If I could subtitle this, it would be “Why I hate AT&T”. I happen to be the owner of an iPhone 3GS purchased at a Best Buy in the United States. Like all iPhones sold in the United States, it came locked to AT&T. I love my iPhone enough that I am willing to tolerate AT&T’s slipshod call quality in exchange for the convenience of the App Store and other iPhone benefits (and to be fair, I don’t generally have issues with the data quality).

Unfortunately for my iPhone-phile self, AT&T refuses to unlock iPhones. This means that I can ONLY use my phone with AT&T, unless I choose to jailbreak it and risk “bricking” the phone. Aside from the obvious monopoly comparisons, being locked to one cell carrier isn’t such a bad thing, unless of course you’re travelling frequently or moving abroad. In that case, you’d be stuck paying international charges, which are considerable, the entire time, plus you wouldn’t be able to use a local SIM card, making it expensive for new friends to call. (Note: AT&T is the only carrier of iPhones in the world that will not unlock them in any circumstances. In many countries with more reasonable regulation of the cell phone industry, it is illegal to refuse to unlock a phone, which it should be, since it is your personal property.)

I attempted the most frugal solution first: talk AT&T into unlocking the phone. This was a massive failure, and ended with me yelling at the customer service rep: “You at AT&T won’t unlock my phone because you’re afraid that if you do, it will result in an exodus due to your crummy service.”

As a last resort, I approached an Apple employee about what to do. He initially told me that, as I expected, he wouldn’t be able to advise me on anything involving unlocking. Then, after I mentioned purchasing an unlocked iPhone in Poland, he slyly slipped me this piece of advice: “Wait until the iPhone 4 comes out, then buy it in Canada. It’s the cheapest place you’ll find it abroad.” He was right. Although the iPhone 4 hasn’t been released in Canada yet, it seems that iPhones in Canada are only slightly more expensive than their US prices (in all cases, I performed my comparisons based on the prices without contract). The 8GB 3GS, which is still being sold, along with the iPhone 4, is $499 without a contract in the US and $549 CAD (approximately $517 USD).

Once I resolve the phone issue, my plan for remaining in contact with the US is this:

  1. Purchase Polish SIM card for use with new iPhone 4 while overseas. Sell old 3GS.
  2. Switch AT&T plan to prepaid, that way I can keep my phone number, and keep that SIM card in my unlocked Nokia.
  3. Set all calls to my AT&T number to forward to my Skype-out number.

This should effectively allow me to use my iPhone in Poland just like I do here, and my friends and family won’t have to update their address books or pay international rates.

If you’re looking for more information about phoning home while abroad, Clifford Levy of the New York Times wrote an excellent article on the subject in 2007.

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