The previous post discussed bringing a U.S. iPhone to Korea. This post will cover the opposite, bringing an iPhone purchased in Korea into the U.S., for short trips or long-term use.
The good news is that most U.S. carriers are much more tolerant of foreign devices on their network, so the activation process can be completed in minutes rather than hours. The bad news is that not all of them will be able to activate every Korean iPhone.
By the way, why are these posts only about iPhones?
I will cover other types of phones later, but since there are hundreds of millions of iPhone users yet just 6 iPhone models, I can provide detailed information for a large proportion of smartphone users in a single article.
Which U.S. carriers can activate my Korean iPhone?
The iPhone 4S is truly a worldwide model, and practically every U.S. carrier can support it. If you have a 4S, you have lots of options.
Earlier iPhone models sold in Korea work only with GSM (2G) and WCDMA (3G) networks. In the U.S., the largest GSM carriers are AT&T and T-Mobile, both of which can support Korean iPhones. However, T-Mobile’s WCDMA network (which they market as “4G” for some reason) operates on unusual frequency bands which are not supported by any iPhone model. For that reason, if you activate an iPhone on T-Mobile, you will be limited to 2G data speeds (equivalent to dial-up, if you are old enough to remember that experience). This is tolerable for visits (indeed, T-Mobile is my carrier of choice on my trips), but a poor option for long-term use.
What do I need to do before I leave Korea?
First, for the long-term folks (those looking to spend a year or more with a U.S. carrier). If you are still on-contract, you will need to break your contract and pay a fee accordingly. Additionally, if you are still paying for your phone (on an installment plan, etc.), you will need to pay the balance before the phone is yours to keep. If it’s only been a year since you started your contract and installment plan, this will amount to several hundred dollars, and you should probably stop to consider whether this is even worth it. For $649, you can buy a new, unlocked iPhone 4S outright at any Apple Store. If your charges are anywhere near this amount, just return your phone and buy a new one in the U.S.
For the short-term folks (just taking a trip for a couple weeks), you won’t need to end your contract, but you will need to unlock your phone. You could jailbreak your phone for free, or you could pay the balance on your phone (if any) to own it outright, then ask your carrier to unlock your phone.
In any case, ask your carrier to unlock your phone before you part ways with them.
Will I have different plan options since I am bringing my own phone instead of buying a new one?
Generally no, except for one thing: you can use prepaid plans, a big plus for travelers. There is a small activation fee ($5-10) and you pay for just the minutes, texts and data you think you will need. However, be aware that AT&T’s prepaid division is extremely hostile to iPhone owners. You can either try to be secretive about what phone you intend to use, or you can go over to T-Mobile’s prepaid division, which welcomes iPhones with open arms. Personally, I prefer the latter option.
If you are thinking long-term, prepaid is fine, but not necessarily cheaper than regular postpaid plans. If you have a somewhat decent credit history, you can pay a larger activation fee (~$35) to set up postpaid service. Sadly, U.S. carriers generally do not offer lower rates when you bring your own device, so you will be paying the same high rates as people who got free or discounted phones when they signed up. On the plus side, you will not have to commit to a two-year contract.
Questions? Ask away in the comments!