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Got a new iPad and want to switch carriers? Turns out it's not so easy

So much for a universal Apple SIM. AT&T and T-Mobile both lock down new iPad SIM cards in their stores. The difference is a T-Mobile iPad purchased at an Apple store will remain open.

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4 min read

The iPad Air 2's Apple SIM card lets users swap carriers, sometimes. CNET

The new Apple SIM card in new iPad models was supposed to make it easier to bounce around among different wireless carriers. That didn't seem to last long.

The Apple SIM (subscriber identity module) promised the ability to switch carriers with a few taps on the tablet, instead of having to physically switch out SIM cards. But in many cases the Apple SIM is either unavailable in the new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 or is locked to specific carriers.

An AT&T spokesman confirmed Friday that it will lock down the SIM cards found in the new tablets. A new iPad purchased at a T-Mobile store will also include a SIM preset to the carrier, according to a person familiar with the carrier's plans. The tablets purchased at a Sprint store don't have the Apple SIM at all, and are instead fitted with a Sprint-based SIM, according to Apple. In all three of those cases, if a customer wants to switch, the person needs to physically change out the SIM card, just as in older iPad models.

An iPad purchased at an Apple store or other third-party retailer such as Best Buy for use on T-Mobile's network, however, will remain open, and users can switch to another carrier on the fly, the person said. Sprint appears to have a similar policy. An AT&T iPad purchased at an Apple store will not remain open.

The back-and-forth on Apple SIM underscores the differing priorities between Apple and the carriers. Apple wants to make the process of purchasing and choosing an iPad and carrier partner as easy as possible, while the carriers want to maintain some control over the customer.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are listed as part of the Apple SIM program, which is a single SIM that can handle all three carriers. At least at the Apple store, a salesperson and customer can easily choose between the three carriers. Verizon Wireless is not a participant in the program and uses its own SIM cards.

Addressing how complex the Apple SIM has become, T-Mobile CEO John Legere on Saturday issued 20 consecutive tweets to explain the varying scenarios involved, depending on which carrier people choose and where they buy their devices. "Bottom line...it's complicated...and it is an emerging change in the mobile ecosystem that we will have to figure out as we go," he said.

While AT&T locks down the SIM itself, the carrier argues that it remains easy to change services.

"You have always been able to switch," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. "The issue is how you switch."

He added that the iPad is an unlocked device that has long been able to run on multiple carriers.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, believes that it is more convenient to preconfigure the iPad for its service in its stores, since the customer would presumably want to get a T-Mobile iPad, the person said.

A Sprint spokeswoman declined to comment.

An Apple representative referred CNET to an Apple support page, in which the company confirmed: "AT&T dedicates Apple SIM to their network only." However, the page noted that if an Apple SIM gets dedicated to a specific network, a user can buy a new Apple SIM at an Apple store to switch plans.

Recode earlier reported that AT&T would be dedicating new iPad models on its network.

The Apple SIM cards inside the cellular models of the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 , which went on sale this week, are a change from older iPads, which require buyers to pick their carriers at the time of purchase and to physically swap out SIM cards if they switch to a different carrier.

The emergence of the Apple SIM comes as all four major wireless carriers are in a heated battle to gain and retain customers, with smaller upstarts T-Mobile and Sprint cutting prices and offering more data to lure in new users. The universal Apple SIM card could have helped save users money and provide them with more convenience by cutting out the step of buying a new SIM card and physically swapping it into a tablet to change services. But that doesn't appear to be the case.

Hands-on with the new Apple iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 (pictures)

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Theoretically, when traveling, users should be able to pick a short-term data plan from a local carrier through the Apple SIM, instead of getting a separate international SIM. The UK carrier EE is the only other Apple SIM partner that Apple mentions.

The capabilities of such a universal SIM card could bring about big changes in the wireless world, especially if it ever makes it into Apple's iPhone smartphone. Still, it's possible carriers would add restrictions for a phone as well.

Update, October 25 at 3:15 p.m. PT: Adds T-Mobile CEO comments and more details on Sprint.