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I have an iPhone 4s that works with Virgin Mobile USA. Since carriers must unlock phones now I'm wondering about unlocking this one. But I haven't been able to determine if it would actually be worthwhile. Specifically, whether I'd be able to use the phone with a different carrier.

The phone is an iPhone 4s, marked on the back as an A1387, and identifies itself in settings as an MD236LL/A. This is a CDMA refurb model, obtained from an Apple store after the original phone got dropped in a puddle.

What I'd like to do: (a) use the phone with some other US-based carrier while at home, and (b) when traveling outside the USA, use the phone with a local SIM and GSM network.

I've tried searching for unlocking info but I'm getting conflicting answers about whether either of the above are possible:

  • Some sites say that since the 4s is a "world" phone that after unlocking it would work on both domestic (US) GSM networks as well as CDMA networks like Verizon.

  • Some sites say that although it's a "world" phone, it's tied to CDMA when in the USA. While traveling it would work with a GSM network using local SIM but in the USA it could not use a GSM network.

  • Still others say that "world" means nothing here, that it's strictly CDMA and can't use GSM at all.

Can anyone clear this up? I know I can legally get the phone unlocked, but would doing so get me either of the things mentioned above? Virgin Mobile USA's site isn't helping me. They have a chart listing types of unlocks for different phones, but from past experience with them I pretty much assume they're either lying or just plain wrong about most things.

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iPhone 4s, both the CDMA and GSM models, has GSM hardware built-in. The only difference between the two models is whether the device supports CDMA, and in that case, which network it supports. A device sold by Virgin Mobile, which piggybacks on Sprint's network, may work in CDMA mode on the Sprint network once unlocked, though you would need to confirm this with Sprint. It cannot be used on Verizon's network. In GSM mode, it can be used outside the US on essentially any network. It cannot be used on US-based GSM carriers (T-Mobile/AT&T).

The iPhone 4 CDMA model (sold at Verizon) was not compatible with any GSM network, US-based or otherwise. That may be where the confusion lies.

  • Does this basically mean that an iPhone 4s which supports CDMA will always prefer CDMA and use that if it's around? It always seemed strange that they might support GSM but only when outside the USA. – Tom Harrington Mar 22 '15 at 23:25
  • It's a software limitation, put in at (I would guess) Sprint's and Verizon's insistence. – tubedogg Mar 23 '15 at 8:19
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For anyone else with an iPhone on Virgin Mobile USA, it might be possible to move it to Ting without unlocking it. I say "might" because although my wife just did so, there was a lot of confusion along the way with Ting support telling us both that the phone would and would not work with their service at different times (their "bring your own device" check said it was "guaranteed" to work, but it didn't work immediately). Eventually the switch happened, and it seems to work fine. We never requested an unlock of the phone. I think it worked because both Virgin and Ting use Sprint's network. It's worth a shot if you'd prefer to ditch Virgin but I don't know if it'll work for everyone.

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Ymmv. My experience is as follows: called Virgin mobile to unlock iPhone 4s subject to their policy and 12 months of continuous service. They stated that iPhone 4s does not support an over the air update for domestic sim unlock and provided the msl code for use by other carriers to activate the device.

Based on research the msl code is essentially useless for unlocking purposes but some people reported that the virgin mobile iPhone 4s is sold able to use foreign SIM cards.

Travelled to Canada and put in a local SIM card, the iPhone attempted to activate and failed indicating that the phone is locked based on activation profile on the phone which needs to be unlocked by the carrier. I'm pretty sure the carrier refers to virgin mobile in this case.

Finally called Virgin mobile again and was told that this will not be possible on the iPhone 4s. While we need to take that with a grain of salt, nevertheless I've reached a dead-end attempting to use this phone with a foreign sim.

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