Bringing your Korean iPhone to the U.S.

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!


Bringing your U.S. iPhone to Korea

Good news! These days (as of summer 2011), it is a relatively simple matter to bring a U.S. iPhone to Korea and activate it with a Korean carrier. If you bring your own phone, you can choose from a number of affordable monthly or prepaid plans.

Any iPhone other than the original will work on Korea’s 3G frequencies. That is, as long as your iPhone is unlocked.

One caveat: Most of the information in this column will be related to one carrier in particular: olleh (formerly KTF). Not because I am being paid by them (I am not), but because over the past year, olleh has made a serious commitment to providing the highest level of service to expats (in English and other languages), and so far, they have been delivering on that promise. On top of that, they have lower rates than the dominant carrier, SK.


Is my phone unlocked?

If you purchased an iPhone at a discounted price ($199-399) on contract, your phone will be carrier-locked. This means that while it may have the hardware necessary to operate on other carriers’ networks, it is software-locked to a particular carrier, such as AT&T. Such is the price you pay for getting your phone at a discount.

As of November 2011, you can actually buy an unlocked iPhone direct from Apple, starting at $649. This doesn’t make sense if you live in the U.S., but if you are buying a phone to take with you to Korea, then it might.

Still not sure whether your phone is unlocked? Unfortunately, there is no simple way to determine whether your phone is locked. First, try to remember how much you paid for it (or if you got your phone secondhand, ask the original owner). If you paid less than $400, it is almost certainly locked. Second, if you can get hold of a SIM card from a different carrier, try inserting it into your phone. Open the Settings app and tap Phone. If you see a phone number, your phone is probably unlocked.


I guess my phone is locked. What can I do?

If you are very lucky, and you are a customer in good standing, your carrier may honor a request to unlock the phone. It doesn’t hurt to ask. But don’t get your hopes up—U.S. carriers do not have a strong history of unlocking iPhones upon request, even after completing a 2-year contract.

If your carrier denies your request, or you’ve already terminated your service, you will have to jailbreak and unlock your phone (jailbreaking along is not enough). This is perfectly legal, but not always easy, and it is beyond the scope of this article. Be aware that not all iPhones can be unlocked in this manner; your chances are best with a 3G or 3GS.


Hooray! I have an unlocked iPhone. What kinds of plans are available?

If you do not plan to use your phone heavily (or you will use mostly Wi-Fi), prepaid plans are an excellent option. The rates (as of this writing):

  • Voice: 4.8원/sec
  • SMS: 22원 (up to 45 Korean characters, 90 English characters)
  • LMS: 33원 (up to 1,000 Korean characters, 2,000 English characters)
  • Data: 0.28원/0.5KB (works out to ~50 cents/MB, $25/50MB)

If you are a heavy voice user, you can opt to pay an additional daily charge that lowers your per-second voice call rate. For example, you can pay 166원/day to get 3.9원/sec, or 266원/day for 3.4원/sec.

If you do plan to use your phone a lot, and have a Korean bank account or Korean credit card, there are a variety of regular postpaid plans as well. Whether you are a heavy talker, texter, data user or all of the above, you should be able to find a plan that works for you. Happily, plans cost much less here than they do in the U.S. For example, 300 mins + 300 msgs + unlimited data costs just $50/month. See the plans.

Either way, the registration process can take a couple hours, because of one critical step. Every cell phone has a unique identifier called an IMEI. When a phone tries to connect to the network, the network checks the phone’s IMEI against a whitelist to decide whether to allow the connection. Phones sold in Korea are automatically whitelisted, but foreign phones must be whitelisted individually, and this takes time. You will need to surrender your phone for an hour or two, then return to the store later to complete the registration process. Aside from this extra step (which is actually a lot easier than it used to be!), the signup process is relatively painless.


I have more questions!

Ask away in the comments!