Unlocking A New iPhone Is Now Illegal, But Jailbreaking Is Still Safe — What It All Means For You

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It can be easy to get “unlocking” and “jailbreaking” confused, but the two terms mean totally different things. Unlocking refers to freeing your phone to work on any carrier instead of just the one you bought it on. Jailbreaking is the process of circumventing Apple’s security measures in iOS to install tweaks, hacks, and mods that aren’t allowed in the App Store.

The U.S. Library of Congress has ruled that it is now illegal for you to unlock your smartphone if it was bought after January 26th, 2013. Carriers can still legally unlock your device for you, but it’s illegal to go through a third-party unlock vendor.

Jailbreaking your iPhone has been kept legal through 2015 under an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The crazy catch is that jailbreaking the iPad has technically been made illegal, while the iPhone and iPod touch both remain exempt. So jailbreaking is safe mostly, but unofficial unlocking is not. This is important to mention as the iOS 6.1 jailbreak approaches.

Keeping up with the U.S. legal system is very confusing, so what does all this unlocking and jailbreaking legal jargon mean for you?

Carriers Win

“You’ll probably start seeing unlock vendors close up shop”

Unlocking has historically been a grey area for the U.S. government. Third-party companies have been making money selling cheap unlocks for smartphones without the carriers’ permission, and carriers don’t want customers unlocking their devices on the side. That means savvy customers could just switch service providers while they’re still under contract.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) weighed in on the DMCA’s recent banning of unofficial unlocking in a new blog post today:

While we don’t expect mass lawsuits anytime soon, the threat still looms. More likely, wireless carriers, or even federal prosecutors, will be emboldened to sue not individuals, but rather businesses that unlock and resell phones. If a court rules in favor of the carriers, penalties can be stiff – up to $2,500 per unlocked phone in a civil suit, and $500,000 or five years in prison in a criminal case where the unlocking is done for “commercial advantage.” And this could happen even for phones that are no longer under contract. So we’re really not free to do as we want with devices that we own.

Entities like ChronicUnlocks make good money selling unlocks on the cheap, and they work. ChronicUnlocks is perhaps the most legitimate third-party service, and it is currently not unlocking smartphones that were bought after the DMCA’s ruling went into effect last weekend. That’s a small group right now, but it will encompass many more people as new phones keep coming out.

While you won’t probably get sued for unlocking the iPhone you bought in 2013, you’ll probably start seeing unlock vendors close up shop. Or at least fade away. The Library of Congress won’t review the DMCA again until 2014, but there’s an online petition you can sign asking the White House to rescind the decision.

Safe To Jailbreak

Jailbreaking the iPhone is totally legal still, which has never really been an issue in the past. There hasn’t been one notable U.S. lawsuit related to jailbreaking, so you don’t need to worry about the feds crashing through your door for installing Cydia. And the specific update to the legality of the iPad is really a non-issue. There hasn’t been a court case to specifically enforce a ban on any form of jailbreaking. It’s all up to the interpretation of the courts if someone decided to prosecute.

“keep calm and carry on”

“While a DMCA exemption is nice and all to tip the legal scales even more in favor of the jailbreakers, I don’t think they’re critical to the legality of jailbreaking,” said renowned jailbreak hacker David Wang (@planetbeing) in an email. Wang is currently working to release the public jailbreak for iOS 6.1. “I think jailbreaking is legal, with or without the DMCA exemption, so the lack of it does not significantly impact us, the people who develop jailbreak tools,” said Wang.

Jailbreaking your iOS device on your computer at home is totally safe. Some try to sell jailbreaking services on sites like Craigslist, and that could cause issues if iPads are involved. But there has been nothing in the history of jailbreaking to warrant concern at this point. Do as the British do: keep calm and carry on.

  • technochick

    Unless you are planning to risk legal action for not paying your bill you’ll still have to buy out your contract if you switch carriers so that shouldn’t be THE issue.

    My only beef is with companies making money off unlocking, especially the ones doing it via jailbreaking first. They often don’t mention that if something goes wrong you just gave up all rights to service from Apple. Even if you are willing to pay.

    So I say if you figure out how to do it for your own phone, fine. But no selling it as a service etc.

  • rondini

    What is the situation if you buy an unlocked phone from Apple?

  • snipershot325

    Hahaha who the hell is going to stop you from unlocking your phone in your own house I will still do it, who are going to get me the phone unlocker police I would laugh in there face if anyone came to my door over unlocking a phone.

  • leetut

    Only in whackomerica can you go to jail for changing sim cards but are allowed to own an assault rifle!

  • leetut

    Only in whackomerica can you go to jail for changing sim cards but are allowed to own an assault rifle!

  • Koban4max
    Hahaha who the hell is going to stop you from unlocking your phone in your own house I will still do it, who are going to get me the phone unlocker police I would laugh in there face if anyone came to my door over unlocking a phone.

    The company who you will sign a contract with.

  • Koban4max

    What is the situation if you buy an unlocked phone from Apple?

    it’s “go to jail..and do not collect 200.”

  • hanhothi

    What is the situation if you buy an unlocked phone from Apple?

    Then it is unlocked? Doh!

  • jpadhiyar

    Well this sort of thing will definitely brew up into a storm. Why is it strange that Canada passes a rule that actually encourages unlocking right this moment?

  • ScotHibb

    Excellent, I was hoping you would write a bit on the differences. Glad I purchased my iPhone 5 prior to January 2013! I can’t wait until Sunday!!!

    Can you go into some detail on the grey areas of unlocking wireless tethering? I know the courts ruled in favor of the people in a class action case against AT&T (you can’t tell someone with a data plan how they can use their data), but what about folks like me on Sprint Unlimited “everything” plans? It’s the first thing I’m going to do when Jailbreak comes out…WiFi hotspot on 4G LTE is going to make Sprint wish they didn’t offer unlimited data packages!!!

  • maccrapinoni

    The solution is simple: Throw out the Crapple phone and buy an Android one. At least Google does not strong arm it’s users!

  • klein

    I dont really care about USA law since im in Germany hahaha. Fuk off USA duchebags

  • konka

    I have a presented 4s from the states, and it was locked on ATT which I believe it’s one of the biggest carrier, then I used attiphoneunlocking.com, one of the online service, took me around one afternoon to unlock it, I believe it’s worth the money.

  • yilicharlie

    For the people who wants to unlock any ATT phones, go google attiphoneunlocking, they unlock any model and firmware. I did mine there.

  • AdamDaieh

    It is illegal to iphone factory unlock if the iPhone was manufactured after January 23, 2013. But if it was manufactured before that then it’s okay to unlock.

  • Danley Gries

    If you folks are using ATT, and want to unlock your in-contract devices, you might want to check out attiphoneunlocking, its a site i have been using for many years

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath has been a staff writer at Cult of Mac for three years. He is also a co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by the likes of the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too.

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