Sprint confirmed that, starting Friday, all new iPhone 4S models sold for use on its network will initially be carrier-locked to Sprint's designated overseas partners when using the phone outside the United States. After a few months, however, customers in good standing can request an unlock so that they can use cheaper pre-paid micro-SIM cards overseas.
How it works
The iPhone 4S's status as a "world phone" gives it some unique properties compared to past iPhones, at least when operating on the Sprint and Verizon networks. Those networks use the CDMA standard, rather than the rival GSM standard used throughout the world (and by U.S. carriers AT&T and T-Mobile).
Because the iPhone 4S supports both GSM and CDMA, Sprint and Verizon customers can to travel to countries without CDMA networks (which is to say, most countries) and still get a signal by using GSM instead. iPhone 4S models sold on those carriers come with a micro-SIM card (the hardware that allows a phone to identify itself to a GSM network) that's tied back to their U.S. account.
If you travel overseas and have international roaming enabled, the iPhone 4S can switch to GSM and work normally; however, international voice and data roaming charges, which are much higher than your typical monthly bill, will show up on your Sprint or Verizon statement when you get home. If you limit your overseas usage and don't travel much--which probably applies to most people--it's not that big a deal.
Savvy international travelers who spend a lot of time abroad know that you can save a lot of money by skipping out on the roaming charges and buying a pre-paid micro-SIM card in-country instead. The problem is that, by default, you can't put those cards in an iPhone 4S and have them work, because the device is "locked" to the micro-SIM card that's tied to your carrier back home.
As we reported when the iPhone 4S arrived, Verizon and Sprint will allow users to unlock the micro-SIM slot on their phones after a certain amount of time. Verizon says that the company will do this by request for any customer in good standing who has had their iPhone 4S for at least 60 days.
Sprint's story was a little more complicated. Sprint's initial batch of iPhone 4Ses shipped with the micro-SIM slot completely unlocked, though the company issued a statement shortly afterward clarifying that future iPhone 4Ses would be locked, but would be unlocked to customers in good standing on request.
So here's the news, as first reported by Mark Hearn at SprintFeed and confirmed to Macworld by a Sprint spokesperson: As of November 11, all Sprint iPhone 4S models will be locked to Sprint's own international roaming micro-SIM by default. However, "Customers in good standing for at least 90 days can request to have their SIM unlocked for international use by calling Customer Care at 888-211-4727," according to a statement provided by the spokesperson.
It appears that some sort of confusion between Apple and Sprint led to the Sprint models being shipped with unlocked SIM slots at first, despite Sprint's policy to ship world phones with locked slots and then unlock them only for customers in good standing. The November 11 change is a sign that Sprint's iPhone hardware is now in compliance with Sprint's unlocking policies.
It's unclear about Sprint iPhone 4S models purchased before November 11. They may remain SIM-unlocked forever, though it's possible Sprint will be able to issue some sort of update that locks them.
So, if you're a savvy international traveler who wants the option of using a foreign micro-SIM in your Sprint or Verizon iPhone 4S, now you know the deal: Keep paying your bills, and after 60 days (for Verizon) or 90 days (for Sprint), you can call and request that the carrier unlock your micro-SIM slot. Then you can buy pre-paid cards to your heart's content.
But what about AT&T?
Users of AT&T iPhones aren't so lucky. Because AT&T relies on GSM in the United States, it seems to consider that micro-SIM slot sacroscant--it's what ties you to AT&T's network when you're at home--and as such, will not allow customers to unlock it.
Earlier this year, AT&T had an advantage over Verizon when it came to internationally savvy customers: The CDMA version of the iPhone 4 wasn't a world phone, so if you wanted to travel abroad most anywhere, you needed to use AT&T. Now the tables have turned: Not only do the Sprint and Verizon versions of the iPhone 4S work overseas, but those carriers' unlocking policies give travelers more flexibility to shop for good deals on international data and voice rates.