World travel with the unlocked US Verizon iPhone 4S

I've had the Verizon iPhone 4S since it launched last Fall, and I've now taken trips to three countries to use it. I've spent extensive time in Belgium and New Zealand using local micro SIM cards to great effect, and due to a Verizon snafu I've had to use their international service in Belgium as well and I can report it indeed is grossly overpriced. I figure I would share a couple tips and do a quick review after a few weeks abroad.

Step 1: Call Verizon after 60 days and ask for an "International Unlock"

The key step before you go abroad is to make sure you own your Verizon 4S for at least two months and then call customer service to request an International Unlock (I found out about that at ZDnet). They will try to pitch you their international calling plan but refuse it or say you will consider it if the unlock doesn't pan out. 

You have to do this over the phone, the reps I talked to inside a Verizon store couldn't do the procedure. Also, make sure the person on the phone knows how to do this, because the first time I called it was the person's first attempt at ever doing it and it turned out they didn't complete the task properly, causing problems later on.

Step 2: When you get off the plane and through customs, look around the airport for SIM card kiosks

In Belgium after I got my bags and before I left the airport, there was just one little booth selling cards from BASE.be, a local mobile provider. They were fantastic, offering 500Mb of data plus 15 Euro of talk time and texting for only 15 Euro. I also set up topping up the card via SMS, so after a few phone calls and some heavy downloading on my laptop (you can tether the connection) I could simply send a text to get more credit. 

In New Zealand's Auckland international airport, there were two options, Vodafone or Telecom and I selected Vodafone since I'd heard of them before (seen them on soccer jerseys). They offered 250Mb of data plus a bunch of texting and calls for $45NZ. I used up all the bandwidth halfway through my week and topped it up again via SMS.

My local Verizon rep said the USA is the only country in the world that requires you to have an expensive phone plan with hundreds to thousands of minutes of talk time plus data plus texting. Every other country does fine with these cheap pay-as-you-go cards. I would LOVE to have the same setup I had in Belgium, where 10 Euro could last me weeks of heavy phone use instead of the $70/month plan I have with Verizon.

Step 3: Carry a paperclip and a holder to keep your old Verizon SIM in when you're not using it

I have an old SD card case (pictured above) I carry in my travel backpack with all my old micro SIMs and a paperclip. It's really easy to pop the paperclip into the side of your iPhone, slide out the tray, and drop another card in. Every card has its own unlock code and you have to be sure to remember them because they can get locked out from use if you fail on four attempts. It's also fun to feel like a character in The Wire as you can jump from SIM to cheap SIM, switching to a new number each time. Be sure to keep your original Verizon SIM for when you get back home to the US, otherwise you'll have problems.

Warning: don't use Verizon for international use

Since my first attempt at unlocking didn't work, my first use of an International SIM in Belgium didn't quite work out. I could get onto the new network, but I couldn't make calls or get any data. I eventually had to pop in my Verizon card and call Verizion to have them double check (and I also enabled an international plan in case that didn't work out). Data cost me $20.54/Mb in Belgium as I checked the Verizon.com site for a contact number, then I had to wait on hold at several dollars per minute. When they fixed my unlock, new SIMs worked fine, and in the meantime I tried out another local provider and it seemed to work too. I also had no trouble using my Verizon phone in roaming mode in Canada while at the airport, using data from Verizon's own plan.

Verizon's top international plan costs $125 for only 300Mb of data (On AT&T last summer, I used their $200 800Mb plan for two weeks in Australia without going over) and thankfully Verizon counted my international call/data time before I enabled it into my $125 option (I didn't have to pay the $20.54/Mb price). 

Bonus: crazy local numbers aren't all bad

You might want to keep your phone's local US number when abroad (especially when traveling with other Americans that want to call you easily), but I'm more of a texting person and thanks to Apple's iMessage feature, I could text any other American I knew while traveling using data instead of my SMS allocation. Getting a local number proved handy for having a way for local people to contact me without them having to use international talk time as well.

Beware of international data hogs

One last tip: in my experience and talking with friends, it seems like Google Maps is the worst culprit when it comes to data use. It is super useful for getting around, but all those map tiles quickly add up. I was lost in Sydney my first afternoon in Australia last summer and by the end of my first 24hrs, I had amazingly used up 200Mb of my 800Mb allocated for the 2 weeks. After that I took the advice of friends and moved to using OffMaps as much as I could, which uses OpenStreetMaps along with your GPS location to give you a good idea of where you are without tons of network use (you download your maps on wifi, then use them in an offline way). 

It's also a good idea to take advantage of free/cheap WiFi in cafes, hotels, and at business offices as much as possible.

Conclusion: international unlock rocks

Considering that in Belgium I got more than Verizon's top plan for the equivalent of $13, it's a no brainer: get your Verizon 4S unlocked and always go with the cheap local SIM option. It's quick and easy to get a local SIM at the airport, and pop it in. The first time I did this, I had to be on WiFi and connected to iTunes to "activate" my SIM slot, but my last trip to New Zealand didn't require that and a new SIM worked fine after popping it in.

17 Comments

  • Conversely coming to the US and trying to find a SIM vendor is a real pain – anywhere else in the world there’s a couple of sim vendors offering their wares right there are you leave customs. In the US you need to hunt down a t-mobile or AT&T in a strip mall somewhere – remember that’s hard to do without a data plan for your phone so plan ahead and write some directions down
    t-mobile actually has a good pay-as-you go data/calling plan (or did in December) – $1/day only charged on the days that you use it

  • I was able to hack a US-number call forwarding solution while in the UK this summer. It involved getting a paid Skype number which would ring on the handset via data. I used O2 pay-as-you go on two Apple factory unlocked SIM-only iPhone 4 handsets. I ended up spending about 5 pounds a day for two weeks, so I might have actually saved money if we had gone with the $200/800mb AT&T plan.
    I was able to place and receive Skype calls to the US everywhere we were in London, give or take, but not while out in the country. Wifi did not appear to be a technical requirement for using Skype but it sure did seem to be a practical one.
    I did not try the video chat thing. What was I thinking?

  • I bought my first-ever cel phone while living in China (2005). The choice of phones, SIMs and minutes was simply overwhelming. The average mobile store had 100s of phones ranging from a few bucks to half a grand (US). And this was before the iPhone. Similar choice in plans, which were a separate transaction (no “bundling” and no “free phones”). As a minimalist it was awesome: I bought a totally basic phone for a few bucks, all it did was phone calls and SMS (which was free BTW), no cameras, MP3 players or other cruft. OTOH if you wanted the cruft, you could find a phone that gave it to you, and it was usually co-branded (or just pirate-branded) Adidas + Astro Boy or some other crazy fun thing. I usually bought my minutes from the corner grocery for pennies. We took our phones travelling with us and just swapped SIMs. So straightforward. It felt like The Future.
    When we returned to the US (2007) our first trip was to the Verizon store in Lloyd Center Mall. After the Neuromancer utopia of Asia it was like walking into a Stalingrad butcher ca. 1983. There were the nine sad little flip phones and the eleven sad little tiered pricing plans and it was obvious to everyone they all sucked. We were deliberating our horrible options and the salesguy actually said something like “go for the cheapest ones, they’re all basically crap anyway.”
    Waitaminute, which was the communist country again? I’m confused.

  • Here is what you need to do, get educated on jailbreaking (which is legal) and get this: Redsn0w 0.9.10b3.

  • Yep
    Been using unlocked iPhones all around the world on local data plans for years. In France the Svc provider is legally obliged to unlock your phone after six months of contract if you request it. T-mobile sim worked fine for me right across the USA (where there was signal.) India though is the best. Vodafone 3G data plan has worked right across the country and is super cheap

  • @Martin Olsen: Simply jailbreaking doesn’t necessarily mean you can also software unlock the device. The current basebands are not unlockable, especially not on the 4S. Hopefully ultrasn0w will be updated soon, but it’s been a long while.

  • Another great reason to go with Verizon instead of AT&T for an iPhone. AT&T refuses to unlock an iPhone no matter how long you’ve been a customer or owned the phone. Verizon will unlock for international travel after 60 days. You may or may not be able to jailbreak+unlock an iPhone with redsn0w+ultrasn0w; right now there’s not a good unlock for modern baseband firmware. Why not order the phone from the company that treats you better?

  • As a Belgian, data costs me 50 eurocents per MB in the U.S.A. with my Belgian operator. So that’s 50 times cheaper than americans in Belgium.

  • *Sorry, forgot to capitalize Americans.

  • My experience navigating around Japan with an iPhone 4S was that walking ~2 miles with the map up was about 30MB of download, so 200MB in one day is sadly plausible.
    -j

  • You can buy unlocked phones on Amazon if you so desire. (and they are generally cheaper than unlocked phones in other countries)
    It’s just that Americans would rather spend $50 upfront instead of $500 even, if it means an expensive service plan that increases total cost of ownership.

  • can you pre-cache map tiles on the iOS google maps? i’ve found that very useful on my android phone when i go places with lousy service. would be useful to use hotel wifi to pre-cache your current city, and avoid downloading map tiles while on the go.

  • Rather than relying ona paperclip, I’ve come to appreciate these little guys:
    http://www.usbfever.com/index_eproduct_view.php?products_id=2111
    Useful for SIM swapping and troubleshooting (and protects the headphone jack from moisture when you’re not using it.)

  • And what’s the final word on this with Sprint? Will they unlock after 60 days of being a customer with an iPhone 4S too?

  • There’s a typo in the story: “offering 500Mb of data plus 15 Euro of talk time and texting for only 15 Euro”

  • The UK is much the same in terms of expensive plans and “free” or cheap handsets. Irritatingly, the limited choice of airtime plans means it’s hard to escape: I’d much rather pay for the handset then pay a more reasonable monthly fee. I’m paying £5/month for 500 Mb of data on my iPhone 4S now (plus 10p/min, 6p/text – I don’t use enough to pay for a bundle of airtime), though I did have to jailbreak to enable tethering (apparently Apple refuse to enable it for this carrier: it’s actually owned by Telefonica O2 but operates under the ‘Giffgaff’ brandname, so Apple refuse to distinguish between them and their parent company’s SIM cards).
    I had no problems with my iPhone (2G, this being 2008!) coming over from the UK and using AT&T though. I had to unlock it myself in software (no factory unlocks in the UK in those days!) but was fine apart from that.

  • For anyone travelling abroad, the PrePaidWithData wiki http://prepaidwithdata.wikia.com/wiki/Prepaid_SIM_with_data is invaluable – it lists prepaid service plans (and data costs) for pretty much any country you can think of.
    I’ve just returned from a month in Vietnam and the site above helped me get a local SIM for my unlocked iPhone; data cost was an astonishing $0.03 per megabyte… I’m now in Thailand, where an unlimited data package is around $20 per month and doesn’t require a contract.
    Bookmark it now!

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