Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
Drew and I are finally getting a real phone.
We have been giving the disclaimer: “ehh…it’s complicated…but we have a wifi phone sort of…” for 3 years now, explaining why we’re not always available, why our text number is different from our phone number, etc. We used a number of the funky non-traditional phone strategies in this article.
And now we are going to have a real phone with a T-mobile Simple Choice Plan. At least, we’re going to test it out.
Well, when we started this journey last week, we encountered a miserable problem. And while I know this is going to be such a ridiculously specific post that won’t apply to many of you, I just have to do SOMETHING with all the useless things I now know and wish I would have known a week ago about why Sprint iPhones are impossible to use with T-mobile, or any other US network.
Pretty much all of the things I’m going to discuss can be found, (albeit vaguely), in Sprint’s Legal/Regulatory Unlocking page. But I’m going to retell their story in a more useful and realistic way.
To switch your phone’s carrier from the one it was originally made for, you have to “unlock” it. That’s just the word they use for opening it up for use with a different carrier. Many phone companies will accommodate unlocking your phone for you, under a few conditions such as a history of on-time payments, full, legal ownership of the phone, etc.
CDMA and GSM:
Not all phones function off of the same technologies. Really, there are two different radio systems, CDMA and GSM, that a phone can use and some phones are built to use one, some are built to use the other, and some are built primarily for one, but with some abilities that utilize the other.
For instance, the iPhone 4s is a dual-band phone meaning that it supports both CDMA and GSM.
This is important because most of the rest of the world uses GSM, so if you are wanting to use a phone with foreign SIM cards, or with global-plans like the T-mobile Simple Choice, and such things, you will want to research whether or not your phone accommodates GSM technology/wavelengths.
Unlocking for travel:
Sprint offers two things when it comes to unlocking. If you have been a good customer with on-time payments and the like, they will unlock your phone for international use so that it can accept an international SIM card.
Otherwise…they will provide an “MSL” or Master Subsidy Lock code which, theoretically, your new, US-based phone company would use to unlock the phone if you are wishing to switch carriers.
What is this MSL code?
Here’s what Sprint says at this link: Sprint Unlocking Policy. (I’ve put the notable parts in red.)
“I have the MSL code for my device. Does that mean that my device is unlocked?
The MSL code may be used to override operational parameters restricting the device to operating on Sprint’s network; however, the MSL code alone will not enable certain devices to operate on a different carrier’s network. Enabling a device to work on another carrier’s network may necessitate the carrier or party attempting to unlock the device to address the firmware hardcoded into the device at the time the device was manufactured, which in turn requires extensive technological knowledge and skill. Whether another carrier is able to or will unlock a device is subject to that carrier’s policies and practices.”
I STILL have no idea if this code EVER in ANY CIRCUMSTANCE does anything or not. They say that the code could be used to unlock the phone if someone had “extensive technological knowledge and skill”. But…no one knows what to do with that MSL code, and in fact…it might just be useless. Because they also say this: (Again, I’ve put the notable parts in red.)
“I have been told that my device is not capable of being unlocked and/or does not have a corresponding MSL code. What can I do?
Many devices that have been manufactured for Sprint simply are not capable of being unlocked, or will not have a corresponding MSL code. For example, Sprint-branded iPhones have been manufactured in a way that prevents them from being unlocked to allow the device to activate on a different carrier’s network in the United States. This is because, prior to the development of the voluntary commitment contained in CTIA’s Consumer Code for Wireless Service (“Unlocking Commitment”) carriers were not required to, and many carriers did not, develop their devices to be capable of being unlocked. Sprint strongly encourages owners of such devices to consider Sprint’s Buyback Program, which may enable them to trade in their old devices to receive an in-store credit toward the purchase of a new device or to receive an account credit. For more information, visit sprint.com/buyback. To help resolve this problem, Sprint has committed to ensure that all of its devices produced after February 11, 2015, are capable of being unlocked.”
I had to call Sprint quite a few times to figure out what that information effectively meant.
In the case of iPhones, Sprint’s phones are created in such a way that they will only ever accept Sprint’s SIM cards in the US. If you are in the US, your Sprint iPhone WILL NOT ACCEPT ANOTHER SIM CARD. As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with unlocking or locking, has nothing to do with CDMA vs GSM, it simply has to do with the way they’ve built their iPhones.
Now…whether or not the mysterious MSL code has anything to do with how someone with “extensive technological knowledge and skill” would attempt to UNDO the very way the phone was manufactured, I have no idea but practically speaking, the MSL code is absolutely useless and arbitrary in the case of Sprint iPhones.
They themselves say, right there in print that the Sprint-branded iPhones have been manufactured as unlockable phones (when it comes to unlocking for use with another US carrier).
Which, by the way, will be illegal as of February 11, 2015. Sprint (or anyone else for that matter) will no longer be allowed to make a phone that’s essentially impossible to unlock for use with another carrier because of the “Unlocking Commitment” that will soon be in effect.
I confronted a Sprint representative with the question of why Sprint gives out an MSL code at all, if no other carrier will be able to do anything with it. “So even if I have the MSL code, it won’t work with any US carrier that uses a SIM card. Well, aren’t pretty much all US carriers going to function with a SIM card?” I asked.
She put me on a brief hold and returned to confirm that there are no US carriers that function without SIM cards.
Me: “So you are telling me that since the SIM card slot will not accept another US SIM card, the MSL code Sprint provides is basically just an arbitrary number that won’t do anything anyway but pacify a customer, in the case of the iPhone?”
Sprint Customer Service: “Yes.”
Ok. Let’s reign this back in to what the heck any of this has to do with switching to T-mobile.
T-mobile tries to make it easy for a person to switch to their service. Since they offer to cover your early termination fee if you switch to their service mid-contract, you could theoretically just switch on over and use your same phone. BUT, despite their attempts to make it easy, because of the things discussed in this article it is often not that easy.
For instance switching from Sprint or Verizon are both going to be challenging because of the issue of the CDMA vs GSM frequencies mentioned above.
PLUS, as discussed in this post, Sprint iPhones are currently impossible to switch, so don’t even bother trying to use your existing phone. Your only option would be to sell or trade the phone for a different one.
In Verizon’s case, iPhones are an option if you do your research to see whether or not your specific phone is GSM compatible AND compatible with those frequencies. Some Verizon iPhones are, and some aren’t. So do your research, then have Verizon help you unlock your phone once you’ve confirmed it’s a phone that will accommodate a T-mobile SIM card.
With AT&T and many other phone companies that have embraced GSM technologies, it’s easy as pie. Have your phone company unlock your phone and you’re good to go.
One more note, there are a few stipulations that come with getting your phone unlocked by your phone company. This is pretty much true for all of the phone companies. For instance, you have to legally own the phone, it has to be fully paid off, and you have to have a good history of on-time payments. This is the case for most of these phone companies.
This is also the reason why you’ll need to buy a phone that’s already unlocked if you’re going to buy a used one online. Because it is going to rely on the original owner’s relationship with the carrier as well as full ownership of the phone.
The thing that still haunts me is this, taken from Sprint’s legal unlocking page:
“This is because, prior to the development of the voluntary commitment contained in CTIA’s Consumer Code for Wireless Service (“Unlocking Commitment”) carriers were not required to, and many carriers did not, develop their devices to be capable of being unlocked. “
That suggests that Sprint was not the only company creating phones that couldn’t be unlocked. They’re the only carrier I know of creating unlockable phones…but apparently there are others? Are they just saying this to not look like the bad guys, or is it true?
If you know of any other carriers that create unlockable phones, please mention them in the comments.
(Update: Please be sure to read the continued conversation in the comments!)