Global Traveling with iPhone

As a global traveller who finds his iPhone essential wherever he finds himself, I’ve spent way too much time sorting through the options to find the best one that works for me in my journeys. A few years ago, things were horrible. Data roaming rates overseas weren’t just high, they were astronomically outrageous. You could accidentally spend a house payment without much effort. These days, it’s gotten a lot better.

Data roaming for American plans overseas  is now priced at a level which is high, but sort of within reason—especially if you’re only overseas for a few days. The last I updated this page, data roaming runs $25 per 100MB on Verizon and AT&T. If you turn off all the auto updates and avoid watching cat videos, you can go longer than you think on 100MB. Even better, T-Mobile USA is moving towards free 2G roaming with the option to upgrade to 3G speeds for a fairly reasonable up charge.

Where it still gets complicated is if you’re staying overseas for any length of time and want to take advantage of cheap prepaid SIM cards. The going rate for cards in Europe varies, but its easy to average around €10 a GB in my experience. To take advantage of this—which I do all the time—you’ll want an unlocked phone. This is slightly more tricky than it looks. Even if you pay full price for an AT&T phone, you’ll find it’s still locked to AT&T’s SIM cards.

Finally, if you’re going to America with your unlocked iPhone and want to get online with a local SIM, things are quite a bit more complicated. Unlike anywhere in Europe where you can easily get a prepaid SIM as long as you can navigate any language barriers, getting set up with a decent plan in the United States sucks. I’m currently going through this right now and will update this page in a week or so with more information.

The Verizon Option

All Verizon iPhones starting with the iPhone 5 that shipped in 2012 are unlocked. Verizon isn’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you. They’re doing it because they’re required by the rules of the auction from which they acquired the spectrum to fire up their LTE networks on. The magic clause is in Title 47, Part 27, Subpart B, Section 27.16 of the Code of Federal Regulations. In a nutshell, for devices that operate in the 700 MHz C block—which Verizon paid $9.4 billion dollars in 2008 to use—the following paragraph applies:

 (e) Handset locking prohibited. No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee's standards pursuant to paragraph (b)of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers' networks.

You can thank Google for this as they fought for open access standard during the 700MHz C block auction. Unfortunately, they didn’t get everything they wanted, but the legacy of that fight is right here. And no, this rule doesn’t apply to AT&T’s use of the B block which is why they are happily selling locked iPhones.

The result of this is that Verizon is the only carrier for which you can buy an iPhone at a subsidized price and which will come unlocked. If you like their coverage and their plans—and can stand to sign up for yet another term-based contract—this may be your best option. As of 2012, it’s the option I’m using.

The T-Mobile Option

T-Mobile is making big waves in the United States with their series of Uncarrier initiatives. One of these is to sell unlocked phones—with the option to buy them on an installment program—and sell their access plans at a less expensive price point. It’s a whole lot more honest than what the US carriers have traditionally done. So, you’ll pay full price for an iPhone with a T-Mobile SIM in it, but you’ll be able to drop in a local SIM wherever you go. And if you don’t want to drop in a local SIM, you’ll be online well enough to send messages and emails as well use maps. It won’t be fast, but it’ll work and won’t hit your pocket in the process.

Also of interest is T-Mobile’s pay as you go plans. It’s not obvious, but if you dig around you can find their $30 plan which gives you a month of data—the first 5GB of which is at 4G speed—and unlimited SMS messages. The only catch is that you’re limited to 100 minutes of talk time. For me, that’s easy as I do most of my communication via Skype or FaceTime these days. What’s not clear to me is if you can use their unlimited 2G roaming while on one of these plans. 

In any case, T-Mobile is getting really interesting as an option.


The AT&T Option

Until AT&T sells unlocked phones, they’re barely an option in my book. The only thing that they have going for them is that they have a diverse set of international roaming partners and, if you’re going to be a heavy data user while overseas, you can buy an 800MB block of data for $120 with a $30/120MB overage. If you go overseas once a year and prefer AT&T’s network, then this actually isn’t a bad way to do it. If you travel a lot, however, and can’t expense your phone bill, then Verizon or T-Mobile are much better options.

The one loophole to this is if you have an AT&T iPhone that is free of contract obligations, then they’ll unlock it for you. This means if you have an older iPhone, you can get it unlocked. I guess you could also set up a AT&T service without a contract as well, but I haven’t explored that option much as that’s the most expensive way to do go about things.

The Others

Sprint’s not an option in my book as their international data roaming is limited and expensive. The smaller carriers, like Cricket, are also not interesting right now. As much as I like Virgin’s plans, they won’t unlock phones, so that’s a non-starter for me.