I’ve just returned from a two-week holiday on the West Coast of the US, and during my trip was asked a number of times how I was using mobile data whilst away. As I gather a number of people are interested, here’s what I was doing during the trip. This method will likely work for most carriers around the world (you just have to get the right SIM card and set up your unlocked iPhone’s data settings correctly): but I’ve tried and tested it on AT&T with a GoPhone account1.
Be sure you take the time to read the post (and footnotes) carefully.
In the UK, I have an iPhone 4 contract with O2, as well as development iPhones (3G and 2G). As O2 didn’t previously allow you to unlock the iPhone 4 currently, I travelled with my iPhone 3G. If you’re a contract iPhone customer you can unlock your device for free by filling in this form a couple of weeks before you go away. O2 will unlock the phone and you’ll get an SMS from them when it’s done2.
As of January 2011, O2 will now unlock iPhone 4 handsets for contract customers. You’re still bound by your minimum contract period though, of course.
With your phone ready to work with a US SIM card, you now need to get hold of one. I use an AT&T GoPhone SIM (GoPhone, for the unfamiliar, is the Pay-As-You-Go equivalent), which I picked up with a cheap-as-chips handset in January 2008. If you’re happy buying a SIM card off eBay, I’ve heard from a couple of people who’ve done this. Alternatively, if you’re staying with friends you might want to ask them to pick up one of the ridiculously-cheap AT&T prepaid handsets online on your behalf which come with a SIM, and a fair bit of credit.
If you’re an iPhone 4 user, you’ll need to either obtain a Micro SIM or perform a little bit of surgery on a full-size SIM card.
GoPhone credit expires (depending on how much credit you purchase) however if you’re in the US often enough, and add $100 credit to your account in one go, that’ll keep the balance active an entire year as well as ensure you keep the same phone number. For what it’s worth, having the same number for all four trips to the US last year was incredibly useful.
So you’ve got the SIM, and as soon as you land you’ll be able to call and SMS. However, there’s two more steps you need to run through to enable data on your phone.
By default, data on GoPhone accounts isn’t cheap - 10¢ a KB - however there’s a couple of data ‘feature packages’ available for GoPhone accounts: $15 for 100MB or $25 for 500MB (introduced after the initial publication of this post). I picked up the $15 100MB package and on some GoPhone packages it can be auto-renewing: check when you buy the addon, though you can turn off auto-renewal online too.
You can pick up the data addons by calling AT&T, do it online, or in-store - if you’re visiting a store don’t bother waiting for a salesperson to do it for you, there’s self-service kiosks that allow you to do this.
If you do end up sorting the data with an AT&T salesperson, they may remind you that the data package doesn’t work with smartphones. Technically it’s true, as the iPhone carrier configuration files for AT&T data will only work with a contact account, however the next step works around this. Just smile nicely at the sales person, and say to them that it’s not for use on a smartphone.
Your phone is sorted, a SIM card ready and data package added for your use. All that’s left is to set up your phone for AT&T’s Pay-As-You-Go Data system. You can do this in two ways: if you’re familiar with the iPhone Configuration Utility, you can use it to set up the APN3. Alternatively, when you’re ready to switch to AT&T’s data network on your phone, visit this site on your iPhone, choose ‘Custom APN’ from the blog settings and then choose the “US - AT&T” option and ‘Create Profile’. This will generate (and prompt you to install) a custom Data settings profile for your phone.
With that done, fire up Safari and load something like Google.com to verify the settings are working. I had to restart the phone / toggle Airplane mode On and Off to get it working, but this is more likely a delay with AT&T.
My usage in the States was simply the occasional email (manually refreshed) with a fair bit of Twitter, Gowalla and Foursquare and I burnt through 90MB in that 2 weeks. To conserve the data bolt on, I turned off all auto-refreshing Mail and on the mobile.twitter.com website disabled the display of profile images. I may have ended up using Twitter for iPhone a fair bit, however it pays to turn off as many data-intensive items as possible. I did, however, leave MobileMe Contact sync and Find My iPhone enabled for the trip, just in case the worst were to happen (hey, it’s happened at home in the UK).
You’ll likely want to remove the custom APN settings and go back to your current carrier’s defaults. To do this: Settings -> General -> Profiles and then remove the relevant configuration profile you installed above.
As ever with these things, your mileage with this may vary, and you do this at your own risk. ↩
If you’re not on O2, you should contact your carrier before you travel or do anything more nefarious such as jailbreak-and-unlocking. ↩
The details for the APN are (note the Caps) APN: wap.cingular; Username: WAP@CINGULARGPRS.COM; Password: CINGULAR1. ↩
Posted on Wednesday October 13th, 2010