Why You Shouldn’t Care that iPhone 4S is a World Phone

The fact that the iPhone 4S is a “world phone” means little. This phrase, as used by Apple (and everyone else, AFAICT), means that the same hardware device is capable of communicating over both GSM and CDMA networks. However, there are caveats which make this useless:

  • iPhones subsidized by carriers (AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint) will still be locked to that carrier. Later in this post, I explain more about the why having an “unlocked” phone is important.
  • The AT&T iPhone 4S won’t be able to connect to any CDMA network.
  • The CDMA iPhone 4S, whether on Verizon or Sprint, won’t be able to use a SIM card of any kind from any carrier. [I hope I’m wrong on this– since the iPhone 4S isn’t in any customers’ hands yet, I’m not 100% certain– but this is certainly the way it sounds right now. This is also the view of Maggie (CNET).]
  • When Apple says that the CDMA iPhone 4S will work worldwide, that is true; but pay close attention to the catch: it only works together with your US-based phone plan’s international roaming provision, with Verizon or Sprint’s international partner carriers, and at obscene roaming rates, which, unless you’re insanely rich, you won’t want to use for any significant length of time.
Now, let me debunk some inaccurate claims I’ve seen around the web: 

One of the most pernicious lies about the new iPhone 4S is that it works “across all carriers.” (I saw that in the New York Times this morning.) That’s wrong. It doesn’t work on T-Mobile USA, making Apple now fully complicit in AT&T’s plan to destroy the smaller carrier so it can gobble up T-Mobile’s tasty, tasty spectrum. (Source)

Actually, that’s wrong: iPhone 4S (and every unlocked GSM iPhone before it) does work on T-Mobile USA. What the author actually meant is that it does not work on T-Mobile USA’s 3G data network, which is true. But you could also point out that it doesn’t work with any carrier’s 4G data network. The iPhone 4S will work perfectly fine on T-Mobile USA’s voice network, and it will work just fine with 2.5G “EDGE” data, too– just like the iPhone 4 (GSM), iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, and original iPhone (provided that it’s unlocked, in all cases).

By the way, “2.5G” data works great. While in it’s slower in most cases, it saves significant battery life. Thus, it’s not worse in every way; it’s more of a trade-off.

Why the iPhone 4S world phone works with GSM carriers around the world.. exactly like every GSM iPhone that came before it (including the GSM iPhone 4)

The fact that the iPhone 4S is a “world phone” doesn’t make it any better for world travelers (like myself) than the iPhone 4 (GSM) that came before it, unless you’re willing to pay the international roaming rates I referred to above.

Every iPhone, besides the CDMA iPhone 4, was able to roam internationally in all the same countries that the new iPhone 4S will. The most useful aspect of a phone, for a world traveler, is to have it “unlocked” — more on this later in the post.

I don’t get why Apple made that “unlocked means GSM only” decision. Maybe the market is too small to have added Sprint and Verizon variants, but Apple could have used its market power for good and forbade carriers from locking out overseas carriers as the price for carrying an iPhone. After all, that’s what it did for the iPad, and the same carriers have done quite well in that environment. Of course, the Verizon version doesn’t support (or claim to) GSM networks, so the unlocked status of the AT&T iPad may not mean all that much after all.

The iPad is not a phone. All AT&T-subsidized devices are locked to AT&T. Besides the 2-year contract, this is what they get in exchange for paying the subsidy.

Unlocked phones only work on GSM because GSM technology uses SIM cards. CDMA phones never have SIM cards, making it difficult (if not impossible) to configure your phone for a new network/plan/number.

Traveling the world? Here’s why you need an unlocked GSM phone– NOT a world phone

Packaging from some of the SIM cards I purchased during my recent travels
Packaging from some of the SIM cards I purchased during my recent travels

GSM is the dominant global standard for cell phone communications (see for yourself), and if your phone is unlocked, then you can ditch AT&T entirely — and you can do it on your own, in a matter of seconds. No need to call anyone or do anything online. Just pop out the SIM card, swap in the new one, and you’re good to go.

And since you’re putting in a SIM card from local carrier, you won’t pay any international roaming rates; you’ll save a ton of money in the process; and, if you go for a pre-paid card (which is much more common outside the US than inside it), your expenses are capped. No risk of accidentally racking up a $2,000 monthly bill, even if you have absolutely no understanding or knowledge of the rates you’re being charged.

In the US, I use my unlocked iPhone with AT&T.

In Vietnam, I’ve used my iPhone with two different carriers: Viettel and Mobifone.

In Cambodia, I’ve used my iPhone with a local carrier. Same in Hong Kong, with the carrier named “3″, as in the number Three. Same in Taiwan, with Taiwan Mobile. Singapore, with SingTel, twice. Malaysia. Germany. France. The UK. The Netherlands, with T-Mobile NL.

In almost every case, especially in Asia, it’s dirt cheap. $10 or so usually buys me enough data for my trip, and even in the most expensive cases (Europe), it’s typically tough to spend more than $50 in a month, even if I use it all I want.

Most recent example (not the cheapest nor most expensive): In Singapore, I paid 28 SGD for a SingTel hi!Card SIM card, which includes 5 MB of free data. If you sign up for a Surfer Pack (super easy: just dial *363), you can pay S$1 for 10MB, or S$7 for 1GB over 7 days. That’s about $5.40 for 1GB (about 1000MB) of data. With AT&T in the US, you have to pay at least $15/month for an iPhone data plan, and that only provides 200MB.

Indeed, in the US, even the cheapest plan from AT&T is around $70 (maybe $55 if you use less than 200 MB data?).

Without an unlocked phone, none of this is possible. Your phone simply won’t work with international SIM cards. It’ll work with most of the carriers, yes; but you’ll be paying far more than the locals.

Bottom line: when it comes to traveling the world, having a world phone isn’t important. If you’re a budget traveler (or even just someone who likes to get good value for money), what really matters is having an unlocked phone.

One thought on “Why You Shouldn’t Care that iPhone 4S is a World Phone”

  1. The AT&T iPhone 4s does not work with TMobile in US
    I tried it , it did not work .
    So I can conclude the ATT iPhone 4s is not a world phone .
    Am I right?

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