Upgrade first-gen iPhone firmware before activating iPhone 3G (unless you need a paperweight)

If you’ve been wondering whether a deactivated first-gen iPhone’s firmware can be upgraded to the newly released (and unreliably available) version 2.0, then wonder no more: it can’t. UPDATE: Now it can! See comments for details.


Two weeks ago, when AT&T first announced that deactivated devices could be used as glorified iPod touches, AppleInsider recommended that users upgrade their old iPhones before getting the new phone because "it’s unclear whether upgrades to non-active handsets will be possible" (reminder: activating the new iPhone automatically deactivates the old one). Though the advice was sound, it could obviously only be followed if the 2.0 software update was available before people left their houses to stand in line on launch day. And it wasn’t.

Right before my husband and I left the house that afternoon, I connected my iPhone to iTunes, checked for the update, and was told that version 1.1.4 was the most current. It was already 1 p.m. HST (7 p.m. EST), five hours after the phone went on sale, so I figured that Apple/AT&T knew that people would buy the iPhone 3G before 2.0 was officially out and handle the situation accordingly.

In other words, I assumed that I could activate my iPhone 3G at the store and then go home and update my newly deactivated first-gen iPhone when 2.0 showed up in iTunes. I mean, why else wouldn’t 2.0 be available before 8 a.m. on July 11th? Apple wouldn’t expect new iPhone 3G owners not to want their old iPhones to run the most current firmware, right?


I don’t know. But after putting together the best uncommon uses for iPhone 3G, I connected my first-gen iPhone to iTunes, saw that 2.0 was available, downloaded/installed the massive 200MB+ file with what appeared to be no problem, and then stared at the "slide for emergency" screen.

The iPhone, iTunes said, needed to be activated to complete the upgrade/restore.

Fine, I thought. I popped out the SIM card from my iPhone 3G, inserted it into the old iPhone, and watched as AT&T verified the activation. Success . . . if I wanted to sign up with the original $20 data plan. Now, considering that I just signed up with the iPhone 3G’s $70/month plan, I had no intention of being locked into an additional $20/month fee.

Using the new iPhone 3G SIM was obviously not the right way to complete the firmware upgrade.


So I removed the SIM and was presented with the message you see above. I didn’t have an unlocked SIM, but I did have a valid GoPhone one. No deal. AT&T "verified" the account and found it to be ineligible.


So now I have a fully functional iPhone 3G and a completely unusable deactivated first-gen iPhone that wants nothing but the ability to run the 2.0 software. Apart from waiting for the jailbreak (which should work since iTunes is able to recognize the deactivated unit with no problem), what am I supposed to do?

The fact that I don’t need the old phone for anything is beside the point, as it wasn’t my shortsightedness that caused the problem. It’s unreasonable for iTuple&T (iTunes + Apple + AT&T) to expect soon-to-be iPhone 3G customers to wait for 2.0 to become available for their first-gen devices before heading to the Apple Store or AT&T. If activation is a required part of the upgrade process, then either get the new software out on time or don’t allow iTunes to download, extract, prepare, verify, restore, and install it.

It’s ridiculous to let the phone pass through every single gate if the last one is locked.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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18 thoughts on “Upgrade first-gen iPhone firmware before activating iPhone 3G (unless you need a paperweight)

  • Avatar of

    and i have yet a reason for staying the hell away from apple products…

  • “It’s unreasonable for iTuple&T (iTunes + Apple + AT&T) to expect soon-to-be iPhone 3G customers to wait for 2.0 to become available for their first-gen devices before heading to the Apple Store or AT&T. ”

    I think it’s unreasonable for people to queue up for days outside a store so they can get a new cell phone at the stroke of midnight, but then that’s just me. :-) I’m not convinced the actions here were unreasonable… old phone stops working when new phone is activated. I think it’s reasonable to believe that if people still had interest in doing things with their current phone they wouldn’t rush out and buy another one.

  • Jen — There is a way to fix this.

    1) go to an AT&T store, and tell them you have a defective sim card. They will hand you a new one.
    2) return home. Remove sim card from iPhone 3G and place it in original iPhone. It might just work, or you might have to connect to iTunes, but either way, the original iPhone will work and be happy now.
    3) put the new sim card in iPhone 3G.
    4) call 1-800-331-0500 and follow the system to speak with a representitive. Have them activate the new sim card (deactivating the old one). You can make this call on your old iPhone, but you might want to do it on a different line since the old sim will abruptly stop when the service tech activates the new one.
    5) enjoy having both devices work, but be leary of updates until Apple/AT&T figure out how to solve this without mucking with sim cards.

  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Sorry to hear that, Jenn…I would be patient, because I bet the jailbreaking gurus will have a fix for your situation in the next few weeks. It is silly how Apple waited until the very last minute to officially release the 2.0 upgrade for 1st-gen owners, they should have done it a day or two early and gotten that extra strain off the network. Then maybe they could have had a smoother opening-day for new 3G buyers.

    I have not been impressed with Apple’s handling of the new phone, it seems like they took a step backward from last year. I just got back from getting my new 16GB white, had to wait in line for about an hour for the mall to open at Noon. Luckily I was about the 5th person in line, but it really is ridiculous how they have to take people in one at a time to buy a phone.

    Hope you are able to eventually get your 1st-gen iPhone over to 2.0, otherwise you may just look into jailbreaking & unlocking it and putting it up for sale. I’m glad I took that route a few months ago…

  • @ Joseph: Touche! It isn’t common practice for carriers to deactivate old phones when users upgrade to a new one, though. My AT&T Tilt, which I bought after the first-gen iPhone and before the iPhone 3G, still works, as do all of the other phones I’ve had in the past. All they need is an active SIM.

    @ Josh: Thanks for the suggestion. As mentioned in the post, though, when I put the iPhone 3G SIM into the old iPhone, iTunes/AT&T creates a new data plan (the original $20/month one) as though I’ve handed down the first-gen phone. It just treats it like a brand new account. If I complete the activation process like this, I’ll end up with two data plans (the new $30/month iPhone 3G one and the old $20/month one) on the same account.

  • @ orbital: Ah, so you decided to return to the iPhone! What are your thoughts so far? And what has become of your N95?

    I’m glad you were able to get the phone you wanted, as I thought I read that the white ones were in short supply. When we were in line at the Apple Store on Friday, the 16GB blacks sold out shortly before it was our turn to be whisked away. This was about 6 hours after the store opened, so I think everyone who really wanted that model got one (we got in line about 5 hours after phones went on sale).

    Yeah, I think I’m just going to have to wait for the jailbreak. I only wanted to upgrade to 2.0 so my husband could play around with the App Store. He has a jailbroken iPod touch and loves his apps way too much to upgrade to 2.0 and lose everything, so I figured an updated first-gen iPhone would be a nice stand-in while the hackers worked on something to allow the App Store to coexist with all the old stuff.

  • Jenn,

    In retrospect, my working solution didn’t end up being the same after all. I thought it was a similar situation, but it wasn’t. My iPhone 3G came with a defective sim, so it unlocked in iTunes without completing an activation. As a test, I pulled the sim from my original iPhone, and put it in the 3G, and that worked. I then got a new sim, and put the original sim back in the original iPhone, and the new one in the iPhone 3G, and called AT&T to activate the new sim. The old sim deactivated, leaving me with an iPod touch with camera, and the new one activated in the 3G, but the key difference was that after all the sim juggling I did, the original sim ended up back in the original iPhone, and the original iPhone had the 2.0 update before I deactivated the sim. I’d hold tight… I’d guess that iTunes 7.8 creates an option to unlock the original phones without service now that they are no longer being sold new.

  • Avatar of orbitalcomp

    Yup, I returned to the iPhone, and so far so good. I always liked my original one, I just got the N95 to have the added functionality (BT tethering, 5.0MP camera, SlingPlayer, A2DP). The iPhone will have Sling pretty soon, so that is one thing off the list. Plus, texting and inputting URLs is just too tedious on the N95 with just a numeric keypad…that is what I missed the most – the touchscreen and full keyboard. Now I’m leaning toward selling my Advantage and running the GoPhone data SIM in the N95. Decisions, decisions…

    And, yes about the white iPhone, they did have enough of them at the Apple Store I went to, most people I saw were getting 8GB black…but it sure is funny how for Fri. and Sat. evenings they had the “sold out” sign posted, but yet they somehow had full stock of phones on Sun. morning? Either Apple is paying some extremely high overnight delivery charges (which I doubt), or they are milking this “shortage” for all it is worth.

  • @ orbital: Yeah, some of the “shortages” are definitely fabricated. When we first got in line, a few Apple Store employees came out to tell us that our chances of actually getting an iPhone that day were very iffy. They said they had a limited supply and just weren’t sure if they could meet demand. The 16GB black did sell out about an hour later, but the employees were saying that ALL iPhones were in short supply. I heard one of them saying later that anyone who wanted the 8GB black would definitely walk out of the store with one.

    You and your Slinging! ;-)

  • Have you gotten a way to fix this yet?

    I’m in the same situation and I’m getting NOWHERE from AT&T or otherwise….

    Great write up.

  • Avatar of Brian McNeill

    Hello Jenn,

    I just wanted to let you know that after purchasing and activating the new iPhone 3G, I was in fact able to update the firmware on my first gen iPhone and it appears to be working fine (practically an iPod Touch).

    Other than taking quite a bit of time to perform the update, there were not any hiccups. Furthermore, I was able to completely erase all the data and settings on the first gen iPhone and set it up as a brand new device which I am giving to my father. He is not going to re-activate it, rather use it as an iPod Touch so to speak.

    Sorry to hear about your situation. I would be pretty frustrated as well.

  • @ Brian: That’s great news! How were you able to do it, though? Didn’t iTunes ask you to activate the first-gen iPhone to complete the update?

    I ended up jailbreaking and downgrading my old one to 1.1.4 in the meantime.

  • Avatar of Brian McNeill

    @ Jenn: When asked to activate, I decided to accept (not knowing exactly what was going to happen and was a little hesitant to do so like you).

    I don’t know exactly what took place, but there was no formal activation process after accepting. It was basically just saying OK and the iPhone showed up as normal in iTunes. It turned out not to be a big deal at all.

    Now, after having firmware 2.0, you can turn on Airplane Mode and WI-FI at the same time. This is excellent by the way – I wasn’t expecting this and hope they keep it this way in the future should there be any additional updates.

  • Thanks, Brian. Which SIM card did you have in the iPhone when this happened? The original deactivated one?

  • Update: Inspired by Brian’s success, I decided to try the update again. Since I had jailbroken and downgraded to 1.1.4 to get the device working, I just plugged it in and watched in amazement as the software updated to 2.0 with no problem. Unlike last time, I wasn’t asked to activate. It must have just been some early glitch that temporarily bricked my first-gen iPhone last week.

    Whatever the problem was, it’s since been resolved; deactivated iPhones can now be updated to 2.0 just fine.

  • Avatar of soon-to-be deactivated iphone owner

    those last few comments aren’t clear – do you have to have a sim card in the phone to update it in itunes?

    in other words, does it work in that you can have your 3g sim in the phone and you won’t get charged? or, does it work in that you can just plug it into itunes, sim-less, and update it just like you would an ipod touch?

  • The second one. An activated SIM is no longer needed to update the software.

  • Jenn,
    I have had a few iPhones, Two of which were First genereation. I recently got the 3g, and decided to Jailbreak and unlock the old first gen. This installs software onto the phone and downgrades the bootloaders. I would advise that you Look up into Jailbreaking your 1st gen to make it usable.

    In order to do so you will need software called WinPwn – 2.5 (I belive this is the most up to date version.)

    Download WinPwn from here:
    You will also need a copy of the iPhone *2.0* Firmware
    corrisponding to which version you decide to choose.

    You can find the IPSW file for 2.0 here:,1_2.0_5A347_Restore.ipsw

    (WinPwn will not downgrade or upgrade your Iphone. I will get into more detail later)


    This will walk you through the process of jailbreaking and unlocking your phone.


    you will want to save all the files into one location before starting!

    To Begin!

    Open WinPw
    if you have not done so yet, Please install WinPwn.
    now from within Within the WinPwn App, click on the iPhone button.

    Click on the 2.0 Firmware button.

    Click next, and Click Thumbs Down.
    (Clicking thumbs down here is letting it know you wish to unlock the phone.)

    Click Thumbs Down again To set unlock option.

    Next you will be asked to use custom boot logo.
    This will swap the apple boot logo when starting the phone to a white pineapple.
    (This will not affect functionality of the phone, but for customization purposes only)

    Now WinPwn will build you a custom IPSW File based on your choised.

    ***Your New IPSW Will Be Placed In My Documents***

    Please be very patient, This takes about 10-15 minutes to build the file.

    After completion, WinPwn will ask if you need insttructions on putting the iPhone in DFU Mode , or

    Device Failsafe Utility.
    The iPhon has DFU mode built in to protect it from data loss in case of device faults, such as a power failure or memory malfunction.

    Now That we have our new IPSW, we need to get into DFU mode before we can do anything.

    Normally I just go into iTunes and do a custom upgrade to the firmware, but because it is custom, iTunes will just reject it unless you are in DFU Mode :)

    WinPwn will now ask if you wish to view instructions to enter DFU Mode.
    Click YES so you arent flying blind.

    First you will connect to USB and Power OFF.

    WinPwn will count you down to start from 5…

    Press and hold the POWER BUTTON for 5 SECONDS
    Then While pressing the Home Buttom, Press and hold the HOME BUTTON for 10 seconds

    Now Release the POOWER BUTTON and continue to hold the HOME BUTTON

    Continue to enter DFU mode.

    If you completed this procedure correctly, you will have a WHITE SCREEN on your iPhone This is DFU Mode

    If not, You Will see a red question mark, and will ask you to do it again.

    Continue to try, until you get it correct. It is all about timing!

    Now for me, I am able to get into DFU mode, and the my software freezes.

    What i do is go into iTunes, and when it detects your phone in recovery mode and must be restored, ignore that.

    This can only be done while in DFU MODE!
    Your screen will be solid white!

    We will be doing a custom restore today using the firmware you just built
    (remember its in My Documents)

    Press and hold Shift and click on Restore.

    You will be shown a dialog box to choose a ISPW FILE.

    locate the file in my documents and select it and click ok.

    Click next to continue with the restore.

    Good Luck Jenn!!
    Please Contact Me at [email protected] to let me know your progress or if you have any trouble.



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