Addendum: The automatic recharging of prepaid mobile data that I mention below, didn’t quite work as expected. Just something you might want to know in case you go that route.
Ok, I’ve alluded to this post many times already, so now it’s time to write it. I’m also posting a separate “Tips for Tourists” text if you want to know about getting a Korean SIM card or what are your options for mobiles in Korea.
Now I’ve been a proud owner of a Korean SIM card for about 1 month and here’s my own story. I won’t explain the technology and the terminology, but Wikipedia should be able to give you an idea, in case you’re not familiar with mobile network terminology. Don’t worry, most of it is only intended for nerds like me.
Historically, Korea has been “the odd one out”, since they used a CDMA-based system which was more or less incompatible with anything else in the world. Even though the US used a CDMA-based system, the networks in Korea were not really compatible, or so I’ve led myself to understand. Obviously, coming from Europe, I always had GSM phones with me, so I don’t really know first-hand about what the situation was for US phones.
I first came to Korea in 2002 and back then you had two options for using a phone here. Option 1, rent a CDMA phone with a Korean number, which I always did for two reasons. One was to avoid roaming fees and the other was the ability to send text messages to Korean numbers. See, you could not send text messages between Korean phones and GSM phones. Option 2 was to rent a CDMA phone. This was a special CDMA phone which could take your GSM SIM card, so that you were effectively roaming. This whole business of the SIM card actually being “you” (your number, etc.) is the whole beauty of the GSM system and, IMHO, makes it wonderful to use. So, effectively you were roaming in Korea, since you only paid for the handset rental to a Korean operator and paid for calls to your home operator (at roaming prices). These two options still exist for tourists.
Of course with 3G networks, the old GSM/CDMA problem is not slapping us normal customers in the face (it still exists in the background in a somewhat changed form), so you can typically use your 3G phone in Korea, roaming as you would normally do in a foreign country. I got my first 3G phone in 2005 and already that year I could see that the phone was able to find networks here, but couldn’t connect. I suspect that was because of a lack of roaming agreements, since my phone was willing to make emergency calls. After 2006, roaming has been fine with all 3G phones I’ve tried.
Anyway, so none of those options is really attractive if you’re staying here a longer time, so how to get a real Korean SIM card? There are three main operators in Korea: SK, KT, and LG. I’m with KT for the very simple reason that they seem to be the only one who provides good information about their plans in English. (Your browser might give a phishing warning on that website; I think it’s because some other pages under the same domain have been dangerous, but the KT pages seem ok.) So, everything below relates to my experience with KT; SK or LG might be different, but I suspect the big picture is the same.
First problem: Prepaid vs. post-paid? The latter is not an option unless you have a Korean bank account for which you need your Korean identity card (the plastic one, remember?), i.e., you need to be staying here a longer time on some non-tourist purpose. KT will give you a prepaid SIM card after you’ve been in the country for 3 days, even if you don’t have an identity card. If you don’t have the card, your SIM card will be valid for 90 days which is the time you would get to stay when coming without a visa (duration of stay varies for different nationalities, not sure if SIM card validity follows that). As I didn’t have my identity card when I got my SIM card, I initially got the 90 days, but once you have the identity card, just drop by at a KT office to show it and they’ll extend your SIM card validity.
Ok, Korean phone number on a Korean SIM card, safely ensconced in my iPhone 4S. As any iPhone user knows, without a data plan, the phone is basically useless. Until you get your real identity card, you can’t get any sensible data plan. The prepaid card allows for data use, at 0.28 KRW per 0.5 KB. Yes, half a kilobyte (the website says KB, but it could also be KiB, not sure; at that granularity of accounting, this makes a difference). 0.28 KRW doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you do the math, it comes out to 560 KRW per MB. After getting my SIM card, I left the data connection on, used my phone as usual (or a bit more data maybe) and in about 20 minutes or so, I had already spent 2500 KRW. Then I turned the data off. 🙂
I eventually got my identity card and went back to KT to ask for something more sensible. For some weird reason, if I changed to a post-paid plan, I would have to change my phone number. It’s not that Koreans don’t have number portability, since you can transfer numbers between operators, but apparently inside KT, this kind of porting from prepaid to post-paid is not possible. Just boggles the mind, given that in Finland, the ability to keep your number across operators is almost considered a “basic human right”. 🙂 (Updated to add that someone commented offline that in Finland the situation for porting a number from prepaid to post-paid is the same, i.e., it’s a no-go. Why? No idea, but it boggles the mind…)
The other downside of post-paid plans at KT is that calls, text messages, and data are bundled, so that if you need a lot of data, you also need to get a lot of calling minutes and text messages. This makes them rather pricy for someone like me who’s mostly going to use data, with the occasional phone call. Most of my text messages go over iMessage, WhatsApp, or KakaoTalk, so data plan already includes them. With the forced number change, they were mostly unattractive.
The good news was that I had essentially two options. KT (and the other operators) run extensive networks of WiFi hotspots and for about 8000 KRW per month, I could add that to my prepaid SIM card. That, by the way, is not mentioned on the English website, and neither is the other option that I ended up taking. You can also get a prepaid data plan which is volume-limited. 100 MB per month is the cheapest, then it goes to 500 MB and larger plans. The nice bonus is that 500 MB and higher plans include the WiFi plan as well and since the 500 MB plan was 11000 KRW per month, that was a no-brainer. Back in Finland, I had a 300 MB plan which I knew to be sufficient for my use, so I was good to go.
In the end, I’m paying 11000 KRW per month for data (and WiFi hotspots) and calls charged at prepaid rates. Prepaid charging is in increments of 10000 KRW and the credit is valid at least 2 months (longer if you charge more). So far, looks like the 10000 KRW is enough for about 2 months of calling for me, so in the end I’m paying about 16000 KRW per month for my phone. It’s actually a little bit cheaper (a couple of EUR) than what I pay in Finland and I get about the same level of service. Downloads come in at about 5 Mbps, but uploads seem to be limited to about 500 kbps, whereas in Finland I get about 5 Mbps in both directions.
The WiFi hotspots are on one hand nice, but the more I experience them, the more annoyed I get with them. The nice bit is that they are practically all over the place in Seoul. The annoying bit is that KT runs two networks on their access points, both using the same SSID (ollehWiFi). One is encrypted, the other one is not. The non-encrypted one wants you to enter a code on a web page, the encrypted one works right away since it recognizes my MAC address. My phone sometimes picks the right one (encrypted) and sometimes the other one, which means that any network-using application seems to hang. I can manually go into the settings and change the network, but this is highly annoying. I guess I might be able to get a username and password for that network as well, but haven’t looked into it.
In general, I’m very happy with the phone service here, but then again, I sort of expected it from a technical point of view. What I didn’t know were the bureaucratical steps needed, but they were in the end not too bad. In the Spring, we’re moving to California for the second half of this sabbatical and I know that then I will get the third world experience of mobile phones and I’m slowly starting to dread it…