Unlocked Apple iPhones give international travelers an edge

Apple Inc. Monday officially launched the sale of the iPhone independent of any cell phone contract. The phones come unlocked for any carrier worldwide, and prices for the iPhone 4 start at $649. The same model is available for $199 with either a two-year service plan on AT&T or Verizon in the United States. However the phones come locked into these carriers.

The local cell phone carrier in Costa Rica, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, is offering a similar deal, and offering the iPhone 4 at no charge or for as much as $332 depending on the particular two-year service plan. Any contract requires income from a legal source in Costa Rica or documentation from a certified accountant. The deal has been popular with Ticos who in the past would spend hundreds of dollars on hacked iPhones in order to function on the local cell phone network.

Predictably the iPhone is in short supply at institute agencies. However the new unlocked option helps expats who are unable to deal with the documentation requirements or unwilling to wait. The iPhone 4 comes equipped with dual cameras, which makes possible high definition photos and video from one side while using the forward camera for face-to-face video calls, either on the Apple Facetime network or via Skype. Not only is it possible to surf the web via the 3G Internet in Costa Rica, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad distributes an official application that turns the iPhone into a WiFi hotspot so it can provide Internet access to computers and other devices via the cellular network.

Another benefit to a legal iPhone, purchased either through
the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad or the unlocked version on the Apple Web site is that customers can forward complaints about their cell phone network to Apple. The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad is obligated under its contract with Apple to provide good customer service, and complaints would put that contract in jeopardy. Given the popularity of iPhone sales in Costa Rica it’s unlikely that the institute would neglect Apple’s customers.

The unlocked iPhone is not viewed as having much impact at this time in the United States because only AT&T and Verizon offer a network that is fully compatible with Internet access on the iPhone. The unlocked iPhone is fully compatible for phone calls and text messages on any GSM network.

However, there are much cheaper handsets on the market.

The benefit is mostly for international exports of the iPhone and for people who travel internationally and want to swap out their U.S. based SIM chip for a prepaid plan in another country. Costa Rica withdrew Internet access as an option for the prepaid network in March.

However residency is no longer required in order to obtain a post-paid line with Internet access.

Post-paid plans in Costa Rica also do not require a contract obligation when the customer brings their own phone. Plans come with a $7-a-month charge and provide 60 minutes of included talk time. Internet access via the 3G cell phone network starts at $30 per month.

Local calls at 10 cents a minute and text messages for under a penny are far cheaper than using a cell phone in Costa Rica under a global roaming plan from AT&T.

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