Blog Post

Fenced in: That unlocked Apple iPad SIM gets locked when activated on AT&T

So much for the magical, mystical Apple SIM card that comes in the new iPads with cellular service.

The carrier connection menu on the new iPad Air 2
The carrier connection menu on the new iPad Air 2

The idea was that iPad owners could switch their LTE service between AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, at least for a short time, which signaled the potential easing of carrier control over your devices. I assume Verizon opted out of the arrangement, although we don’t know for sure, and we’re now finding out that AT&T isn’t playing either: If you activate an [company]Apple[/company] SIM card on AT&T’s network, you’re effectively locking that SIM to the carrier.

iMore points to Apple’s support documentation on the matter, which verifies many of the tweets I read about this situation today:

Using Apple SIM, you can choose from different cellular carriers and their various programs. The data plans vary by carrier. For instance, in the United States, you can choose a domestic plan from either Sprint or T-Mobile and also pick an alternate plan from the other carrier as needed. When you choose AT&T on iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, AT&T dedicates Apple SIM to their network only.

Obviously, the last sentence says it all in no uncertain terms: If you choose AT&T’s network, you’re stuck with that choice. The support documentation has “last modified” date of October 24, which is today; I suspect the AT&T bit is the modified part but I didn’t see the support page prior to today.

Even as an AT&T customer, I’m disappointed to see this policy reversal. There’s simply no need for it; if AT&T stand behinds its network quality and service, it should be able to earn iPad LTE customers through a trial period.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option now. Instead of some potential pro-consumer innovation, iPad owners are stuck in the same carrier dark ages of heavy-handed policy and will need to get a second SIM if they lock their new iPad to AT&T’s network and later want to change carriers.

This post was updated on October 25 to reflect Verizon’s lack of involvement with the Apple SIM program.

17 Responses to “Fenced in: That unlocked Apple iPad SIM gets locked when activated on AT&T”

  1. the more i think about this the more it does not make sense for at&t to do this. at&t has significantly broader coverage than t-mobile or sprint. so persons who choose t-mo or sprint are likely to buy day passes from at&t as needed, but now they can’t. people who choose at&t full time however are less likely to go with one of the other carriers for day/week passes giving at&t much to gain as a add on option and little to lose alowing the other as add ons.

    i suppose at&t may feel people will go them all the time if they can’t use them on demand but i don’t buy that.

  2. William Robichaux

    I received my iPad Air 2 and had specifically requested a Verizon version. The iPad I received had the new ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile Sim card and I then found out that the only way I can get on Verizon is to go to Verizon store and have them install a new Verison Sim card. That really sucks!

    • That does stink but I’m confused, William. How did you actually request a Verizon version? Because of the new Apple SIM there is no choice (that I see) for carrier when you order the iPad Air 2 from Apple. You either choose a Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi + cellular model.

  3. “Verizon opted out of the arrangement”

    Do you know this for a fact? That Verizon was offered the opportunity to participate here and declined?

    “I suspect the AT&T bit is the modified part but I didn’t see the support page prior to today.”

    Other than that it would be convenient for your story, why do you think this is true?

    • Myo, that’s a fair point on the Verizon bit; I’ll update the post to show that it reflects my opinion.

      As far as the second point, I think it’s a very logical assumption on my part. Last week, the Apple iPad web page clearly stated that consumers could switch between AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile with the Apple SIM. Now that the device and SIM are available, the support documentation reflects contrary information as Apple’s iPad page still shows AT&T as a supporting carrier for the Apple SIM and ability to switch LTE providers. It has nothing to do with convenience to my story.

  4. Such a dramatic headline and a misleading one at that. Its actually quite amazing that Apple provides you with a SIM that will work on any carrier (completely unheard of anywhere else) and it seems totally logical that the SIM would then need to be locked to that carrier once you pick a plan.

    The quote about not being able to have nice things is silly and comes across a bit like a spoiled child. The device itself is not locked so you can switch out the SIM at will (In the past, device locking was the norm and THAT was truly a problem).

    What Apple is doing here is letting you buy an iPad now and choose a carrier later without having to wait for that carrier to send you a SIM in the mail. This is a huge improvement over how things used to work and that should have been your story.

    • It may sound logical that the SIM would be locked to the carrier after picking a plan but I think you’re missing a major point. The Apple SIM is even more unique in that it can be used with one carrier and then with another. Or another after that. That’s a huge potential impact to the cellular industry.

      Now that AT&T is changing the rules after the face of Apple’s iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 launch, there’s less impact. Sure, it’s simple to get another SIM from another carrier since the iPad hardware isn’t carrier locked but that’s the way it has worked in the past. Now a pro-consumer step forward is simply being relegated because the carrier doesn’t want to play nice with Apple’s strategy. After years of carriers imposing their will on consumers, which is why I (and many others) are disappointed. If you’re not, I respect that.

  5. the thing is for people living i a city the likely option would be sprint or t-mobile as the main carrier and than at&t as a back up when needed. that’s not possible without sim swapping. i suspect at&t knows very well they would be the back up and don;t want that.

  6. Andy Abramson

    So those of us with legacy SIM’s on AT&T can use the old SIM, pop it out and use the Apple SIM elsewhere. While I can see this type of thinking by AT&T on Contract devices, I don’t see it making sense for non contract devices.

      • Ok so the Apple SIM just becomes an AT&T SIM. I guess now we know why Apple didn’t mention it at their event. It’s not that big of a deal. You can still just switch SIM cards.

        I think they just did this so third party retailers didn’t have to carry five different models in the different storage sizes in the different colors and an LTE variant of each one for four carriers.