unlocking a Sprint iPhone

Getting decent phone service at a reasonable price has been our elusive goal for years. Now we have ventured deeper into these mysteries, chasing questions like “How the hell do you unlock a Sprint smartphone for use on another carrier?” and “How can a three and a half year old smartphone model go up 33% in price in just 17 days?”

Yesterday, our journey took us straight into the devil’s very store, where a menacing bald man with a goatee invited us to risk peril and caused me to stutter like an idiot about writing my congressman.

This odyssey really began back in April 2012, when we ditched our landline. We had that number ported to my new dumbphone, a Samsung Chrono flip phone with service from Cricket for $35 per month. Amy got an iPhone 4s with Sprint’s unlimited plan for $80 ($70 plus $10 for premium data). Since I work from home with my face in my Mac all day, I really only need a phone for talking.

This month, however, Cricket is killing off my humble little Samsung Chrono, so I need a new solution. Also, being well beyond her 2-year contract meant Amy could shop around — and so we did.

Verizon Prepaid Plan

At $45, Verizon’s Prepaid Plan looked like the best bet. They have a nice network, there’s no contract, and Amy’s data usage under Sprint was always well below Verizon’s 1 GB ceiling. Plus, Sprint’s 450 “anytime minutes” did cramp her calling ability at times — especially during the height of her cancer treatments, when she needed to call doctors’ landlines during business hours. Verizon, on the other hand, has truly unlimited talk.

Like a sure sign from heaven, the day before we went out to make the switch, Ars Technica posted a story headlined “Starting today, wireless carriers have to unlock your phone.” Exercising our rights as informed consumers, we phoned Sprint and asked that Amy’s device be unlocked. Lots of verifying of information and waiting on hold later, we were given a magical 6-digit unlock code to write down, which we dutifully did. The Sprint representative said she could not give us any specific instructions beyond that, but that we could present this secret unlock code to a new carrier, and they could take it from there.

Verizon Wireless store, Racine, Wisconsin

At our local Verizon store on February 12, we met a delightful young woman. However, upon hearing about our Sprint unlock code, she told us that Amy’s Sprint iPhone could simply not be used on Verizon’s network. Period.

Still, $45 per month is less than $80 per month, so after softly cursing Sprint several times, we ended up buying Amy another iPhone 4s for $150. This phone is not new, but refurbished (CPO: Certified Pre-Owned). It has 16GB of memory instead of her previous 32GB, so Amy had to clear off a bunch of music that she rarely listens to anyway. Other than that, Apple’s painless backup and restore procedure put Amy back in business on Verizon’s cheaper plan. In no time, she was receiving emails from Sprint trying to lure her back within the 14-day reconsideration period, and asking “What could we have done better?”

As for my own ticking time bomb — the antique Samsung Chrono — my plan was to wait until almost my March 4 Cricket due date, and then … I dunno … probably follow the same course as Amy.

Walmart Family Mobile: Bring your own phone?

In the meantime, however, we began gazing more deeply into the mystical world of locked phones and cheap plans. Amy came home from Walmart with a brochure about Walmart Family Mobile. Their website touts “Bring Your Own Phone — Use your own unlocked GSM phone,” so maybe Amy’s previous iPhone 4s could still be activated and put back into service for me?

Also, I found that Google searches turned up page after page of various websites which promised to reveal precisely how to unlock an iPhone, but ultimately did not. These websites were all trying to sell us a magic code to unlock the phone. How they got these codes, I don’t know — but we already had one code that wasn’t doing us any good, and I did not feel like buying another.

Yesterday, we drove out to Walmart to test our fortune. Just a few feet into the store, we had to halt momentarily because the group of five little girls in front of us, roughly all about age 10, stopped in unison to check their smartphones. Arriving in the electronics department, Amy approached a young, blue-shirted phone wizard with glasses. I handed him the iPhone and explained our quest. He performed hand gestures across the device’s face which silently revealed its General Settings panel. There, Sprint was named as the assigned network.

The wizard advised us that we could not use Walmart Family Mobile until we had succeeded in making the Sprint name disappear. I told him that, written on a slip of paper in my pocket, I possessed the 6-digit code to unlock the phone. He consulted with an even more powerful wizard, who had no idea what to do with the code. Maybe Sprint could give us more clues?

Sprint Customer Service (again)

Retreating to a quiet aisle displaying cheap furniture, we again phoned Sprint Customer Service. Again, there was a lot of waiting on hold, plus a lot of verification of various numbers — account numbers, phone numbers, serial numbers. We generally let Amy handle these matters, because she is the polite person in the family.

While on hold, Amy remembered that we originally bought the phone at a Sprint kiosk in the nearby Regency Mall. Maybe bringing the Sprint phone and Sprint’s unlock code in person to an actual Sprint representative could break the spell at last? Is Regency Mall even still in business? We hurried out of Walmart to find out. I started the car, and Amy stayed in contact with Sprint Customer Service on her phone.

Threading my way carefully between the snow mountains in the Regency Mall parking lot, I found a parking place. As we headed inside, Sprint Customer Service told Amy that her phone had already been unlocked on our initial contact, and there was nothing further that they could say or do. Goodbye.

Inside the mall, we found the Sprint kiosk, and approached two black-shirted Sprint ninjas to explain our mission. Pointing in unison, they referred us to the “Sprint corporate store, over there.” Further questioning revealed that they meant another retail center on the opposite side of Green Bay Road.

Sprint Store, Racine, Wisconsin

Corporate Sprint Store — Racine, Wisconsin

We parked in the bright sunlight at the corporate Sprint Store. As we entered the dim retail space, the showroom hushed and a black-shirted kahuna stepped toward us. He was bald and goateed, with the build and the demeanor of a bouncer. “Can I help you?” he challenged. I said that we needed our Sprint phone unlocked to work with another carrier, and he spun away in a dismissive gesture. “Go find a liquor store in the ‘hood,” he snapped.

As I tried to regroup and assert our rights, he cut me off. “We don’t touch phones,” he said. Directing us toward the door, he told us to call Customer Service if we had a problem. I sputtered something about federal law and — and contacting my congressman. He smirked, and we slunk back outside into the light.

Back to Verizon

So okay, screw our rights, I guess. We’ll just go and get the same deal Amy got 17 days ago and be done with it. The young woman at the Verizon store was very nice last time, and even followed up with Amy via texts to make sure everything was working right.

She recognized us right away when we entered. “Decided to come over to the dark side, too?” she asked me, smiling. The store was busy, and she was taking care of another customer, so we waited. And waited. We browsed the tablets. We browsed the phone cases. We browsed the GoPro camera and the toy drones. We browsed the Bluetooth headphones. I didn’t check the time, but it felt like we were waiting a good half hour.

Finally, it was my turn. While I waited on hold with Cricket trying to obtain my account number, this Verizon associate announced that it was her last day with the company before taking the new job she had just accepted on our last visit. She fetched a refurbished iPhone 4. “Uh, 4s?” I questioned. “Oh, that’s right,” she agreed. After another trip to the back, she had a refurbished 4s for me.

Just about to ring this deal up, she paused. “How much did you pay for the 4s?” she asked Amy. It was $149.99. “Well, now it’s $199.99,” she frowned. “I’m sorry. The price has changed and there’s no way to alter it.”

This was the last punch in the gut I could absorb yesterday afternoon.

“Okay, forget it,” I said. We staggered out of the store and headed home to make dinner. Yes, it’s just $50, but all dollars these days are precious, and like a rattled GPS navigator, I need to recalculate. Any phone — even another dumb flip phone — is going to cost some dollars. How much different is an iPhone 4 for $100 as opposed to an iPhone 4s for $200? Is there any sense at all in getting a Nokia Lumia 530 from Walmart for $50? I don’t think there is.

CDMA phone or GSM phone?

So, after standing at the register yesterday, ready to pay, today I’m back to Googling rate plans and data limits and refurbished iPhones. This is a special circle of hell that Dante did not dare describe.

One thing I did find, though, is a PC Magazine article titled “CDMA vs. GSM: What’s the Difference?” It’s a very enlightening article, and although I’m not completely clear about every technical detail, I’m gathering that GSM and CDMA are somewhat like the VHS and Beta of the mobile phone world — and that both Sprint and Verizon are not only saddled with the less-desirable CDMA, but will not accept each others’ phones.

Here’s another, older, article, from CNET: “Why you can’t take your unlocked iPhone 4S to another U.S. carrier.” The sick feeling washing over me is the realization that — despite our “Free at last!” excitement over the new CTIA Wireless Association’s Consumer Code — Amy’s refurbished iPhone 4s might be just as attached to Verizon as the last one was to Sprint. Might be. The more I read about this stuff, the less sure it all becomes.

What could Sprint do better?

Finally, there’s Sprint’s email question, “What could we have done better?”

Well first, you could make all this nonsense clear and understandable, so that consumers have a way of knowing what they’re choosing between. There ought to be a law requiring this. Don’t keep us on the phone for hours and give us a useless 6-digit unlock code that serves no apparent purpose. At the very least, just politely explain that you have screwed us into buying a phone that can’t be used with anyone else. We can handle it. Believe me, we have been through worse.

Also, you could get a kid leather glove, take it over to your corporate Sprint store on Green Bay Road, find the bulky guy with the bald head and goatee, and thwack him in the face with that glove a few hundred times, please.

“Go find a liquor store in the ‘hood.” That’s what your man told us around 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon — wearing your black Sprint company polo shirt — after we paid you $90 (with taxes and fees) every month for three years.

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