Crossing the Border with Your Phone

This time was going to be different.

I knew that going out. For too long, we Canadians have traveled to the US, and essentially shut our phones off before crossing the border. And while I have a great time in cities like New York, Chicago and (most recently) Boston, there’s a great degree of handicap attached to being in a foreign land without that great security blanket. Having ubiquitous Internet is arguably even more important while traveling; so it’s ironic that traveling is the time you can get it the least.

But not this time. For this weekend trip to Boston, I took along my iPhone, and a little plan: to get myself an AT&T account, and get my iPhone 4 running domestically while I’m in the US. Turns out it’s fully possible, but it ain’t nearly as easy as it ought to be.

A Word About The Ethics of the Carrier Lock

The very first hurdle is one I crossed while still at home, and it’s by far the most contentious for anyone looking to accomplish this feat. When you buy an iPhone in most countries, the device is locked to a particular carrier. In the US and Canada, an iPhone 4 bought for $199 is subsidized, and is therefore tied to work only on that carrier’s network. This is standard industry practice, and as far as I can tell, its only purpose is to protect the carrier’s investment in the phone subsidy, forcing you to remain with that network long enough to repay the balance of what’s owed on the phone. This is why you should be within your rights to ask your carrier to “unlock” your phone at the end of your contract term.

But let’s be realistic. In my case, at least, I’m not looking to leave my carrier. They are still getting my money every month. But for three days, I want to get reasonable voice and data rates. So while I’m still paying Fido (my carrier in Canada), I think there is no moral dilemma in breaking the carrier lock to get it to work in another country. After all, that’s the whole point of the GSM/GPRS system: trans-national compatibility! The Europeans have been enjoying this for many years, and by gum, I want to join the party.

This whole conversation would be moot if my carrier made me a decent offer to use my plan in the US. But that’s of course not the case. My carrier does offer a “travel pack”, but to take advantage of it would break that “reasonable” rule from the last paragraph. Here’s what Fido has to offer (I believe that Rogers has an identical plan):

Fido's US Data Travel Pack Options

You can see the whole page here. That’s a lot of money for very little data.

Picking the US Plan

Conversely, AT&T offers Pay As You Go plans for their customers, under a brand called “GoPhone”. In their perfect world, you can walk off the street, buy one of their dedicated “GoPhones”, and pay to refill it with voice minutes and data as needed. You can buy a refill card for prices starting at $25, which gives you a certain amount of voice calling. You can also buy a block of 100 MB of data for $20. This isn’t exactly stellar, but it’s way better than what Fido has on offer.

But it’s not an easy proposition. First off, that carrier lock needs unlocking. Then, you have to talk AT&T into giving you a SIM card for their network (and remember it needs to be a micro-SIM if you’ve got an iPhone 4). Then you have to activate the SIM, which gives you a phone number and allows you to add minutes and data.

Unfortunately, much of your success in this will rely on your luck in finding a cooperative AT&T store clerk. In my case, I was able to acquire a micro-SIM from one AT&T store, but he wouldn’t activate it for me, insisting that it wouldn’t work in an iPhone (he’s right, by the way, but there’s a very simple workaround which I’ll get to momentarily). Fortunately, there was another store just up the street where the guy was willing to just do his freaking job and give me what I was asking for.

Okay, that was a lot of narrative to get to a step-by-step process. Here’s exactly what you need to do to go from locked Canadian iPhone to unlocked, American, Pay As You Go:

1. Jailbreak your iPhone. Oh, don’t roll your eyes. Jailbreaking is awesome, and everyone should do it (Reason number one is the brilliant, $20 MyWi, which creates a wireless network using your 3G connection). If you are running iOS 4.0, go to http://jailbreakme.com and it’ll be done in a heartbeat. Otherwise, downgrade to 4.0.

2. Install Ultrasn0w. This is the free tool that unlocks your iPhone. You can find it in the Cydia app store that gets installed with the jailbreak. If you can’t find it, check these instructions.

3. In the US, visit a local AT&T store. Tell them you are visiting from another country, and would like to activate a SIM for your phone. If they ask what phone you’ve got, cough and mutter it under your breath. Don’t meet their eyes. Say it’s for a friend. But above all else, be insistent that it’s cool, you know what you’re doing, and if they could just do what you ask and stop injecting their brain-melting ignorance, then your feelings of stabby-ness will blissfully subside. Tell them you want to use their GoPhone plans. The SIM card should cost you nothing; it’s the gateway to paying them to be on their network. If they have a SIM card to give you, you should be able to get at least that. (In my case, I had to get that on one trip, and visit a different store to activate it.)

4. During activation, choose your options. They have a number of options in their GoPhone portfolio. I chose a $3/day unlimited calling plan, which gets activated automatically whenever you make a call. I also got the $20 100MB data package. Be wary about this one, though: it automatically gets renewed every month unless you cancel it, which you can easily do from their web site. I got plenty of warning about this, but just keep an eye.

5. Change your APN (Access Point Name). This is the trick to making it all work. The first AT&T guy I visited said the iPhone wouldn’t work, and it’s because of the APN. But it turns out you can change it very easily, and it doesn’t require a jailbreak (although let’s face it, you probably had to do it already to get here). Just visit http://unlockit.nz, and follow the instructions to have a profile created and installed for the AT&T network. Essentially, this profile just tells your phone the name of its network, and the server to look to for getting online. When you return to your home country, you can easily remove the profile by going to Settings > General > Profile.

6. Pop in the new SIM card. There is no step 7.

From that point on, it was like I was an American using my iPhone in my own damn country.

Of course, I reset the data usage counter so I could keep an eye on my progress against the 100MB that I purchased (Settings > Usage > Reset Statistics). Turns out that you really can burn through that pretty quick, especially if you tether to your MacBook! And even as I write this on the evening of an unexpected extra night in Boston (damn you, rain!), I just tripped over 100MB, shutting down the wireless party. Ah well. To refresh another 100MB, just dial *611 on your phone and follow the instructions.

I only have one more comment to make before I wrap this up. American iPhone users have been complaining about AT&T’s quality of service since the launch back in 2007. As a Canadian spoiled by the delicious Rogers/Fido network, I very quickly learned how right they are. Of course I can’t speak for anywhere else in the US, but the reliability of my service in Boston was absolutely terrible. In Fenway Park, for example, I spent most of the time on Edge networking, and even that was next to useless. In other parts of the city, I’d show four or five bars, but still not get a connection to the network. It was appalling compared to what I’m used to at home.

But the good news is, having gone through this pain, I now have a SIM card that I can swap into my phone anytime I visit the States, charge it up with data and minutes, and move on with my life. It’s a pretty sweet feeling.