Which iPhone 5 Lets You Roam Where You Want?
[Update: We’ve updated this article since it was originally posted to make it current with important new details. After the iPhone 5 shipped in the United States, it became clear that the model sold by Verizon Wireless has its GSM nano-SIM slot unlocked for use with a SIM by any carrier, including AT&T. This may be related to regulations in place for one of the frequency bands that Verizon purchased at auction to use with LTE. In any case, it may affect what phone you choose to buy. Read on.]
The iPhone 4S was simple: a single model covered the whole world. The iPhone 5 comes in two models, however, with three potentially significant variants based on activation. The iPhone 4S can be used worldwide; the iPhone 5 can too, but not for the fast LTE networking flavor everywhere you go. If you’re trying to break this down to figure out which iPhone 5 model or activation to purchase, let me pick apart how it works.
The iPhone 4S’s supported networks can be explained with a bit of effort. If purchased unlocked from Apple or from a GSM-based carrier or under contract to a GSM carrier, the iPhone 4S will be GSM forever, and will work on all 2G, 3G, and 4G GSM bands nearly everywhere in the world. An identical iPhone 4S can be sold to a Verizon Wireless or Sprint Nextel customer and activated for CDMA, and then used outside the United States with the proper SIM (the GSM subscriber identification module) on 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.
Once activated for GSM, however, an iPhone 4S can never be used for CDMA. If an iPhone 4S is activated for CDMA, GSM remains available, although apparently not in the United States.
The iPhone 5 has all the iPhone 4S GSM and CDMA support, and adds LTE. It comes in three flavors, via two models (explained a little obscurely on its LTE page):
- The A1428, which is sold for AT&T in the United States, and Bell, Rogers, and Telus in Canada. It includes LTE support for two spectrum bands that are used among those networks. (Canadian providers also have other spectrum bands they use for LTE.)
- The A1429, which is like the iPhone 4S in that it can be activated for either a CDMA network (Verizon and Sprint in the United States or KDDI in Japan) or a GSM network (10 GSM networks across 7 countries), and then never switched.
Here’s the complicating factor. The A1429 activated for CDMA supports two U.S. LTE bands and three bands used in combination across the other 10 carriers supported outside the United States. But when it’s activated as a “world” GSM phone, LTE support drops to include just the 10 international carriers’ LTE deployments. (Neither model includes two bands that will be used extensively in Europe in upcoming deployments.)
There’s another complication, too. CDMA phones, once activated for a given carrier, can’t then be used with other CDMA carriers. If you purchase a Sprint iPhone, you can’t transfer it later to Verizon, Cricket Wireless, or other regional carriers. A GSM phone, so long as its SIM slot remains locked (through encryption), can’t be used with other carriers either. But there’s a twist.
Verizon Wireless sells its CDMA flavor of the iPhone 5 with the GSM SIM unlocked, possibly due to FCC regulations that govern the use of the spectrum band it employs for LTE. That specific band carried a requirement that prevents carriers from offering handsets that lock a phone to a network, or restrict the use of legitimate devices (even those not sold by a carrier) on a network. This means that a Verizon-activated iPhone may be used immediately with any GSM network, including AT&T (2G, 3G, and 4G) or T-Mobile (at 2G and EDGE rates). It can’t use AT&T’s LTE network or those of the Canadian carriers. (It’s unclear whether this will force Verizon to let you use the phone on another CDMA network, because that requires the
other CDMA providers to allow its use, and they aren’t required to do so.)
The unlocking policy for other American carriers varies. Sprint allowed the iPhone 4S’s SIM slot to be unlocked after 90 days of service. AT&T won’t unlock a SIM slot until well into a two-year contract if it’s a subsidized purchase, and I’m unaware of a stated policy about if or when a phone purchased from AT&T at full price may be unlocked.
So how do you figure out which model and activation to buy? The calculus has everything to do with how much you travel and where, and whether you care that you’re achieving LTE speeds when you travel. (There’s also a timing issue: two LTE bands being deployed by European carriers aren’t supported by the 7-country GSM model, which may have to wait for an iPhone 5S or 6!)
- I live in an LTE-supported country (the United States or any other), and I don’t travel at all.
Pick the best service plan, as whatever iPhone 5 model you pick will be dependent on that. AT&T and Verizon will, by around 2014, have comparable LTE networks, but Verizon is ahead on its footprint for now. Worldwide, most LTE networks are in the early stages of being built out. Check with individual carriers for coverage maps.
I live in the United States, and travel frequently to Canada, but rarely elsewhere.
AT&T is the best option for an iPhone 5, because you’ll get LTE support in the United States and Canada, and AT&T has voice and data roaming add-ons for Canada as well as a two-country voice/messaging plan that’s surprisingly affordable. It may be worthwhile to purchase a fully unlocked iPhone 5 (which won’t be available the same day as carrier-supplied phones in the United States), and use separate AT&T and Canadian carrier SIMs.
However, it’s unclear whether Apple will offer that for sale, or when carriers will make nano-SIMs available on a pay-as-you-go or subscription basis.
I live in the United States, and travel all over the darned globe.
AT&T is a poor choice, because it won’t unlock SIMs (at least initially, see above), and you have to pay its high voice and data roaming fees outside the United States. Opting for Sprint (unlimited U.S. data) and getting the nano-SIM slot unlocked or Verizon (best U.S. coverage for voice and LTE) with its SIM slot unlocked at purchase is the optimum solution so long as you are in an LTE coverage area for most of the time you use it in the United States.
I live in Canada, God’s Country, the Great White North (McKenzie Brothers’ noise here) and travel beyond its borders regularly.
The only option is the AT&T/Canada (A1428) iPhone 5 to get LTE speeds, but that won’t allow you to use LTE when traveling further afield than your neighbor to the south. You can purchase an unlocked iPhone 5 from Apple in Canada, or get an iPhone from a carrier, each of which has varying policies for unlocking. An unlocked 7-country (A1429) iPhone 5 would keep you from having LTE access at home, but enable it in those roaming countries.
I don’t live in the United States or Canada, and may or may not choose to travel much.
Apple or a domestic carrier may be willing to sell you only the three-band (A1429) GSM/LTE model. Unlocking a SIM for use outside your carrier’s home country depends on its policies and those of the national regulator’s. You will not be able to use this model with any LTE networks in the United States or Canada.
I just want to buy an unlocked iPhone 5.
We’ll have to wait and see what Apple offers, and how readily available nano-SIMs become for travelers to foreign lands.
For a carrier-by-carrier examination, read James Duncan Davidson’s detailed accounting. He travels extensively around the world, which gives him better insight into the costs of roaming data.
(If you don’t care about LTE speeds, and the new features of an iPhone 5 aren’t compelling, pick an iPhone 4S if you need a new phone, since those are the same great devices as a few days ago, but now cost less.)
There is one more special case I’ll mention. Our own Joe Kissell and his family are returning from five years in France this winter to live in the United States. Joe would dearly love to purchase an iPhone 5 when it goes on sale, but the unlocked, plan-free model he can purchase in France likely won’t allow him to use LTE when his clan returns stateside, and it would stick him with AT&T as a carrier and no choice for voice and data. My advice to Joe: wait until you’re back.
And another complicating factor, according to this Verge report: Verizon apparently won't support voice and data simultaneously on the LTE iPhone. http://www.theverge.com/2012/9/13/3328492/iphone-5-simultaneous-voice-data-verizon-sprint
AT&T tells me they will unlock an unsubsized phone, or any phone that it not connected to a commitment.
It that proves not to be true, I will find out in about a week.
Ordered a no-committment iPhone 5 from AT&T this morning. Apple is not offering them yet.
Is a no-commitment phone the same as unlocked phone?
I had my out of contract iPhone 4 unlocked a couple weeks ago with no issues at all. Contacted ATT Tech Support by chat and it probably took about 15 minutes total. Then I had to restore the phone and it was unlocked. I will probably keep it to use when traveling overseas with a local SIM.
Sheesh. Thanks for explaining all of this! Is there a *technical* reason why this is an either-or situation, or is it just about contracts and carrier locks?
Some of it is the limitations of current radio technology, which requires a separate bit of circuitry for each range of frequencies. There's only so much you can fit in, although that's increasing all the time.
Some of it is about locks; others points about which LTE bands are able to be fit into a single small mobile device. Apple made choices that are similar but not identical to other LTE phone makers, some of which picked a bigger phone size to accommodate more LTE bands with more chips.
I balked at the first sentence.
You edited this comment later, but I am not sure of the problem. The iPhone 4S came in a single model for the whole world—with one exception which doesn't seem significant enough to mention. There was a special GSM flavor sold only in China that wasn't intended for worldwide distribution. The GSM and CDMA activations for everywhere else, which worked for iPhone 4S models purchased elsewhere and brought into China, is a single piece of hardware (A1387).
"But when it’s activated as a “world” GSM phone, LTE support drops to include just the 10 international carriers’ LTE deployments."
Band 1,3,5 are currently supported by way more than just 10 LTE carriers listed on Apple site. check the map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LTE_networks
So if the phone supports 1,3,5 LTE band, nothing can stop the unlocked Verizon iPhone 5 from roaming or being able to pop in local nanoSIM from an LTE international LTE carrier and being able to connect to the LTE network.
Also, once the AT&T's iPhone 5 is unlocked or bought at the Full Price, it WILL accept local GSM SIM card carriers like T-Mobile. It always had.
While there may be common bands with carriers other than those that Apple has stated for its first round of international support (more is coming shortly), there's no way to predict or assert that it's all interoperable, nor that just a simple nano-SIM swap will work.
We're sticking to what's known right now, and can update this with additional information. LTE networks can be built in many different ways, although the companies that supply networking equipment (like Ericsson) are obviously pushing and more cheaply supporting particular configurations.
What you're saying may be true, but there's no way to know until phones are in the field and we here more from carriers and find out more about Apple's next wave of partners.
About unlocking, I'm not sure what you mean. The statement, "U.S. activations of the iPhone 5 cannot be used with competitive carriers in the United States" is about locked, subsidized phone. An unlocked AT&T model can be used with any compatible SIM, so far as we know, too.
Hi. Can someone confirm that based on what I read on this article above the Telus iPhone 5 is the same as the AT&T version?
I live in the US and want to upgrade to the new iPhone 5. However, I understand it will not be offered for a month or so. If that's the case, I have a trip scheduled to Canada anyway, and could stop by a Canadian store and buy it from there.
Your clarification is appreciated.
The iPhone 5 ships on Sept. 21st in the United States and Canada (among other countries). A Canadian phone purchased unlocked in Canada requires an AT&T SIM to work on AT&T's network, and it's unclear precisely what plans AT&T will offer, or whether you can get a nano-SIM (or cut a micro-SIM down to size).
The no-contract price is hundreds more than the price under contract.
Thanks for the reply. One thing I did forget to mention is that I already have a plan with AT&T here in the US, and have no further commitment with them. I would like to keep it this way and buy the iPhone unlocked, but from what I understand, the unlocked version will not be released for a while. I am willing to pay the full price of $799 ($CA) for the phone; I just need to know if the Telus Canadian version is same as AT&T which will be released in the US.
The AT&T and Telus model is identical in number. One has to assume (since we don't know) that an unlocked A1428 will work just like an unlocked iPhone 4S. The only unknown part is whether you will need a special LTE-ready nano-SIM for Telus that they won't rent, and a regular micro-SIM cut down to nano-SIM size won't work. We'll have to get reports about that when the phone ships.
How does this complicated worldwide mess fit with Apple's mantra of simplicity of and by design? I am underwhelmed by the iphone 5 and overwhelmed by this complexity. I am unimpressed by Apple's direction which is increasingly based on a "You are holding it wrong" mindset." Hello Samsung? I am looking for a good capable smartphone at reasonable cost that uses standard operating methods and connections to other devices, and does not lock me into a proprietary system for the rest of my life. What do you have to offer?
We have a cheap looking plastic phone that overwhelms you by the long list of useless features, yet each feature is quite underwhelming. Also our OS won't be as liquid once we are forced to remove bunch of features we decided to copy from the other phone. You will do okay with our phone but won't fall in love with it. And you will likely make a switch to Apple again when iPhone 6 comes out.
Thanks for this. As complicated as the picture is, you've painted it as clear as I've seen.
In reality, the picture is a little clearer for me. There is little to no GSM coverage locally (mid-MI) so that means it has to be Verizon and then the decision becomes will the 5 give me the coverage I want internationally or not.
The only reason for me to upgrade my 4 (not 4s) is the ability to use the phone as a world phone so I can stop carrying my old original iPhone to go with my CDMA 4 when I travel to England.
Just to make sure: can a buy a verizon a1429 iphone, use it for 5 months in the u.s. and then ask Verizon for an international unlock to use it with a German SIM card and LTE over there? Thanks a lot for your help!
As far as we understand it, yes. The German mobile operator would need to provide you with a nano-SIM or a SIM that you could cut down to be the right proportions (as the circuitry on the micro-SIM and nano-SIM are apparently the same).
My daughter lives in Kansas and wants to buy an iphone 5. She visits me in the UK on a regular basis and would like insert a PAYG UK SIM for use whilst in the UK.
Which would be the best network for her to go to?
Two options: a contract-free unlocked AT&T phone for which she pays full freight (I can't find the price, but I believe it's $600 for the cheapest) or a Verizon or Sprint phone which can have the GSM slot (used only outside the Unitd States) unlocked after 60 and 90 days, respectively.
What iPhone is best for those of us living in Europe, working in different parts of the world (in my case, Africa) and only back to the USA for visits? I have a shaky 3GS that the service people say has lived its life. Sounds like I should upgrade to the 4S rather than the 5?
Another question: like many who travel I have a small collection of SIM cards for other systems using pay as you go. I can clip these and use them in an iPhone4S, but what about a 5?
LTE will only work in a limited number of markets and countries, so the iPhone 4S may make more sense.
As for SIMs, the iPhone 5 requires a smaller form-factor nano-SIM, tinier than the micro-SIM, and requires you get new SIMs or cut down the SIMs you have now.
Thanks for your information! Does anyone know if it's possible to use the unlocked gsm site of an iphone 5 in europeif the verizon contract is already over? will they relock the phone or can i still use the sim slot for european sim cards?
Once the contract is over, you own the phone outright. To my knowledge, a carrier cannot technically nor legally re-lock a phone once it's unlocked.
I live in both Italy and the US, where I use T-Mobile. My Italian carrier uses LTE band 3, but T-Mobile doesn't have LTE. I'll buy unlocked, but which model (-28 or -29) would serve me best?
The A1429 is the only one with Band 3 support, so you'll want that. You could also save the money and buy a used, good condition iPhone 4S in unlocked form for $200 to $300!
Thoughts on the best model for USA and France usage? The tricky part is that France's planned LTE frequency is not supported by the iPhone 5.
So is there a model that I can use in France (3G only) and when I'm in the states have 4G (presumably with AT&T)? I'm in France more than the US, so wouldn't want a contract in the US, though I can purchase the phone in either country.
The best way to achieve that is to get a Verizon or Sprint phone, which will work on U.S. LTE networks while having worldwide GSM 2G/3G/4G HSPA support. However, I don't know that Verizon or Sprint will sell a no-contract phone initially nor on such a phone if it unlocks the nano-SIM initially, either. Worth calling to ask.
If you buy the A1429 in France, Apple's specs page seems to indicate that if that model is activated on a GSM network, the two other LTE bands (one for Verizon) aren't available.
Cricket and Virgin Mobile (US) use the Sprint network and sell iPhone 4 and 4S without contract, right? Will they not eventually offer the iPhone 5?
One assumes! We're trying to provide recommendations only based on what we know, and can update this article as we have more. One piece of advice may be: wait!
Is (or will be) there any way to activate an unlocked A1429 iPhone 5 outside USA and preserve CDMA functionality? This would be ideal for people traveling to the U.S. frequently.
To our current knowledge, no (except Japan).
Can you clarify your mention of Japan here? What can you do in Japan, that you can't do elsewhere? Are you saying that completely unlocked phones available here? Or just that I can activate an unlocked phone on AU, and preserver unlocked GSM?
I'm looking for a way to get an AU (CDMA) phone, and keep unlocked GSM capabilities for use in Europe/USA (not so concerned about LTE while on GSM - but would be nice to have). I've tried a UK SIM in an AU phone, and it told me it was unable to activate. Weird that inserting a SIM kicks off the activation routine. Is that new to iOS6? Or is it a carrier lock thing from AU?
New information indicates that iPhone 5 activated on Verizon's CDMA network comes with its GSM SIM slot fully unlocked without requiring a call, and will work on AT&T's domestic network with an AT&T SIM. We'll update the article as we get information.
Glenn, thanks for the illuminating article and your comment replies.
I plan to get a full price iPhone 5, go expat, live in India, travel around south Asia, China, and Europe.
Provided availability of nano sims, I should choose one of the GSM models in order to make voice calls, is that right?
LTE is not a big deal, I can accept slower cellular data speeds (3G is just emerging now in India).
So, do I have it right that in this case either GSM i5 will suit my needs?
Thanks very much.
Yes, although you can also apparently cut down a micro-SIM to nano-SIM size and it works (the electronics are tiny; the form factors were larger for reasons I've never understood).
The advantage of the A1429 is that if you ever want to use LTE in a country that uses the bands supported, you can. The A1428 has none of those bands.
Hm. Ok, so only the ATT, model A1428 is available to order in unlocked/no contract version now. I'll need to wait for the unlocked GSM A1429, which has LTE in some of the places I'll go. Maybe leave money with a friend to pick one up for me, as I'm leaving in about a month. Now I think I'm catching on, Many Thanks GF!
CNET's "Ask Maggie" column addresses same topic written in a different style from Glen's, maybe worth a glance for those in the expat boat:
Hi Glenn. I live in the UAE (Dubai) and both the service providers here have a band 3 (1800MHz FD-LTE) frequency band. I have ordered an AT&T iPhone 5 through apple.com and will use it for a month in the US than terminate my contract and pay the termination fee. Thereafter I will use it in the UAE and other locations during business travel where I will insert a local sim. Someone has recently told me if you want to get an iPhone5 for primary use in the UAE it might be a better option to purchase from Verizon. I still have an opportunity to cancel my order with AT&T and order with another carrier since I only ordered it less than a week ago. I just want to buy the best iPhone5 for use outside the US, primarily in the UAE. What is the best spec for my purpose based on the specs provided on apples website below?
Note iphone 5 is not available in the UAE yet.
I am not sure that AT&T will unlock your SIM slot after you pay termination fee, which means you have to get a third-party hack to unlock it. I may be wrong. I know once you are near the end of a contract or out of contract, they will unlock.
Verizon ships the iPhone 5 with its SIM slot unlocked, and the model that ships has LTE bands more likely to work outside the U.S.
Thanks for the info. I've cancelled my order with AT&T and re-ordered with Verizon.
Well, same question here. I live in Indonesia, I wonder if I can purchase an iphone 5 from the US and use it in my home country? I've been reading some articles about this matter and I wonder:
I preferably by iphone 5 from Verizon (since the sell unlocked handset) in the US with A1429 (CDMA and GSM model), and activate it with Verizon GSM nano-SIM card, and bring the handset to my home country, change it with my local sim card and use it with my home country's GSM cellular data speed?
Thanks for the info..
Verizon doesn't provide a GSM nano-SIM, but an unlocked empty slot, is my understanding. You have to live in the U.S. to buy from Verizon, I think, or have a credit card with a delivery address here.
You can then plug in a home-country nano-SIM GSM card and it will work worldwide on 2G/3G/4G (up to HSPA+ and DC-HSPA).
Yeah my friend will buy one for me, he'll activate it there, then bring back to me. Then sure I can plug in my home country nano-SIM GSM card and use it rite?
Thanks for the reply, really appreciate it.
Problem is how do you purchase a Verizon 5 without activating a line with them? Apple on-line store requires a contract as part of purchase process. So for now [at least], impossible to get your hands on Vz iphone 5 without also committing to a 2 yr contract.
You can buy a no-contract phone at full price from Verizon (in the $600-range), and it doesn't require activation with Verizon's service.
I'm going to get an iPhone 5 from Canada. It's unlocked and bought from an Apple store (no contract)? I live in india and will be using it here only? Please tell me if it will work here or not?
Just like the iPhone 4, an unlocked GSM version works worldwide, including in India, with all major GSM carriers and most smaller ones, for normal voice calls and 3G and 4G data. (3G/4G data support varies by what's rolled out and on what frequencies by a given carrier, however.)
The LTE data support is limited in the GSM model that the Apple Store sells to frequencies used only or primarily in the U.S. and Canada. You would be better off getting an unlocked iPhone 4S (saving $100) if you're counting on LTE rather than just wanting the newer iPhone 5.
You mentioned that if verizon iphone model 1429 is used with gsm nanosim from t-mobile, then it can never be used on verizon's cdma network.I think that is not right. CDMA module can be used for the network it was designed like verizon in this case and we used only gsm part. Recheck please. Once you go out of US on gsm on 1429, you can always use the primary provider that's verizon when you come back to US
To our knowledge, if you purchase an A1429 and don't activate it on Verizon's network, you cannot later activate it on Verizon's network.
I have a iphone 4S. I am traveling around the world and I would like to know if there is any chip that I can use in all the different countries. I don't want to be changing them. I don't mind the carrier, but I don't want to pay for roaming either. It can be an internet chip too.
I live in Saudi Arabia so which model is best to buy? Below is the cell providers and their frequency...
Zain – LTE 1800 MHz
STC – LTE 2.3 GHz
Mobiliy – LTE 2.5 GHz
Cricket wireless sell Iphone 5 for around 500$. But those are CDMA version. I read few technical details and also had a chat with their representative and it seems that the CDMA ones can also work on GSM network internationally. Is that true ?..so can I use those Iphone5 from cricketwireless on 3G/4G GSM network in other country by getting SIM from local carrier ?(its fine to me if it does not work on LTE)