"Unlocked" iPhone Eases Overseas Travel

By , Columnist
Seventeen thousand miles from home, I found myself alone in an Australian airport after traveling for 36 hours. Thankfully, I had the foresight to pack two cell phones; one assured by my mobile carrier to work overseas and another purchased as a backup because it "guaranteed international coverage." I learned that the only thing a customer service rep can "guarantee" is that he will say anything not to be held on the phone past 5pm by a girl obsessing over her concerns of traveling alone because she's seen the movie Hostel.

The artificial guarantee became a cold reality when I realized I had no service and had been clutching to the false security of what was essentially, two digital bars of soap. The Qantas staff that assisted me later referred to the event as the "Hysterical American Incident."

Before traveling beyond the land beneath Canada's hat, I assumed the contract a person signed for mobile service in the U.S. also worked beyond its continental borders. Why wouldn't it? I could call Australia from here; so theoretically, I should be able to call home from Australia, right?


Until now, apart from jailbreaking your iPhone, which can cause a host of other problems, the exclusive agreements between AT&T and iPhone -- and most other service providers and phone manufacturers -- have prevented the option of swapping SIM cards, allowing your mobile to work with more than one carrier, also known as "unlocking" a phone.

In Australia, Canada, Japan and the UK (and several other countries hip to 21st century telecommunication), changing a phone number or connecting while overseas is as simple as purchasing a $20 SIM, slipping it into your phone's SIM port and furiously calling your family to tell them that you're safe and that you don't wish they were there.

As of Tuesday, American travelers also have that option as Apple has started selling factory unlocked iPhone 4 units in U.S. retail stores.

Before getting your hopes up, TiPb suggests the improbability of unlocked iPhones supporting AWS frequencies, which means no 3G off AT&T in the US. "But for travelers who'd prefer to swap SIM cards than pay extravagant roaming rates, the option is a compelling choice." There is also little hope for unlocking an iPhone you already have, according to a tweet from @chronicwire, a jailbreak developer and Apple rumors source.

The kinks will take some time, and while $650 for a new phone will put a serioius dent in your souvenir money, I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing you have a connection to the familiar when in a strange, new country. If you don't go that route, at least write your mother's phone number somewhere on your body. Or the home number of your provider's trustworthy customer service representative.

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Holly is a freelance writer and copy editor with a background in journalism and publishing. Like a grandmother's purse, she is about three decades old, worn around the edges and mostly full of crap.

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