General Question

Buttonstc's avatar

Instead of being robbed by ATT (again) what is my best option for buying an UNLOCKED iPhone 4S?

Asked by Buttonstc (27557points) February 23rd, 2013 from iPhone

I’ve done the Math and realized that even tho it may cost me more upfront, the savings over the two year contract obligation are significant. And even tho ATT is no longer is the sole option (as it was years ago) the other carriers deals are equally onerous. So, I’m ready to be independent. I just need the salient facts to guide my purchase. Hopefully you guys can help me out :)

I’ve been looking at listings on my local craigslist, but I’m unsure of how to check that it really is an unlocked phone that they’re selling.

I’ve also seen ads for Virgin Mobile in which they’re selling iPhones without contract but it was unclear whether they’re truly unlocked.

NB (I definitely don’t want the iPhone 5 and I definitely don’t want to be locked in to a 2 yr contract.)

So hopefully some of you techy jellies have more knowledge about this than I, or others of you have had good buying experiences apart from carriers or the Apple Store (apparently they don’t sell unlocked phones but are merely acting as a conduit for one or another carrier :(

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14 Answers

trailsillustrated's avatar

Just go buy an unlocked Iphone and get a monthly unlimited plan. ez

Jane2003's avatar

Maybe try eBay?

Response moderated (Spam)
wildpotato's avatar

Apple appears to offer an unlocked option on their iPhone 4S page – just under the options for each of the carriers there’s a link for it. Sorry, I can’t copy the link over here at the moment for some reason.

lilmissmuffin's avatar

I’m a Straight Talk user and they just came out with iPhone for straight talk. I love Straight Talk because you buy a $45 card and your set for a month. Check out the straight talk website and wish you luck:)

hearkat's avatar

My friend was telling me that Cricket has the iPhone 5 for $55/month – supposedly unlimited data, text, and talk. Sounds too good to be true, though… I’m wondering if they have 4G/LTE or if it’s only 3G.

jerv's avatar

@hearkat Officially, the iPhone 5 is the first to support LTE. In practice, it’s incompatible with enough networks and dodgy enough that it really isn’t 4G.

geeky_mama's avatar

We just went through this at my house.

First question for you is do you already have an iPhone and just want to move it to a new provider? Or do you need to buy one? I’ve done both recently.

Case one: the iPhone 4 I already had.
Last fall I got the new 5 (my work pays for it and we have a pooled contract w/ AT&T) and AT&T happily unlocked my old 4 for me. I walked in to a nearby T-Mobile (because we already have a Family plan with them) and they handed me (for free) a Micro Sim and transferred my daughter’s number to the new micro SIM.

If you already have a phone w/ AT&T and have satisfied the contract (as I had) there is a web page where you can request the unlock and then you can take the phone wherever you like. Bear in mind “wherever” you like means Sprint or T-Mobile realistically because Verizon has a different (CDMA) network and so Verizon iPhones are not portable..and vice versa.

Case two:
You don’t have an iPhone and you want one, but not on AT&T.
We just did this this week. My husband has been watching Craig’s List for a factory unlocked iPhone 4S and found one slightly used in pristine condition for a good price ($350 – cash).
The cost if you buy a factory unlocked one (new) via either the Apple Store or Amazon is closer to $550 to $650. (Again, I’m talking about a 4S, not a 5)

Once you get a factory unlocked one (and that part, FACTORY unlocked is very important—you don’t want one that’s supposedly jail broken or with a dongle – because there are folks out there that are ripping people off with those—and they are likely to NOT work or be unsupported) you can shop around for a plan.
We researched it and stayed with T-Mobile. We have 3 phone lines for $99 – all have unlimited text, only the youngest daughter’s phone is limited to 500 min. of talk – the other two are unlimited talk & text.
My husband’s phone has unlimited, unthrottled 4G data. The other two phones we intentionally do not have a data plan for – the girls use Wi-Fi only. (Though of course talk & text always works w/ their iPhones.)

So in short –
1. Watch Craig’s List – be picky about who you buy from, expect to spend between $350 and $550 and it’ll be cash, upfront. Make sure it’s a FACTORY unlock, and it’s definitely preferably that they prove to you that it worked on another network or really truly was unlocked. (I, for example, took a screen shot of the “Congratulations your iPhone is unlocked” screen that appeared in iTunes). Make absolutely sure it wasn’t a Verizon phone—unless you’ve already decided you want to use it on Verizon.

2. Shop around for a provider, but know that you’re still a bit limited. T-Mobile is a good choice (depending on if they have good coverage in your area), and they’ll give you the micro SIM for free. We researched all different plans (including the Wal-Mart “Smart Talk” ones that use TMobile’s network) and decided on T-Mobile’s value plan. It’s a good price but doesn’t limit our data usage as much as the Smart Talk plans would have. (Look at the fine print – they REALLY throttle your data with Smart Talk)

Ways to save money:
1. Skip the data plan – just use WiFi. WiFi is pretty ubiquitous these days—so you could consider just getting a plan w/out data to save a lot of money.
2. Buy used. It’s cheaper than walking into the Apple Store and buying a factory unlocked phone.

One additional note – T-Mobile will also be getting iPhones to sell in about another month or two (April/May time frame is what we hear)—but without subsidies.,2817,2412948,00.asp

Buttonstc's avatar


You are just the font of knowledge and experience I need; perfect !

I do currently have my very aging iPhone 3G but want to upgrade to the 4S but don’t see any reason to stay handcuffed to AT&T. They insist that one must have a data plan with an iPhone (which is subsidized by them) even tho it’s actually the two years of phone service which pays for the iPhone. Obviously, this ups the bill considerably.

If it were not for their insistence upon the data plan in addition, I would stay with them. But I’m using WiFi for over 99% of the time and could easily get along without it altogether.

Do you know whether either Sprint or T-Mobile allows going without a data plan for their subsidized phones? If either or both of them allowed that, I would simply just switch and get a subsidized phone from whichever of them is cheapest.

Regarding buying an unlocked phone from Craigsllist, how did your husband make certain that the person was selling him a legit unlocked phone?

That’s my primary hesitation about it. I’ve bought used items from CL before and had good luck with it. But I’m out of my depth with the phone issue.

Any tips you or anyone has would be appreciated.

Buttonstc's avatar


Thanks for the info. I went to the site and there was a popup requiring my zipcode. After putting it in, I got a notice telling me there was not coverage in my area yet.

geeky_mama's avatar

Hi @Buttonstc

No carrier (e.g. Sprint) who is subsidizing the phone is going to let you get it without the data plan.
It’s like this: if you buy the phone outright, on your own – yes, you will pay more for the phone upfront, but you have total freedom over the monthly cost / plan. Or, you can get a subsidized phone from one of the big 3 (AT&T, Verizon or Sprint) and pay less for the phone initially, but pay more over the next 2 years for the required data plan/contract.

T-mobile will not, apparently be offering the iPhone5 with any subsidies. For Sprint, Verizon or AT&T – where you can buy an iPhone subsidized the only way to do so is to commit to a multi-year (usually 2 yrs) plan—including data. That’s where they make their money—so if they subsidize the device, you can be sure they’re going to tie you to a contract & data plan to recover their cost.

Tips for getting a legitimate seller on CL:
My husband insisted on dealing with someone very local (so he filtered the ads for our nearby area) and then only emailed those that had a picture of the phone running unlocked on another network (the 4S we got on Friday, for example, was shown on Craigs List on the T-Mobile network)—and also he looked for a seller’s story that made sense..
Stories like: “I bought two and want to sell my extra for just $300” don’t make sense. If it looks too good to be true, it is.
Stories like: “I had a 4 on AT&T and upgraded to a 5, but when I got the 5 I switched to Verizon. Now I can’t use the 4 because it won’t work on Verizon’s network so I’m selling it.” make sense and are more common…and you’ll quickly see what the going rate is in your area on Craigs List. (In our area it was averaging about $400 for a like-new 4)

Also, be sure to ask about Battery life. People who are selling a 2 or 3 yr. old iPhone 4 may not tell you if the battery is hardly holding a charge these days.

The absolute safest way is to walk into an Apple Store or order online from Apple – you can buy a Factory Unlocked 4 or a 4S right there, brand new. Then you can go to T-Mobile and get service (talk/text only) for your iPhone without a data plan. You can transfer/keep your number and you don’t need to have a contract. (T-Mobile has plans that do not require a contract.)

Buttonstc's avatar

Thanks for that helpful info. I’ll be giving T-Mobile a call and doing some math and then make my decision.

I’ve already checked out Wal-Mart and Virgin mobile and I wouldn’t really be saving any significant amount because their plans are all geared toward those who need unlimited phone, text and data and priced accordingly. I don’t need unlimited data and I don’t text so don’t need the expense.

If I can’t find a deal I trust on CL I may yet decide on the Apple store but they’re currently charging $550 for the unlocked 4S.

Just for curiosity, how does a picture of the phone running on a network tell that it’s unlocked? What if they just jailbroke it instead of it being a factory unlock. That’s the whole part I’m a little foggy about.

geeky_mama's avatar


Google information on jail breaking 4 and 4S. It can be done, though it’s technically illegal – but you’d see some traces of that software by looking at the OS. (Because you have to unlock it to jailbreak it..and so you’d see Evasi0n or redsn0w or Cydia, etc. running on the phone. You likely wouldn’t see this in just a picture—you’d have to turn the phone on and look at the Settings/About/OS info. to see this.)

What does a picture give you? Just some verification that it’s not a hardware based hack (e.g. dongle) not a promise that they didn’t jail break it themselves. However, if there is no Cydia, Redsn0w or other jailbreak software on the iPhone’s screen and they’re on T-Mobile network in the picture..then maybe you can trust them that it’s actually truly a Factory Unlocked phone. (or AT&T unlocked—in which case they should put right in their Craig’s List ad a picture of that screen shot of the iTunes screen I mentioned that reads: “Congratulations your phone is unlocked”)

wildpotato's avatar

To add another tale of personal experience to @geeky_mama,‘s regarding how to tell the difference between jailbroken and unlocked phones: Evasi0n and redsn0w are programs that are run on the computer to jailbreak the device. One does not see them on the device itself. Cydia (the jailbroken app store) will be present, but I, for one, do not keep its icon on my home screen, so if I took a screenshot, the Cydia icon would not be there to give up the game. The Settings will not reveal a jailbreak or Cydia on their own; you have to download Cydia apps or tweaks for them to appear in Settings. So looking there is not necessarily a giveaway, either. Additionally, there are several tweaks that can be downloaded from Cydia that can be used to hide any icon (like the ones Apple doesn’t let you hide, and the Cydia icon itself). I think this tweak would then show up in Settings, but I am not positive. To sum: a devious and clever jailbreaker could certainly disguise the phone as unlocked rather than jailbroken in a photo, and to tell the difference in person you might have to know a good deal of what to look for.

Second paragraph edited for irrelevance.

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