Unlocking the iPhone 3G With Proxy SIMs

In the interests of all those readers who need to unlock their iPhone 3G’s for use on different carriers, I donned my investigative hat and tested an iPhone 3G unlock that really seems to work.

While the iPhone Dev Team plunder the secrets of the mysterious baseband in search of the ever elusive software unlock, some of us regular users just can’t wait. In this article, I’ll run you through a typical hardware unlock process, highlighting some of the quirks and a couple of awful potential drawbacks.
As some of this is arguably questionable, The Apple Blog must warn you that you’re doing this at your own risk. Seriously. In fact, one iPhone 3G was totally borked in the process of testing this — almost relegated to a desolate Apple graveyard; nevertheless, in the interest of finding out if we really could unlock the iPhone 3G, we persevered.
Again, The Apple Blog does not endorse your attempts at any of what follows, it could ruin your iPhone. Furthermore, this is not an official solution and as such, it is totally unsupported by Apple. That being said, let the fun begin.

Hardware Unlock

What we’re looking at here is a hardware unlock, which may not be ideal, but it does the job. The unlock I’m investigating today is a hardware workaround for what is in reality a software issue. The perfect solution would be a software unlock — something which the iPhone Dev Team (a bunch of clever hackers not to be confused with official Apple developers) are working diligently towards.
In fact, by way of providing a bit of background on the subject of unlocking, while providing a final word of warning, the iPhone Dev Team had this to say on their blog earlier this year:

We’ve been monitoring the whole “SIM-card unlock” proxy-SIM situation… These sim mods so far seem very very very questionable… they use trickery of the GSM and UMTS network that is considered highly illegal in most countries and they rely on sending bogus IMSIs and various other nasty hacks to obtain service on your iPhone.

Proxy SIM

SIM PIG Proxy-Sim

SIM PIG Proxy-Sim

There are a variety of different hardware unlocks which tend to be referred to as piggyback SIMs or proxy-SIMs. The one I chose to test in this article is branded as Any Network. Unlike all the other proxy-SIMs, apparently I could just stick this one in my phone and be totally unlocked — no cutting, no updating, no hassle (or so I thought).
The proxy-SIM looks like a small circuit board in the shape of a regular SIM card with a chip at the top; it’s made out of what seems to be a very thin, bendy and tearable, plastic. The murky brown device certainly looks somewhat illicit and is designed to be squeezed in to the iPhone with your regular SIM card.


Now that we’ve got all the background details out the way, I’ll run you through what happened when I installed the Any Network SIM. My aim was to be able to use my Finnish iPhone — locked to Apple’s official Finnish carrier of choice — in the UK, using an unsupported UK carrier’s SIM.

  1. Although the folks at Any Network claim their solution is the only one which doesn’t require cutting my carrier SIM card, I did so anyway. The carrier SIM was cut in half and taped to the proxy-SIM. Placing both SIMs on to the tray and sliding them in to the iPhone seemed to be too tight a squeeze.
  2. Phoned tech support at Any Network, they suggest I use tape (done) and to keep squeezing it in. This ended badly, the SIM tray popped out, but the proxy-SIM and carrier SIM didn’t — they are stuck to the inside of the iPhone. Slightly tearful, I send my iPhone away to be replaced.
  3. After a horrific false start, my iPhone 3G is fixed and sent back to me a couple of weeks later…I also track down a new proxy-SIM. This time around, my plan is to make my carrier SIM card so thin that it comfortably sits in the caddy with the proxy-SIM. Using a scalpel, I spend a few hours delicately shaving away the layers of my carrier SIM until, despite looking like it’s been the victim of a particularly aggressive knife-crime, it is perfectly thin.
  4. My crafty scalpel plan worked. Both the SIM and the proxy-SIM are quite snug in the iPhone tray together. I begin sliding them in but discover it’s still a tight squeeze and, if I slide at the wrong angle, the proxy-SIM is liable to slide out inside my iPhone (thus repeating the horrific accident in step 1).
  5. I manage to squeeze the tray in to the iPhone. With a storm of nerves erupting in my tummy, I turn my iPhone on… invalid SIM. Disappointed, I sit staring at the screen, I did everything I could to make it work. Minutes later, as a sit in a dirge of disappointment, a tiny miracle happens: the invalid SIM message disappears. To the top left of the screen, my iPhone’s signal bar blinks in to existence. I have coverage.
  6. I decide the next thing to do is to test my signal. I call the operator number, it rings, it works, I’m through. With my iPhone 3G unlocked, I find the 3G settings on the carrier’s site — entering these in to the Network settings menu on my iPhone unlocks almost all of the device’s full potential: I can’t get visual voicemail but I can surf the net, download e-mail and even listen to Last.fm.
  7.  Plugging in to iTunes for my first unlocked sync, I discover a new problem. iTunes sees my proxy-SIM as an invalid SIM card (in retrospect, this is to be expected). After a little bit of fiddling, I find out that it works if I first eject the SIM tray (and thus the illicit proxy-SIM) and then plug in to iTunes.
  8. While syncing, I also happen upon a method for inserting the SIM and proxy-SIM in the iPhone 3G which seems much safer. I first put the proxy-SIM on the tray and slide the tray halfway in to the iPhone; then the carrier SIM is slid in to the iPhone separately and squeezed in to place on top of the proxy-SIM. This sounds somewhat unpleasant, but, for me, seems to be a less risky way of inserting the device.

After several weeks of testing, I can reveal that the unlock does indeed work. Of course, as the iPhone Dev Team noted, this is a questionable solution and indeed a nasty hack (especially when considering that it can lead to physically damaging the hardware). Nevertheless, it really works and, barring occasional drops in 3G signal, is problem free in practice.
Have you tried a hardware unlock for the iPhone 3G? Perhaps you’re waiting for the iPhone Dev Team’s software unlock? Share your thoughts about iPhone unlocking in the comments.