Swapping out your SIM card on your iPhone 4S when you travel abroad is a good way to avoid expensive roaming charges. But whether you can do it, and on which carrier it's allowed, can be confusing.
In this edition of Ask Maggie I answer what should be a simple and straight-forward question about whether a Verizon Wireless iPhone 4S can be used overseas on a foreign carrier's network. I also offer some advice to another reader looking for voice-only service with a smartphone on T-Mobile's prepaid plans.
Confusion around unlocked iPhones
I love your column.
I have a Verizon iPhone 4S. I travel to Europe often for work. I know that the 4S has a SIM card. So when I get to Europe, can I just purchase a SIM card and avoid all those extra charges?
In short, the answer is yes. You can get your iPhone 4S from Verizon Wireless unlocked. The stated policy on this, according to Verizon's spokeswoman Brenda Raney, is that so long as your account has been active and in good-standing for 60 days, Verizon will provide you with what you need to get the phone unlocked. Once the phone has been unlocked, you can simply put another SIM card into the phone when you are overseas and you should be able to get access on a different carrier's network.
I also checked with other iPhone 4S carriers to see what their policies are on this matter. Sprint Nextel also allows you unlock the iPhone so that you can use the phone with a SIM card from another carrier. But AT&T does not provide allow any of the iPhones it sells under contract to be unlocked. That said, AT&T does sell unlocked iPhones without a contract. The downside for consumers is that these unlocked phones are considerably more expensive than devices bought with a contract. What bothers me about AT&T's policy is that it is wiling to unlock other smartphones that it sells. In essence, it's only AT&T's iPhone customers who are forced to use the company's roaming arrangements when traveling abroad.
It is true that using a local network to make local calls while traveling abroad can be cheaper than roaming onto a foreign carrier's network. But there are a couple of things you should be aware of before you decide to do this. First, when you put in a different SIM card for a different network, you will have a different phone number. Your U.S. phone number will not work on this device with the foreign SIM card activated. You can have your U.S. calls forwarded to your new number, but just be aware that when you make and receive calls, it will be from this foreign number.
Second, the iPhone 4S uses what's called a microSIM card. It's smaller than a typical SIM card and not every prepaid service offers microSIMs. It will be easier for you if you can find a European carrier who offers microSIMs. That said, it is possible to turn a regular SIM card into a microSIM simply by cutting it in half. Many people say this is simple to do. But altering a component is always a risk, so take care when doing it.
The question that you asked seems very simple and straightforward. And it should be an easy one to answer. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there surrounding this topic, mainly because carriers have been cagey about informing customers what they can and cannot do with their phones.
Sadly, much of the misinformation is coming from carrier customer service and sales representatives. For example, in researching your question, I spoke with two different Verizon sales associates who gave me wrong information about unlocking the iPhone 4S. The first salesperson was adamant about the fact that the iPhone 4S didn't even have a SIM card in it. She was wrong. Every phone that operates on a GSM network has a SIM card. The Verizon iPhone 4S can operate on both a CDMA and GSM network, so therefore it must have a SIM card.
After I explained this to her, she finally relented and said that Verizon sells two different versions of the iPhone 4S. One that supports GSM service and offers international service and one that only offers domestic service on a CDMA network. She told me that I could choose which device I wanted when I went through the purchase process on Verizon's Website. Again, this information is completely false. Verizon, like other carriers in the U.S. and around the world, sell only one version of the iPhone 4S.
Even though I clarified my question and asked her specifically about the iPhone 4S and not the iPhone 4, she continued to offer the wrong information. Perhaps, she was still confused, since it is true that Verizon sells two versions of the iPhone: the older iPhone 4 and the newer iPhone 4S. The iPhone 4 is the first iPhone to be sold on Verizon. It went on sale in February last year. It is not a "world" phone and cannot be used overseas on a GSM network.
The iPhone 4S is the newest version of the iPhone family. It was released in October, and it is a so-called world phone with access to both GSM and CDMA networks. It is the iPhone 4S, and not the iPhone 4, that can be used internationally on GSM networks via roaming agreements. And as I stated above, if you ask a Verizon representative to unlock your iPhone 4S, it can be unlocked so that when you're traveling you can put in a different SIM card to use the device on another carrier's local network.
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What surprised me about all this is that it wasn't just one Verizon representative who gave me bad information, but two. When I called again to get the correct information, the sales associate recognized that the iPhone 4S does have a SIM card, but she said that Verizon did not provide unlock codes. This is not correct, since a Verizon spokeswoman said that the company does allow the device to be unlocked.
I relate this story to you not because I want to bash Verizon. I don't. I offer this story, because I know that everyday thousands of customers call customer sales and support seeking answers to what seem like very simple questions. And because the policies are often so confusing or associates are so poorly trained, many people walk away with information that is flat-out wrong. And as someone who tries to make sure consumers have the right information to make informed decisions on products that they're contractually obligated to use for two years at a time, it frustrates me.
I have been writing about cell phones and wireless service for nearly a decade. So when I am given information that seems wrong, I know enough about the market that I can dig deeper and ask more probing questions. And because I cover this industry, I know who to call to make sure I am getting the correct information. Unfortunately, most consumers don't follow this market as closely as I do and even fewer have access to company experts.
That said, I will point out that when I asked AT&T and Sprint customer service and sales agents the same question about unlocking the iPhone 4S, they each provided me with information that lined up with corporate policy.
As for Verizon, the company's spokeswoman apologized for the misinformation. And she assured me that she will be going back to the sales team to make sure sales representatives know the correct policy for unlocking the iPhone as well as other topics related to devices sold on Verizon's network.
Voice-only service for smartphones on T-Mobile prepaid plans
In a previous Ask Maggie column, you told someone they couldn't use their older iPhone on AT&T for voice only. Could it be used on T-Mobile with a pay-as-you-go plan? What about other smartphones, like the Galaxy Nexus? Or even the Samsung Galaxy Note? Could I also use those smartphones without a data plan on T-Mobile? I want the big screen and Wi-Fi, but a basic phone would be useful too.
The short answer to your question is yes. And it's very simple to sign up for the T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan. All you have to do is get a SIM card, which will cost about $2.99. Then activate the SIM card and choose a voice-only plan.
The $30 plan will give you 160 minutes or will expire after 90 days, whichever comes first. For $50 you can get 400 minutes, with an expiration of 90 days. And for $100, you can get 1,000 minutes plus a bonus of 150 minutes. And that card is good for up to one year.
But remember these plans do not include text messaging or any data services. There are other options that also include text messaging. So check out T-Mobile's Web site for more information. You can also switch your prepaid plan at any time adding data or text messaging one time and eliminating it another time.
That said, even though these prepaid offerings don't include cellular data service, you will still be able to access Wi-Fi on networks that don't require a password or for networks that you know the password.
If you decide you want cellular data services at some point, T-Mobile has very competitive pricing. And even if you go over your allotted limit, you can still use the data service. The only difference is that the service will be slowed down from so-called 4G speeds to slower speeds.
Plans start as low as $30 for 100 voice minutes and unlimited data up to 5GB. After you hit the 5GB mark, service slows down.
If you're using an iPhone on T-Mobile, keep in mind that the device will not work at 3G or even 4G speeds on T-Mobile's network. So even if you exceed the 5GB cap, you won't likely notice a difference in the speed of the service, since the regular speed you'll be using, will be slow anyway.
I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!
Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.