July 19, 2024


iPhone 4SiPhone 4S as a Global Phone

I’ve previously explored a variety of features of the new iPhone 4S by Apple (see previous articles (CLICK HERE and HERE).   The iPhone is now “on the street” – first appearing October 14th.  So it’s time to wrap up this series.  Today I’m finally taking on the Global Phone aspect of the 4S.  I must say,it has not been easy to get clear information about this Global Phone feature.

The Global Phone ability of the 4S is a bit complicated.  Cell phone providers in the US maintain service over two different types of networks.  (For today’s purposes I’ll confine this discussion to our “Big 3”  providers, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, since they are the three providers which now offer the iPhone.)  Verizon and Sprint run CDMA type networks. AT&T runs a GSM network.  Most of the rest of the world runs on GSM (as with so many things there are exceptions – e.g. Japan is CDMA)  Prior to the 4S release, iPhones were either built with GSM capability OR CDMA.  So….. if you had an AT&T iPhone you could use your phone in most foreign countries.  If you had a Verizon iPhone your phone would not work in most foreign countries.  But………all of that changed with the 4S.

The 4S is a Global Phone, meaning the phone itself has the hardware to run on EITHER CDMA or GSM networks.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  Seems like your phone should now simply work wherever it goes.   No…..it’s still not simple.  Why?  Well the phone will do the job – but your service provider gets involved and the situation gets complicated.  When you purchase your phone through a service provider the price you pay is less than the “street price” or full retail price of the phone.  Your provider subsidizes your purchase of the phone ( the full retail price of an iPhone 4S is up there – roughly around the $600 to $800 area).  So your service provider (Verizon, AT&T, etc) wants to recover this cost.  They do so by requiring that you sign up for a contract – typically two years.  And they ALSO LOCK the phone so it will not work on another provider’s network.  This way  they recover the cost of the phone through your payments over the two-year contract period. 

At the end of your contract you are free to go to another service provider or continue with the one you have, then paying on a month to month basis.  BUT – your service provider still wants you to stay with them so THEY DO NOT UNLOCK YOUR PHONE!  That’s right – you can go to another provider but your phone won’t work on another system.  (There are of course – ways around this.  It involves have some considerable computer skills –  “jailbreaking” and finally “unlocking” your phone via software hacking.  This topic is, however, way beyond the focus of this article.)

So….where is this Global Phone issue today with the 4S.  Here is the bottom line as I know it today.  (subject to change with experience and access to additional information of course.).  If you get a 4S on the AT&T system it will work in the US and in most foreign countries.  But it will only work on the AT&T network and with AT&T foreign affiliates.  To use the AT&T iPhone overseas you will have to ADD their international service option to your existing domestic plan.  Your phone will then work internationally. But this is not a cheap service option. See AT&T for further information.

If you get your iPhone through Verizon or Sprint, the situation is a bit different. When you INITIALLY get your phone it will have a Verizon or Sprint GSM sim card (a sim card enables the phone to work on GSM networks) and will be locked.  This card will allow the phone to operate on GSM networks AFFILIATED with your existing provider.  So, again, the phone will work overseas on GSM networks but you will need to add your provider’s international service option to your existing domestic plan.  And again – these plans are not cheap.

But wait – there’s more!  I have found information from both Verizon and Sprint which indicates that they will LOCK their iPhones to their affiliate GSM providers ONLY FOR THE FIRST 60 DAYS of your contract.  They say (I’d be thinking – get this in writing?) that if your account is in good standing at the end of the initial 60 day period, they will unlock the GSM feature.

So……why is this of interest?  Does it matter?   ABSOLUTELY!  With your iPhone unlocked for the GSM feature you can travel overseas and not be tied to your provider’s (rather expensive) international plan.  You can shop around and buy a local sim card once you arrive at your overseas destination (or shop online and get one before you go).  Then you can use your iPhone as a LOCAL phone in the country you are visiting.  The upside?   This is much cheaper than adding the international option to your US provider plan.  But be aware, there is a small downside.  Your phone will be assigned a local (foreign country) phone number.  People will not be able to call you on your regular home (US) phone number.  (But once you remove the sim card you are good to go with your original number)

By now I imagine I have totally confused you.  I know I’ve confused myself many times as I’ve explored this issue.  But on balance it seems that the iPhone 4S is truly a Global Phone and that it can be used internationally.  How you access this international service, and what you will pay for it depends on which service provider you choose and which options you select.  You can save some money if you don’t mind the slight hassles associated with buying local phone service in the country you visit and having a local (non US) phone number. This option it appears, at the moment at least,  is limited to those with service supplied by Verizon and Sprint.

As I said, this is all very confusing.  And information is at times scarce and at times coflicting. It also seems to be changing a bit as providers clarify their policies.  You should not rely solely on articles or information in the press or on the internet – and that applies this articeas well. I would strongly suggest that you clarify in detail any and all aspects of your provider’s policies regarding services prior to signing on the dotted line.

Let me know of your experience with the iPhone 4S

With that said…….Good Luck

And remember to …….Enjoy The Adventure!

 Dr.B, The Photo Trekker