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What can you do with an unlocked iPhone 5? Here are 3 options

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Apple(s aapl) started selling unlocked versions of the iPhone 5 in its online store last night, allowing the contract-averse to pay full price for their device and then take it wherever they damn well choose. Assuming you’re willing to shell out the $649 to $849 necessary to buy the unsubsidized device, what exactly are your carrier options?

Apple produced three versions of the iPhone 5 for different carriers and global regions, but the only unlocked version it appears to be selling is the GSM-LTE device for AT&T(s t) and the Canadian operators’ networks. That means you won’t be able to bring your pricey new gadget to a CDMA carrier like Verizon(s vz)(s vod), Sprint(s s), Cricket(s leap), MetroPCS(s pcs) or US Cellular(s usm). But the device will work on the networks of almost any GSM operator globally, whether AT&T, T-Mobile or Cincinnati Bell, Vodafone, Softbank or Telefonica(s tef). You just need to plug in the carrier’s SIM card.

There’s one big caveat though: While GSM (i.e. voice and 2G data) will work fine on the iPhone 5, more advance, faster data capabilities are a toss up, especially here in the US. If you’re hoping to get LTE access here in the States, then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. For now there’s a single US operator that has an large LTE network supporting this version of the iPhone, and that operator is AT&T. But that situation is changing as I’ll discuss more below. And there are definitely some decent carrier options for 3G out there.

Straight Talk

straight-talk-SIM-featuredIf you haven’t read my colleague Kevin Tofel’s definitive post on the virtues and vices of Tracfone’s SIM-card smartphone service Straight Talk(s amx), well, then you should. Straight Talk is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that uses AT&T and T-Mobiles’ networks, but far undercuts both carriers in price. For $45 a month you get unlimited voice, SMS and roughly 100 MB a day of data.

For the iPhone 5, you’ll want to get a Straight Talk AT&T SIM, since you’ll have access to far greater 3G HSPA coverage. And while the iPhone 5 could technically access AT&T’s LTE network, Ma Bell hasn’t started offering up 4G access to its MVNOs yet so you’ll get HSPA speeds.

There are several other AT&T MVNOs that offer similar bring-your-own-iPhone plans: H2O Wireless and Red Pocket are two. Another MVNO you might want to look at in the future is FreedomPop. It is developing a WiMAX sleeve for the iPhone 5, and will eventually offer a VoIP service. Once those pieces are in place, it will basically turn the iPhone 5 into a data-only softphone.


T-Mobile has been preparing for the unlocked iPhone 5 since it was announced – it may not sell the device, but it’s welcoming unlocked iPhone owners onto its network with open arms. The problem is T-Mo’s current funky network configuration means that it can only offer 2G data speeds on the device in most parts of the country. T-Mobile is in the process of reconfiguring its network, though, and has iPhone-friendly HSPA+ networks in 15 cities already.

t-mobile-iphone-featureIn the next six months, its entire 3G network will be iPhone ready. So if you can wait a few months for mobile broadband — or live in one of the areas that already support faster HSPA+ speeds on the 1900 MHz frequency — signing up for one of T-Mobile’s value plans could give you a boatload of data for much cheaper prices than AT&T and Verizon are offering. Plus, since the iPhone 5 supports dual-carrier HSPA+, T-Mobile’s 3G network will be able to deliver near LTE speeds.

There’s another advantage to going with T-Mo. It’s LTE network will go live in the second half of 2013 over 1700 MHz/2100 MHz Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) band, which the unlocked iPhone just happens to support. The iPhone’s data capabilities may be limited on T-Mobile today, but it will be fully compatible next year.


This may seem like a strange option, since most people buying an unlocked iPhone are trying to get away from the big carriers and their contracts, but the fact remains that AT&T is the only operator that can support the GSM iPhone 5’s full complement of 3G and 4G data connections. The advantage of using AT&T off contract is that when better options emerge, you’re not tied down to a two-year commitment. You can start off with AT&T, and when Straight Talk or T-Mobile gets LTE you can make the switch.

One final word of warning. To support the iPhone 5, your carrier will need a nano-SIM card, which is smaller than the standard micro-SIM most carriers use. Check to make sure your chosen carrier offers it before you take the plunge. Otherwise you’ll be forced to perform surgery on your SIM to get it to fit.

30 Responses to “What can you do with an unlocked iPhone 5? Here are 3 options”

  1. Okay, so if I understand all this correctly. I could potentially buy an unlocked Iphone 5 off, say Ebay, then I could buy a Straight-Talk sim card and put it in the Iphone and it would work as if I had just bought one directly from the Straight-Talk website, but just at a cheaper price?

  2. Kevin Kazanova

    buy it on cricket it costs $450 unlocked and youll just pay $55 per month and evrything unlimitted, and if your willing to go to another country u just need to buy a sim card and thats all.

  3. Will this work the same if I have an unlock iPhone 4s from AT&T? I just make sure it’s unlocked, by a sim card for it and then it’s good? And what kind of sim card do I get? Also, where do I even get this sim card!? Pleaseeee helppp!! You can email me at [email protected] for answer. Need the asap. Thanks!!

  4. Please let me know if I am understanding this correctly! I walk into Wal-Mart and buy an iPhone 5, I also buy a Straight Talk AT&T SIM as this would be the best coverage for my area. Since LTE is not in my area, I don’t need to worry about a nano card as I can’t get 4g in my area anyway…right?!

  5. I have a question. I bought an unlocked Iphone 5 from verizon ( i got it through my brother) but i am using it with att. Will i receive LTE when it comes to my area?

  6. I just checked with T-Mobile and they do not offer the pay-as-you go plan for iphone5 on nano-sim. You have to enter 2 year contract as a new customer. They do have the pay as you go for iphone4.

      • You sure about that? I went to try to get on a family plan with T-Mobile with iphone 5’s and they said that I could not do it because of the nano sim or even micro sim card for that matter,won’t work on t-mobile.

  7. I want to keep my unlimited data from Verizon, but I know when I get an iPhone 5 ill be pushed into a tiered data plan. It’s awful, but what would be the best option for a person who uses 5gb’s of data a month on average(+/-2gb’s)?

    • Dave, you can buy the full price iPhone and still keep unlimited. I did. The full price, unsubsidized, whatever you call it, is the same everywhere. This is not news.

  8. From an international perspective, I’m not that excited about the unlocked iPhone 5 in the US. It’s sounding like they are selling the Model A1428, which will not get you LTE in any other country. So it’s unlocked, but you’re not going to get LTE on anything other than AT&T. Why bother?

  9. I’m with Verizon, and they sold unlocked iPhone 5s from day 1. I bought it from the Apple store in Cupertino and it came unlocked by default. I went to Europe 2 months ago with it, went to Vodafone and plugged in the local SIM card.

    I don’t understand why they did not mention this capability with regards to Verizon.

    • Timothy Weaver

      I keep seeing people say this, and it’s true that the GSM is unlocked. However, you still have to enter into a 2 year contract with Verizon to buy a phone from them. The important change is that Apple is now openly selling a unlocked and unsubsidized GSM iPhone 5 – although it has been possible since the beginning by simply buying a “full price” AT&T model.

  10. AT&T is apparently currently unable to provide Data service to the unlocked iPhone 5. I bought one new, from Apple, yesterday – took it to AT&T to change my SIM card. All done no problem, was then advised that AT&T currently unable to support Data on it !!!!! They have a problem they are apparently working on – no idea when/if it will be working.

  11. Use net10 wireless….. like straight it is also owned by trac phone but does not throttle its data…..ST dose so net10 has unlimited everything for 50 a month with free roaming.

  12. Tim Davies

    It is also interesting to note:

    You can get a Data Only Sim and use it like a 4G Mini iPad. But you can do that with a locked in iPhone as well.

    I’ve been doing it for the past 2 years, first with my iPhone 4, then with my Galaxy Note, now with my iPhone 4s.

    I use a MicroSim from a iPad, with a ATT iPad plan(mine is actually unlimited). I used the google voice app for texts(and sometimes imessage for those friends that have iphones) And I use Talkatone for using google voice for free voice calls over data. You simply change your APN(does not require a jailbreak) and you are good to go.

    You just have to cut your microsim down for it to fit into the iPhone 5…it’s a bummer the new iPad does not use a MicroSIM.

    • @Tim, great minds think alike!

      i actually use my original ipad’s microsim w/my ATT Elevate MiFI and have unlimited data on the mifi for only $30 a month w/no caps :) i also usually will put it in my PS Vita 3G w/the microsim to sim adapter.

  13. It’s actually better to buy the Verizon version of the phone. You can just walk in the store and buy it and you will be able to use it on any gsm carrier in the world as well as sprint and Japanese cdma carriers.

    Plus Verizon has been selling all their phones unlock since the iphone 4s.

    • AT&T’s version is also unlocked. I got mine in the Apple store. Just went in and said “I want AT&T’s version of iphone 5” Just don’t forget to mention you want device only and that is it. Once you come home, just remove the AT&T’s sim card from the phone and put in any other one and now turn the device on and it will activate itself as unlocked! I did this with t-mobile sim.