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iPad Air Unlocked Partially, Not Compatible with All Networks (video)

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The new iPad Air with 4G LTE isn’t locked down like Apple and its wireless partners would like you to believe. Though Apple and its partners tell buyers that their devices are locked to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon unless traveling abroad, that simply isn’t true. We’ve confirmed that the iPad Air that comes with an AT&T SIM will also run on T-Mobile’s and Verizon’s 4G LTE networks. However, the AT&T iPad Air will not run on Sprint’s network out of the box.

I bought the 128GB AT&T iPad Air on launch day from the Apple’s flagship San Francisco retail store. It came with a nano SIM card installed that is identical to those found in the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s.The AT&T iPad Air isn’t subsidized upfront, but AT&T does offer a $100 credit for those who sign up for a two-year contract. I declined the $100 credit and opted to go month-to-month.

I happen to have a Verizon iPhone 5s, Sprint iPhone 5s and T-Mobile iPhone 5, so I popped out all of the SIM cards and tried putting each into the iPad Air.

The Verizon SIM card worked flawlessly and acquired a strong 4G LTE signal. One intersting thing is that the iPad automatically switched over to Verizon in the cellular settings, which means I could log into my account to check data usage. This suggested that Apple really is selling a single unlocked model.

iPad Air 4G LTE options

The T-Mobile SIM card also acquired an LTE signal, but I had trouble loading pages. I noticed that Safari was attempting to redirect to a T-Mobile activation page. It looks like the iPad Air I bought will indeed work on T-Mobile’s network, but I’d have to activate it as a new device to get it working properly.

I tried my Sprint SIM card last and quickly learned that my iPad Air wasn’t completely unlocked. The iPad Air appeared to recognize the Sprint SIM card and briefly connected to the network, but the device then displayed an “Activation Required” notice. At first I thought this would be an issue like what I saw with T-Mobile, but it wasn’t.

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 1.57.56 AM

 

The iPad Air forced me to re-enter my passcode and prompted me to connect to a Wi-Fi network. It then displayed the above splash screen, warning that the SIM was not valid and read:

The SIM card that you currently have installed in this iPad is from a carrier that is not supported under the activation policy that is currently assigned by the Apple activation server. This is not a hardware issue with the iPad. Please insert another SIM card from a supported carrier or request that this iPad be unlocked by your carrier. Please contact Apple for more information.

So in other words, the iPad Air sold with the iPad Air is indeed locked to some degree. For some reason Apple allows the iPad Air to pretend to be an unlocked device so long as you’re cheating on AT&T with Verizon or T-Mobile. Insert a Sprint SIM and all of a sudden there’s a problem.

The iPad Air is the first Apple device to support all of the LTE bands necessary to support all of the U.S. wireless carriers with a single piece of hardware. Until the iPad Air, Apple launched multiple versions of iOS devices to handle different wireless networks. The single iPad Air 4G model (A1475) supports a total of 14 bands and is compatible with dozens of overseas carriers.

Xavier Lanier is the publisher of Gotta Be Mobile and a photographer. He uses too many devices to count, but his current favorites are the iPhone 5s, HTC One, Nikon D800 and Sony RX 100M II. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

15 Comments

  1. Tim Davies

    11/03/2013 at 3:57 am

    It might also be that you tried a phone SIM. You can’t use a ATT iPhone 4S SIM in an ATT iPad 3 without changing the APN settings.

  2. Arbaz K

    11/03/2013 at 6:07 am

    Well this might not be good as there are many users of iPad Air and not everyone uses the same network. They should make it compatible to all the networks.

  3. Rick

    11/03/2013 at 1:33 pm

    The hardware is unlocked. The issue is with Sprint. They require activation and are the most restrictive with hardware of the big 4 carriers.

    • Martin

      11/05/2013 at 2:27 pm

      Sprint and Verizon are both restrictive in weird ways. In Sprints favor, the Nexus 5 works on either Sprint, TMobile and AT&T with the same model. It is the first device that will work when you obtain a sim card from them. Strangely enough, Verizon will not support that device even with a VZ sim card. This is a completely opposite scenario from one seen here.

      My theory is that Sprint will be more liberal with this as time goes on.

  4. martinakca915 (@martinakca915)

    11/03/2013 at 2:05 pm

    my gf’s dad just got an awesome red Volkswagen Golf R by working parttime from a macbook air… see page………. JOBS61.¢øm

  5. Kelly

    11/03/2013 at 5:13 pm

    Big Thank Yous for a great story!!

  6. Davoin

    11/04/2013 at 8:54 am

    I have the tmobile iPad air and it also has the same issue all others activates no problem but sprint is a nono

  7. Surfer

    11/04/2013 at 11:52 am

    Regarding your T-Mobile SIM card, I read elsewhere that “T-Mobile blocks SIM cards that were set up with phone plans from working with iPads.” You must set up the SIM card from a tablet for it to work with tablets.
    Source: http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=1660763

    However, I have also read that you do not need to get the “mobile internet” version of the T-Mobile SIM card (for $0.99) to use it in a tablet. Supposedly you can use the free “phone” version of the SIM card, because “a SIM card is a SIM card.” Have not tested this but it seems believable.

  8. Pat

    11/05/2013 at 6:15 am

    I was able to successfully use a tmobile phone SIM. I had the one that came in my 5S since I bought unlocked. Popped it into the ipad air, signed up for a tmo account, and got the free 200mb’s of data. However,even though this SIM came in a phone, it was never activated, so that may make a difference. YMMV

  9. Martin

    11/05/2013 at 2:23 pm

    The iPad doesn’t support Sprint’s band 41 (which will be the fastest), although it does support bands 25 and 26. Otherwise, it does seem to support all US LTE bands.

  10. jiamei

    11/16/2013 at 12:49 am

    I am actually concerned with the Sprint iPad Mini Retina that I got. I wanted to use a T-mobile LTE sim card for that one. Not sure if it will be fine. Kinda hard to get a T-mobile iPad Mini with Retina stocks now.

  11. Edward

    11/17/2013 at 12:56 pm

    jiamei – I have a Sprint mini retina with T-Mobile sim. Works great.

    I have confirmed Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile are working on this iPad that was purchased as a Sprint iPad. I have tried a Verizon sim and it gets Verizon LTE signal – however my Verizon sim has no service on it, and when I try and activate it via the iPad I get an error to call Verizon – likely because the sim is deactivated and not usable anymore. I will be trying an active Verizon sim as soon as I get my hands on one.

    My understanding is that the Verizon iPad will not work on Sprint, but the Sprint one will work on Verizon.

  12. jay

    12/01/2013 at 6:17 pm

    hey Edward let me know if your iPad its gonna works with verizon service

    • Edward

      12/01/2013 at 6:52 pm

      Yes, it is working. Only catch is you need to use a SIM that was activated on another device initially or activate it on a post-paid share plan. I moved my SIM from my 4620LE Jetpack and it works.

      It won’t let you do pre-paid, only post paid unless it is a native Verizon iPad.

      I have confirmed that it will work with Sprint, AT&T, and TMobile with pay as you go by simply getting a new unactivated SIM. If you want Verizon on a Sprint iPad you need to do postpaid contract, or you can initialize a Verizon SIM on pay as you go in a Verizon iPad and move it to a Sprint iPad and it seems to work on pay as you go as well. You can’t activate a “fresh” SIM on a Sprint iPad for Verizon unless it is Contract/Postpaid. But you can move a pre-paid/pay as you go to the Sprint iPad that was initially setup in a Verizon iPad. This would likely be true for the ATT and TMobile iPad’s being used on Verizon – the SIM “pump needs to be primed” for prepaid/pay as you go on a Verizon device, or you can go postpaid/contract without a problem.

      The Verizon iPad will NEVER work on Sprint – period.

      • Ashok

        12/04/2013 at 11:49 pm

        Hey Edward.. looks like I’m running into the same problem…
        I recently ordered an iPad Air Cellular from SPRINT. I didn’t really care about the carrier while ordering because I’m taking the device outside the US and will be using a foreign GSM SIM. All I wanted to know is…
        Do I need to activate with Sprint first and get it unlocked to be used outside the US, or I can simply remove the Sprint SIM (without even activating) and replace with my other(foreign) nano-SIM?

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