’s really no point in buying a China Mobile iPhone to begin with, or unlocking it once it’s purchased; it’s only compatible with one carrier in the entire world.
However, as long as you are using a retail Apple iPhone, you won’t run into any issues getting it unlocked.
Unlike the United States, telecommunications companies in the U.K are not required to unlock cell phones after their contracts have expired. However, in actual practice, most major carriers in the U.K are happy to do this for you, though sometimes with a fee.
For more detailed information about carriers that will lock or unlock phones in the U.K, check out this helpful page from Ofcom.
In 2015, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in China passed a requirement similar to the one passed in the U.S: all Japanese network providers are required to unlock phones at the request of customers.
SIM locks are not illegal in Brazil, however, Brazil’s telecom regulator Anatel has provided domestic carriers to unlock phones at the request of customers. As a result, most cell phones purchased in Brazil are unlocked at the time of purchase.
Germany does not have a definite law regulating cell phone locking, but in practice, even phones sold under contract are usually unlocked to begin with. The only phones sold with a lock are usually prepaid devices.
Canadian carriers are required by law to unlock cell phones at the request of customers within 90 days, or as soon as they have paid for their device in full.
However, like the United States, Canada has provisions in its copyright law that prohibit the circumvention of digital locks. This makes unlocking a phone outside the permission or intervention of the carrier a legal gray area.
As in Canada, Australia’s copyright laws make the circumvention of electronic locks a legal gray area, so unlocking phones outside the permission of your carrier may or may not be subject to anti-circumvention laws.
However, there is no Australian law that specifically regulates cell phone locking, but as in Germany, phones are rarely sold locked unless on a prepaid service plan.
With the exception of the sources provided above, information regarding the legal status and practices of cell phone locking in these countries has been obtained from Wikipedia, and information regarding digital copyright protection abroad has been gathered from this page.