I'd like to get an iPhone 5. Which model to pick is wrapped in a ball of frustration and misery. What I want doesn't exist, it never will… I'm bitching.

A few good posts have come out addressing this subject but they are all from the perspective of US residents frequently traveling internationally. James Duncan Davidson has an excellent write-up. As does TidBITS. If I was in this scenario it would be easy. Get the Verizon model, unlocked.1 Verizon has the best US LTE network and you can use internationally on the most carriers.

Why this option probably won't work for me is complicated and murky, let's dive in. I'm in the opposite situation as a United States citizen living in Nigeria, frequently traveling to other parts of Africa & Europe with occasional 1 - 2 weeks trips back to the US. As any international traveller has figured out - the US is the most difficult place in the world to get quality prepaid service for an iPhone. Stroll up to a cellular provider in the Atlanta airport (if you can find one) and they'll look at you with blank stares if you show them an iPhone and try to activate a prepaid SIM for a one week stay. Worse yet, go into an actual AT&T store - they'll tell you straight, no prepaid iPhones on our network. But I'm trying to give you my money… we don't care, get out of here.2 You can get Verizon prepaid plans for an iPhone3, but getting a Verizon iPhone outside outside of the US is pretty much impossible.4

Alright so why not just stick with your my current 4S setup and be done with it. Well, I want the new iPhone and LTE, or at least the option to use LTE where available.

Traveling Internationally

The best way to deal with international roaming is to buy a local prepaid SIM. You'll get the best rates, avoid roaming charges and typically have the best service level. The downside is dealing with all the setup work. Trying to get credit into the account, pick a data bundle and a fair bit of the time you're doing this with hand signals or broken language. I've got quite a collection of SIM cards after 15 months outside the US.

The US Conundrum

Welcome to the land of subsidized phones and lock-in contracts. You can get a shiny new iPhone 5 for $199 from AT&T or Verizon, all you need to do is renew that two year contract at around $70/month (total cost $1879). Contrast this with an unlocked model at $650 and a prepaid plan from Straight Talk for $45 a month (total cost $1730) or from Cricket for $55 a month (total cost $1970). The prepaid plan might save you money, but not that much. And WTF is Straight Talk or Cricket. Ask just about any American walking around with an iPhone if they have heard of Straight Talk and you'll get blank stares.

Let's be real, anybody who can afford $70 or more per month for that iPhone plan isn't concerned with with saving a few dollars a month for the extra headaches associated with prepaid or dealing with these smaller unheard of carriers. Straight Talk and Cricket are piggybacking on AT&T and Verizon networks anyway. When you walk into the Apple store and buy that shiny new iPhone, you want to walk out surfing the internet and never have to worry about data bundles, voice plans, etc ever again.

I bring this all up because the US doesn't fit the international mold of the easiest way to travel is buy a local Prepaid SIM. It takes effort to get an iPhone working prepaid in the US.

I'll Pay for the Services that I Use

Postpaid kick ass. Lets be honest, nobody wants to be texting some obscure code to some equally obscure number when your data plans runs out or scrambling to recharge your account. Ideally we would have a prepaid usage model with a postpaid payment system. I don't want to pay $70/month for voice, SMS & data when all I'm really using is data.

  1. I typically use about 1GB/month, for this I subscribe to a 1GB data plan which costs N3500 (about $22). This is good for 30 days or until the data limit is reached.
  2. I use essentially no voice or SMS, less than N1000 (about $6) per month. The voice and SMS is not on a plan of any sort, my account is deducted a set rate per SMS or second of voice used.

As long as you have money/credit in your account and the data bundle hasn't run out this is a much better system for the consumer. Except the data bundle expires and your account doesn't auto-refill. You have to micro-manage everything about it. Does my account have credit, is my data bundle expired, blah blah blah. I'll give you my credit card number, you charge me for what I use.

Sure sure, some places allow auto-refill but you're still managing the data bundle stuff or there are other restrictions on the service plan. I want to show up in a country, stick that local prepaid SIM in the phone and start consuming. If no credit on my account, charge my credit card. Use the same data bundle I picked last time, I probably want the same one again.

What I Want

An unlocked, no contract Verizon iPhone 5. I can get a prepaid plan when I'm in the US and enjoy LTE. Outside of the US it will work like my current GSM iPhone 4S with the addition of supporting the most international LTE bands.

You can't buy an unlocked, no contract Verizon iPhone 5. To get a phone in this state I'd have to:

  1. Buy a subsidized, on contract iPhone 5.
  2. Activate my service for at least 2 months or until my account has been in good standing long enough to unlock the international SIM.
  3. Cancel Verizon service. Not sure what additional fees I'd be subjected to for covering additional iPhone cost and breaking the contract.

I might actually do all this, although it sure seems like a lot of bullshit to jump through for the at most 3 weeks out of the year I'm in the US.

What I'll Probably Settle For, Maybe

An unlocked international 1429 model. I won't have LTE in the US (one of the few countries that actually has decent LTE service as of now) but I'll have the most options outside of the US. I can use Straight Talk prepaid to piggyback on the AT&T network without all the of the hassles of dealing with AT&T directly.

Ugh, in the US I'm typically spending my most time in areas with little or no AT&T service, visiting family in rural areas. Making this option taste even worse.

The Big Gotchas

  1. Nano-SIMs: Who knows when Nigerian carriers will support the iPhone 5. It's hard enough getting a Micro-SIMs when traveling around Africa.
  2. LTE: This isn't happening in Nigeria, where I spend the majority of my time. We don't even have reliable 3G service let alone 3G speeds.

All that for Nothing

I didn't order an iPhone 5 today. In fact I don't know when I will. If I'm able to get a Nano-SIM in Nigeria then I'll make a choice. Until then I'll keep hoping for a pay-as-I-go world that let's me use the services I want, with the carriers that I want, wherever I want.

Updated January 30th, 2013 after procuring an iPhone 5.

  1. Which is impossible in the US, however it is said Verizon will unlock after 60 days for international use if your account is in good standing.
  2. It is possible, this is what I currently do but it involves "hacking" your APN settings.
  3. The Verizon model is CDMA and only sold, locked to Verizon, in the US. It's the same 1429 model sold internationally but as far as I can tell the CDMA is disabled. So, buying this model internationally and getting it to work on the Verizon network would require an act of God, or Tim Cook.
  4. Verizon appears to have prepaid plans that will work for the iPhone. Prepaid 80
AuthorRichard Hochstetler