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!


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