Q: I live in the Middle East and purchased an unlocked U.S. version iPhone 3G about 6 months ago via eBay. This iPhone was running iPhone OS 2.2.1 and was working fine with my local provider. When iPhone OS 3.0 came out I downloaded it onto my iPhone and let it install. Once the install finished, I was locked out of my iPhone and iTunes displayed a message that “The SIM card inserted in the iPhone does not appear to be supported. Only compatible SIM cards from a supported carrier may be used to activate iPhone.” I use a Mobily SIM card which worked fine before I downloaded
3.0. Do you have any suggestions? Do I need to unlock my phone again once a
3.0 version of unlocking comes out? Am I out of luck? Please any help you can
send me would be dearly appreciated. Thank you for your help.
A: Normally when you purchase an iPhone from an official carrier, the iPhone must be activated with iTunes before it can be used. As part of this activation process, iTunes checks your iPhone’s IMEI serial number and the ICCID number on your SIM card against a database on Apple’s servers. If the numbers match for an authorized carrier, the iPhone is activated and good to go. If not, you are presented with an error message similar to the one you noted above.
Note that this activation process is separate from the normal SIM-lock that is present on most cell phones. In a sense, the iPhone has two different carrier locking mechanisms: The industry-standard SIM lock at the hardware level, and the iTunes activation requirement as the OS level. In this context, “unlocking” generally refers to bypassing the SIM-lock, and “activating” refers to the iTunes part of the process. Conceptually, the iPhone activation procedure is similar to the activation system built in to other software applications such as Microsoft Windows. In this case, however, rather than entering a serial number from your software package, your iPhone’s IMEI and SIM card’s ICCID are used as the activation credentials.
The problem in your case is that the iPhone 3G which you purchased was unlocked unofficially through third-party tools and a process known as “jailbreaking.” The jailbreaking process is iPhone OS specific, and basically involves using a patched iPhone OS that bypasses the requirement to activate your iPhone via iTunes. Essentially, once jailbroken, the iPhone is already activated and doesn’t need to “phone home” through iTunes to authorize it.
Chances are that your iPhone is still unlocked at the hardware level, meaning it will take your SIM card, but it’s not yet been activated as iTunes doesn’t recognize the combination of SIM card and phone IMEI as a valid combination.
With all of that having been said, the solution is actually fairly simple: Look for tools called Quickpwn or Pwnage. These tools are used to “jailbreak” your iPhone by building a custom version of the 3.0 firmware and installing it onto your iPhone. This custom firmware bypasses the activation requirement, as discussed above, so once you’ve installed this you should be able to use your iPhone. Quickpwn is a short, step-by-step-driven version of the more complete Pwnage tool, and will probably be the easiest solution for your purposes. The full Pwnage tool provides more advanced features, but is not strictly necessarily if all you want to do is to get your iPhone activated.
In the unlikely event that your iPhone has also become SIM-locked again by the 3.0 update process, you can also unlock it again using the same tools. However, it is very likely that your iPhone is still unlocked, and you simply need the patched version of 3.0 that bypasses the activation requirement.
Note that unlocked iPhones purchased through proper official channels, such as can be found with many European carriers, do not have these limitations, since officially unlocked iPhones will be listed in Apple’s database as such, and can therefore be used with any SIM card. Of course, these unlocked iPhones frequently come with a much higher price tag than the carrier-subsidized versions sold in North America.