I just successfully unlocked an old AT&T iPhone 4 and 4S using AT&T's unlock process. They are not jailbroken. As I've gone online to sell the phones, the selling phrase is "Factory Unlocked." Is there any difference between factory unlocked and my successful "carrier unlock"? If so, what are the differences?

2 Answers 2


Good question.

Yes, there is a bit of a difference, though I largely agree with bmike. I guess I should add that while there might not be a difference in the outward functionality of the phone, there are differences between the phones provided by carriers, the procedure used to unlock those, and the unlocked iPhone sold by Apple.

This past July, I went through the same unlock procedure that you did when my wife's parents gave her an iPhone 4S that was sent to them by AT&T via an insurance policy that replaced a phone they believed was lost. Anyway, their phone was located right after the new one came in the mail, so they gave it to her. The problem was that we are on Verizon, so we couldn't use the phone. I wrongly believed it was the "world" iPhone that Apple sold, so I went through the process of getting AT&T to unlock it. Unfortunately for me, I didn't pay close enough attention to the rear of the packaging, which clearly indicated that this was a GSM-only phone. Undaunted, I called the nearest Apple Store to arrange an exchange for a CDMA phone - a simple enough thing, right? After all, it was still in the shrink wrap. I spoke with the store manager, gave her the serial number of the phone, and was shortly informed that this was not a phone stocked by Apple stores. The kind of phone I had was marked to be sold only by AT&T, either out of their retail establishments or shipping centers. I called AppleCare, and they informed me of the same thing. As it turned out, no one would even accept a brand-new, still-in-the-shrink-wrap, Apple iPhone 4S. Apple could not take it's own, brand new product in return for an essentially identical device. Only AT&T could accept it as a return, and they obviously didn't have any CDMA capable phones to send in exchange. Ultimately we sent the phone back to my in-laws, and ended up purchasing our iPhone 4S devices directly through Verizon.

To add to all this as sort of a general FYI, the unlocked iPhone sold by Apple is not the same thing as the "world" model, either. From Apple's Web Site regarding the unlocked iPhone:

The unlocked iPhone includes all the features of iPhone but without a wireless contract commitment. You can activate and use iPhone on the supported GSM wireless network of your choice, such as AT&T in the United States. The unlocked iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 will not work with CDMA-based carriers such as Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

And here is the info for the "world" iPhone from the "tech specs" page:

  • World phone
  • UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (802.11n 2.4GHz only)
  • Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology

The reason for posting all of this is both as a response to your question and as a general information filter for prospective buyers.

  • Very nice writeup +1. In short, per Apple there are two iPhone 4 models (one CDMA / one GSM) and two iPhone 4S models ( combined GSM&CDMA / GSM China) so whether these are locked or unlocked - it matters which one was sold initially for which radio frequencies it will work with.
    – bmike
    Nov 15, 2012 at 2:06
  • 1
    I'd like to make two side notes to this: firstly I wouldn't expect a retailer to take a product (sealed or not) that was not actually sold by them, it's another companies inventory, regardless of who the manufacturer is. And if the phone had been reported lost and had been replaced via insurance it would likely have an IMEI lock on it and wouldn't be able to make or receive calls anyway. Nov 15, 2012 at 5:25
  • I realized that the iPhone is a different beast, and you make some good points. My previous experiences with replacements/exchanges of Apple hardware were quite different though, and so I didn't expect any different this time (wrong assumption, as I noted). Example: my MacBook Pro was purchased new, online, through an authorized 3rd party retailer. Since then, I have exchanged a power adapter in Charleston, SC, a battery in Boston and another in Fort Lauderdale FL, and got a new HDD and top case in Wichita, KS. All without a hitch. So it seems more the product than the retailer.
    – soxman
    Nov 15, 2012 at 5:51
  • thanks for the complete answer. wondering if there's a way to tell which radio frequencies the phone works for in iOS itself, without looking at packaging.
    – Soup
    Nov 17, 2012 at 18:47

No. Both mean that the carriers have agreed that this device will be registered into a database that Apple uses to unlock the device when it gets restored and powered on the first time (and the first time after major software upgrades).

I suppose some people say Factory unlocked when it is sold with a carrier unlock and the latter can be accomplished at any time if it is originally sold to a consumer as carrier-locked.

Someone buying wouldn't care either way since the devices work the same and would both still be unlocked if you took either to Apple for an exchange service if it needed a repair.

  • Just to nitpick, the difference would be 'factory unlocked' would mean that it was never locked by Apple in the first place (and probably sold directly from Apple), and 'Carrier Unlocked' would indicate that it was sold by a carrier, and then unlocked officially through the carrier.
    – Josh Hunt
    Mar 11, 2013 at 12:55

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