I’m traveling to Japan for a week and I really want to take my iPhone. I’ve been searching for the best and cheapest way to do that, and (not that this is an option in my case, but) the default international plans offered by AT&T aren’t going to cut it. Here are the numbers:
- Data: With the data global add-on, ~$60/month for 50MB, ~$120/week for 100MB, or ~$200/month for 200MB (before proration and crediting) with an overage of $5.12 per MB. Without the plan, it’s $19.97 per MB.
- Voice: With the $5.99 World Traveler package, it’s $2.29/minute, not including taxes and fees.
- SMS: For Japan, $0.50 per sent message.
Given the apparent unavailability of Wi-Fi and how quickly the iPhone scarfs down data, I want to find a better solution. More than that: I want to find a (close to) native solution that doesn’t have me worrying about excess charges, data limits or how I need to route calls when I’m actually abroad.
Data: SIM Card Rental
Since I want to use my actual iPhone and not a rental phone, I need to rent a SIM card. I can’t just swap out SIM cards though; iPhones are carrier locked by AT&T and require a jailbreak/unlock to bypass the restriction. What further complicates matters is I have an iPhone 3GS with a 5.13.04 baseband and new bootrom (329.3.2) running iOS4 final. I won’t go into too much detail, but if I decided to jailbreak, the process would be:
- Jailbreak 3GS on iOS4 if/when possible.
- Unlock carrier with ultrasn0w or a similar utility for the 5.13.04 baseband.
Afterward, the iPhone should be compatible with other SIM cards. Alternatively, if jailbreaking your phone is not presently possible and you’re traveling with an (old bootrom) iPhone-equipped friend, jailbreak their phone and install MyWi via Cydia. They can use 3G via the prepaid SIM and broadcast Wi-Fi to your phone. As long as you’re prepared for the battery drain with a HyperMac, this appears to be a viable workaround.
Either way, for my hypothetically unlocked iPhone, I hypothetically choose to rent a SIM card from JCR for $170/week which includes a Japanese number, unlimited data and free incoming calls. With pickup/dropoff of the SIM card at the airport, the total comes out to $190. If you compare this to just the AT&T data prices, you can get at best 207MB of data for an equivalent price. For reference, in the last 6 months, I’ve averaged ~120MB/week, but I can definitely see Google Maps, Google Translate, Reeder, Mail, Gowalla/Foursquare, and hey-why-not-Geocaching eating up more bandwidth than usual. Better safe than sorry.
Voice/SMS: Google Voice and Localphone
With the SIM rental, I inherit a Japanese number for a week. Let’s face it though: when you go on a trip abroad, unless there’s an emergency, no one’s going to call your international number. It’s not worth the premium. Luckily, the choice was easy for me since I already have/use a Google Voice number, and have neither a Skype online number ($18/3-month subscription) nor a Gizmo5 account. Also, one of the benefits of using a Google Voice account is that SMS sent from/to the GV number can be read/replied to via e-mail. So, free SMS :)
While Google Voice has dirt-cheap rates to Japan ($0.11/min for mobile phones), it unfortunately doesn’t forward calls to international numbers. In other words, there needs to be an intermediary that forwards Google Voice calls to the international phone. This intermediary is what will be subject to international rates for calls, so needs to have the lowest international mobile rate. For Skype, it’s $0.154/min; for Gizmo5, it’s $0.14/min; and for Localphone it’s $0.138/min. Although using the iPhone Skype app would be ideal in terms of cost savings, it’s unfortunately not a practical solution yet because it hasn’t been updated to take advantage of the VoIP multitasking service in iOS4.
- Incoming: friends and family can dial my Google Voice number as usual. Calls are routed from Google Voice to my Localphone “Direct Dial” number, which in turn forwards the call to my international SIM number.
- Outgoing: I can use the VoiceCentral app or the Google Voice webapp to make calls at the same rate as incoming calls. Essentially, Google Voice enables this by calling me, calling whomever I specify, and establishing a connection between us. Since the rental SIM has free incoming calls but $1.35/min. outgoing international calls, this is a much more manageable deal.
Theoretically, this plan should make for ubiquitous iPhone usage abroad while paying minimally for the convenience. I’ll post an update after testing this out first-hand. Wish me luck!