Now that the iPhone 5 has been announced with all the expected features, including a taller screen, LTE wireless capabilities, and a faster processor, a lot of people are now looking to answer the question of which carrier to get their shiny new iPhone 5 with. For most, it comes down to picking a carrier that has the best service where you live and work or maybe sorting out a pre-paid deal if that works better for you. But, for those of us that travel internationally and want to stay connected no matter where we go without having to hunt down a WiFi access point, it’s a bit more complicated.
The primary complication for global travelers is that data roaming access is pretty expensive. It’s gotten dramatically better over the last year and the rates for using data on your iPhone overseas for a few days are no longer catastrophic, but they aren’t yet reasonable. On the other hand, the economics of using a local prepaid data plan can’t be beat. For example, I bought a prepaid SIM in the UK last year for ₤10 that gave me 1GB of data access to use over the course of a month. This summer in Greece, I picked up a SIM for €10 that netted me 2GB of data. All you need to take advantage of these deals is an unlocked iPhone. That can be easier said than done unless you plan ahead.
There’s no single solution to this. No magic bullets. However, in my experience traveling to an average of 5-10 countries a year—spending anywhere from a few days to a few weeks in each—things go the smoothest when you have a combination a carrier that has a good international data roaming footprint to get through short stays and an unlocked iPhone to drop in a local prepaid SIM for stays longer than a few days. Based on that viewpoint, here’s how I see the various options:
AT&T is my current carrier and I have to say that they’re definitely on the wrong end of the stick when it comes to their relatively mediocre service where I live in downtown Portland. They used to be great, but service quality has slid for some reason. They’re also on the wrong end when it comes to SIM unlocking. As I write this, they will only grant you an unlock on a subsidized iPhone when it’s out of its original two-year commitment. If you want to use your iPhone overseas with a third-party SIM, you’ll need to buy an unlocked iPhone 5 at the unsubsidized price.
As far as roaming on your AT&T SIM goes, you’ll be able to get connectivity in more than 200 countries. There are three data plans: 120MB for $30/mo; 300MB for $60/mo; and 800MB for $120/mo. If you go over your data allotment, you’ll get hit up for $30 for every extra 120MB you use. I do have to give credit and point out that these rates are much better than they used to be even a few months ago and the change to a bucket model for overage instead of a ludicrous per-KB charge is quite welcome.
There’s one more catch that you may or may not care about. The AT&T iPhone 5 (model A1428) won’t work on the LTE bands that are being deployed outside of Canada and the United States. Therefore, all of your data use in other countries will be at sub-LTE network speeds. I don’t consider this to be a real show stopper since LTE build-outs are just getting started and HSPA+—labeled 4G by some providers—is quite fast where it’s available.
Verizon gets a lot of kudos for its service in many places where AT&T is awful. Several of my friends here in Portland are using them and are quite pleased. Verizon also scored well compared to AT&T with the iPhone 4s when it comes to unlocking the SIM slot for international use on GSM networks and will do it for any customer whose account has been in good standing for 60 days. For the iPhone 5, the picture gets even better as Verizon is shipping their model with the SIM slot unlocked for any carrier, domestic or international.
If you use Verizon’s SIM internationally—yes, Verizon’s iPhone comes with a SIM card slot and a card in it—you’ll be able to get online with a very straightforward rate structure: $25 for every 100MB block of data. You don’t get any break for buying 800MB of data for a month like you do with AT&T and they don’t provide roaming in as many countries as AT&T does, but it’s a manageable enough pricing plan to use while in transit through a supported country or until you can pick up a local SIM to drop into your phone.
What are the caveats? On the LTE front, their iPhone 5 (model A1429) doesn’t work with the LTE bands used in Canada, but does work on the LTE bands being deployed in Asia and Europe. How well this works out in practice remains to be seen. As well, if you buy an unsubsidized unlocked phone from Apple, you apparently can’t activate it with Verizon or any other non-GSM provider according to Apple’s fine print.
One other oddity that remains from earlier Verizon models is that you still can’t access the data network while making a voice call, even with an LTE connection. Weird but true and further evidence that LTE isn’t really a single standard, but is instead a grab bag of specifications that various carriers chose from to implement in their services.
Sprint is smaller than Verizon or AT&T and has a smaller network footprint. I hear good things from people here that use them and their unlimited data plan is certainly a draw, but when I was on Sprint years ago, I would often find myself in a dead zone while on road trips. When it comes to using international SIM cards, Sprint will unlock your phone for international use only when you’re account has been in good standing for at least 90 days.
Sprint’s international data plans are much more expensive than either AT&T or Verizon. For Canada and Mexico, the plans are 55MB for $30/mo, 175MB for $75, and 325MB for $125/mo. Overages are a ridiculous $4/MB. The list of other countries where you can roam is much shorter than either AT&T or Verizon and the rates are even higher: 40MB for $40/mo or 85MB for $80/mo with an insane overage of $10/MB.
On the other hand, there is one thing that makes Sprint an interesting carrier for those that wish to keep easy tabs on their US number while traveling: Google Voice integration with a Sprint mobile phone number. This let’s you access voice mail and SMS messages from your domestic number wherever you go. I can see that being really handy for some that don’t want to set up Google Voice or Skype on a separate number.
In my opinion, T-Mobile is currently a secondary player as far as US-based global travelers that use an iPhone are concerned. First off, they don’t sell the iPhone, so you have to buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple. The unlocked iPhone 5 models won’t be available for several weeks after launch. Second, the majority of their 3G network doesn’t operate in spectrum that the iPhone can use, which limits you to EDGE speeds—a non-starter in my book.
That said, they are about to launch a campaign to officially welcome unlocked iPhones and they are building out network support on the bands that the iPhone uses for 3G access, both of which will go far to help raise their profile and usefulness. When that happens, the one remaining concern will be, T-Mobile’s international data roaming prices are an insane $10/MB in Canada and $15/MB elsewhere.
The US Prepaid Vendors
The prepaid vendors in the United States—Virgin Mobile USA and Cricket to name a few—have some deals that work out nicely in the long term for domestic use if you’re willing to pay more for your iPhone in the first place. If you’re going out of the country at all, however, your mileage can vary greatly. For example, Virgin Mobile USA won’t unlock the SIM slots on iPhones they sell. Cricket, on the other hand, is reportedly unlocking iPhones for international SIMs, at least for some. There are reports of people that have been told by Cricket’s reps that the phones can’t be unlocked. Your mileage may vary.
Boiling it All Down
So, what does all of this reduce down to? Even though big improvements have been made over the last year or so in terms of roaming data costs, none of the carriers really has a sweet deal for globetrotters—not even close. All of them have drawbacks of one kind or another. In addition, the fact that the unlocked iPhone you can get from the Apple store is limited to GSM networks and can’t be activated on Verizon, Sprint, or any other CDMA carrier is simply ludicrous. Hardware limitations are one thing, but this limitation is all about carrier practices codified in software and the activation servers. As ludicrous as that is, however, it’s the reality of the current situation.
As I see the options:
All other things being equal, Verizon looks to me to be the best option for the global traveller. You can buy your iPhone 5 unlocked—totally unlocked—at the subsidized price, have a straightforward and somewhat reasonable option for getting a little bit of data for a few days in a foreign country, and you can use local prepaid SIMs for longer stays.
If keeping your domestic number active while you are abroad is more important than cost—which means you’re limiting yourself to only using data roaming instead of a local SIM—then AT&T comes out ahead in terms of the number of countries you’ll be able to roam in. As well, their 300MB and 800MB data blocks give you a slight break on pricing compared to Verizon’s charge per 100MB block.
If you are married to AT&T for some other reason—such as a family plan or it’s the only provider that works for you at your home—and you want to use local prepaid data SIMs when you travel, then you need to pony up for an unsubsidized iPhone 5 from Apple or AT&T. The major downside to this is that you won’t get a break on your service rates even though you’re paying more for the phone.
Sprint’s roaming plans are restrictive and expensive enough that I’d only consider them if you were only going to use international prepaid SIMs in your iPhone and avoid any use of data roaming. On the other hand, seamless Google Voice integration could be a plus for you.
T-Mobile isn’t quite there as a viable option for me yet. As their current build out of support for the 3G bands that the iPhone can use, this will certainly improve and it could become quite a good option indeed. I hope so. Put them in the wait and see category.
Out of the prepaid options I know about, Cricket is the only one I know of that will unlock the SIM slot, at least according to some. On the other hand, Cricket’s network doesn’t support LTE, so your spiffy iPhone 5 won’t run at full speed.
You could always just skip the whole mess, turn off data roaming, and be at the mercy of whatever WiFi hotspots you find while you travel. That doesn’t work for me at all, however. I always find myself needing to be online in the first few hours in a country and WiFi isn’t always there to be found until you’re comfortably settled into a hotel.
One alternative option for using prepaid data SIMs overseas if you’re on AT&T and don’t want to pay the unsubsidized price for a new iPhone 5 is to keep your old iPhone 4 or 4S and get AT&T to unlock it when your commitment for it is done. Then use that phone when you’re overseas. This path would be a bit of a hassle since you’d need to keep two iPhones up to date with all your data, but it is a reasonable option if you only go overseas once in a while.
As for me, it looks like I’ll be making a switch from AT&T to Verizon soon. But, I think that I will keep my unlocked AT&T iPhone 4 as a backup travel option for a while as well.
Notes, References, and Comments
Glenn Fleishman has written an excellent companion piece for TidBITS: Which iPhone 5 Lets You Roam Where You Want? Among other things, it goes into the hows and whats of the different iPhone models—A1428 and A1429—and how the A1429 model supports different LTE bands depending on how it is first activated . Highly recommended reading and good additional food for thought.
Information about iPhone LTE data roaming and lack of simultaneous data and voice calls on CDMA networks comes from Ars Technica’s articles titled: Want global LTE roaming on iPhone 5? Don’t buy it from AT&T and Still no simultaneous voice and data on the Verizon or Sprint iPhone 5.
Yes, you can always jailbreak and unlock a phone outside of the normal carrier processes. I don’t do that with my devices because I have trust issues. Also, jailbreaks for each iOS release and iPhone model tend to lag a bit and I’d really rather stay fully up-to-date with all of my software. For others, this isn’t so much a concern and jailbreaking is an option they are comfortable with.
Several people have written in to say that they have had good luck with remote unlock services. These websites take your IMEI and some money (ranging from $30-$50 in the emails sent to me) and within a day or so a message shows up in iTunes telling you your phone is unlocked. I have no clue as to how this works except for speculating that these sites are fronting people who have people that work at the carriers or elsewhere than can inject unlock requests on the sly. Seems shady, but on the other hand, it sounds like it’s working for people.
Hubert Figuière points out via twitter that Canada’s LTE build out isn’t far along at all and HSPA+ works just fine. Brandon Muramatsu wrote in along the same lines to point out that HSPA+ networks—now called 4G by some carriers—works great where it’s available even if you can’t jump on an LTE network. I agree. It’s probably way too early to get too concerned about where LTE works or not.
Mike Sax wonders on Twitter about the availability of iPhone 5 compatible nano SIM cards. Nano SIMs are new, but given the wide distribution of iPhones through the world, I don’t think availability will be a problem for long.
If you’re from Europe, you might be tempted to point out that things are much more sane across the pond when it comes to service pricing and unsubsidized phones. You’re absolutely right. If I lived in Europe, I’d get an unlocked GSM iPhone and just use a SIM-only plans, such as the ₤15/mo plan that Will Croft mentioned on Twitter. That’s $24, a great value compared to the plans available in the US for the iPhone. Unfortunately, there’s no major carrier in the States that gives you a break on your service pricing when you use an unsubsidized phone.
On the other hand, if you’re from Europe or another place more sane with pricing models and want to use your iPhone here in the United States, well, that’s a total pain in the ass. Rich Hochstetler writes about his experience as an American living abroad who takes occasional 1-2 week trips to the US.
Some have searched on Google for “Virgin Mobile unlock iPhone” and have found this page saying that Virgin will unlock phones. Don’t be confused. That link is for Virgin Mobile Australia. Virgin Mobile USA is a different entity and, according to this page on their site, does not offer any kind of unlock.
Thanks to Casey Mckeag for writing in to provide the information about Cricket unlocking the SIM slot for international use, as detailed in a USAToday article. Thanks also to Soroush Pour for reporting his experience with Cricket, confirming that they will unlock for international SIMs.
Naveen Dittakavi emailed to say that he is on a business plan with Sprint which allows him unlimited data roaming for $40/mo. Sprint has a pretty small list of countries they have roaming agreements in, but this could potentially be very useful for some. Unfortunately, there’s no information about this on the Sprint website anywhere to be found. If you find some public information, please feel free to send it along and I’ll update this accordingly.
Thanks to Patrick Hart who emailed me about Sprint’s integration with Google Voice. That’s a useful thing to know if Google Voice is part of your telephony.
I updated this post on September 24th after news that the Verizon iPhone 5 is shipping totally unlocked. More details in my follow on post Verizon iPhone 5 Unlocked Thanks to FCC?*
A friend (who I’ll keep anonymous given where they work) pointed out to me that one of the advantages that AT&T has in international data roaming is that you can roam in far more countries than you can with Verizon. I’ve updated both the AT&T and Verizon sections above appropriately to address this consideration.