I didn't say you should buy an unlocked phone, I said you should buy a factory unlock. All this does is add the IMEI of your existing phone to Apple's whitelist, you restore, and voila, phone is unlocked. They run about $80 on eBay.
Or just give them a call or chat (I used chat) and ask if you can get your iPhone unlocked for int'l use. That's what I did when I unlocked my previous 4S. However, I bought it off-contract. Telling them that you did the same may be deemed "unethical" but I'm not here to question your ethics.
Once upon a time - AT&T Indirect Dealer Rep
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When I was going through the Unlock Process I was told that once a line is out of contract, (baring a some other restrictions.) the phone can be unlocked. So if you were to pay full retail for a new phone on that line, thus starting a new contract, the iPhone would be eligible for an unlock, at least as far as I understand. Buy a cheap phone at full retail might be cheaper than the ETF. I can't say that would work, but I am just going off how I understood that rep on the phone. I figured it was 2 years, but I was able to get my iPhone 4 unlocked because I signed a new contract with the 4S, thus terminating my original 2 year contract with the iPhone 4.
I have an AT&T 5 phone family plan, and needed to add another grandkid to it, since they all have gotten phones when they turn 13. My wife and I both have i4s's with grandfathered (!) unlimited on the plan. She never uses more than about 300 Mb a month, so I dropped her off the family plan and added the last grandkid into the plan. I ported the wife to StraightTalk $45 a month, and she doesn't see any difference in service.
After a few months I called to try and get her phone unlocked, and ATT said, no way Jose, since I had not fulfilled the contract term. BTW, they never did charge an Early Termination Fee, I'm hoping it's because I replaced the line I dropped with a new one, but I brought my own equipment as the replacement, so that doesn't really add up. It might be because I have not dropped my service with them.
Anyhoo, I found a local guy who does Apple unlocks and had both of our i4s's unlocked, which worked perfectly. PM me if you want a link, all he needs is the IMEI for the service, so it can be done via text or emails.
The person I dealt with seemed very business like and confident with the service he offered. The first phone costs $30 and took almost 5 days. It was at the time that iOS 6 was being released though, and that may have had something to do with the delay. Originally he said it would take 1-3 days, so I became more sceptical as time went on. He sent me a text saying my phone was now unlocked, and I tested it with a T-Mobile and 2 foreign sims and all registered. I also found a website that confirmed it's status as unlocked. I had to pay $40 for the second phone, so I guess he raised his rates, but I'll get that back when I sell it, so averaging $35 each is not too bad. The second unlock was done in less than 24 hours.
Thanks for the tips on buying the factory unlock service via ebay. While this seems to work for now my research on the web tells me that this is not an official service Apple will stand by. They could at some point disable the unlock but I guess it's a reasonable risk.
Folks, it is fairly simple to get your iPhone unlocked. All you need to do is have a different phone registered on your account. I had a 4 on my account and just swapped the Sim to my 3gs then logged on to my att account from the web to verify the 3gs was the active phone. Then opened a chat window and requested an unlock. They gave me a case number then waited for the email to unlock it. Then did the same for my 3gs. So, if you have an old phone lying around just swap ths Sim and do as I did.
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Simply switching to another phone does not satisfy your contract requirement to obtain an iPhone unlock. If that were the case, the iPhone you sold could be unlocked by the buyer if you sold it during the unfulfilled contract period.