Unlocked phones are all the rage, but what does the term mean, and when is the right time to make the investment?

What is an unlocked iPhone?

An unlocked phone is one that can be used on any carrier without restrictions. Most Canadian carriers, in exchange for providing a handsome subsidy, sell handsets that are locked to their networks, making it more likely that you will purchase and continue using their service. Popping a SIM card from, say, Bell into a Rogers-locked device will refuse to connect to Bell's network and throw an error. Put a Rogers SIM card back in that phone, and it starts working again.

When a phone is unlocked, you're free to shop around for the best monthly plan — one that is not tied to the sale of a handset. Most carriers, in fact, offer monthly discounts for bringing an unlocked phone to their network, since they don't have to sell a subsidized phone — money that comes out of their bottom line — to sell a service plan.

Should you buy an unlocked iPhone?

These days, you hear a lot about "buying unlocked" and how it's so much better. But, like all things, it's not that simple. Whether you should buy an unlocked depends on a lot of things, but thankfully it's easier than ever to make that decision; the number of ways to obtain one has risen dramatically over the past few years.

But should you? There are several reasons to buy an unlocked iPhone:

  • Carriers often give meaningful discounts to customers who buy an unlocked phone beforehand and purchase service.
  • Unlocked devices can be used on any carrier whose wireless bands are supported on the handset. These days, most unlocked phones sold throughout the world work on the major Canadian carriers.
  • Unlocked devices can be used internationally, with local SIM cards, that avoid often-expensive roaming plans.

Are there any downsides to buying an unlocked iPhone?

They are typically more expensive since they are purchased at their full retail price, with no carrier subsidy. The 64GB iPhone X, for example, costs about $599.99 on a 2-year contract, but $1,319 outright. That difference — also known as the subsidy — is offered in exchange for two years of guaranteed service revenue. Most people don't want to spend more than $900 on a smartphone up front unless they have a very good reason.

Where to get an unlocked iPhone?

Apple sells the iPhone unlocked directly from its retail stores, as well as online. That is the easiest way to get one, and also the most expensive. From the iPhone SE, which starts at $469, to the iPhone X, which goes all the way up to $1,529, there is no question that Apple's most popular product has been affected by the weak Canadian dollar.

That's why iPhone resellers such as Orchard are finding such success in the Canadian market selling well-maintained second-hand products.

Whereas buying an unlocked iPhone from Kijiji or Craigslist is largely a crapshoot (see the IMEI blacklist below), getting an unlocked iPhone from Orchard or an equivalent service all but guarantees the phone is in good standing.

Unlocking an existing iPhone

It's fairly easy to unlock an existing phone, if you want to go that route. To do so, you'll need to come at the problem in one of two ways:

  • If you purchased it directly from your carrier, call them and pay a fee for them to unlock it. That fee is usually $35 to $50, depending on the provider, and may only be possible when the device is fully paid off, or the account is in good standing.
  • If you purchased it from someone else (who presumably got it from a carrier), websites like cellunlocker.net have proven reliable and inexpensive. Some websites claim to be able to unlock iPhones, but be careful about their claims, as not all have the capabilities.

NOTE: Starting December 1st, 2017, carriers will be required to unlock your phone phone free of charge and any new phone purchased through carriers will need to be sold unlocked.

Will an unlocked iPhone work on your carrier?

I can't answer that for you specifically, but chances are, yes. iPhones sold in the last three years usually have some, if not all, the requisite hardware to support most Canadian carriers.

If you're looking to purchase an unlocked phone, make sure it has at least one of the following compatible LTE bands. (Not sure what a "band" is? Read up on our Guide to LTE in Canada.)

  • Band 4 (All carriers)
  • Band 7 (Bell / Rogers)
  • Band 12/17 (All carriers)
  • Band 13 (All carriers)
  • Band 2 (Bell / Telus)
  • Band 5 (Bell / Telus)

Have any questions about unlocked iPhones? Any experiences to share? Let me know in the comments!

Updated October 2017: Added pricing information for the iPhone X.