Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Getting a mobile phone in Korea

Getting your South African phone to work in Korea:

Get ready to pull your hair out, if you have any hair that is.  Getting a phone in Korea can be quite a tricky business, primarly due to the fact that information in English is very limited. Also, the network system here is different to the one we have in South Africa (and the rest of the world). For example, you will not be able to bring your South African phone to Korea, and just insert a local simcard. It doesn't work that way unfortunately. I have a South African Nokia smarthphone, and except for the wifi, i have no reception in Korea, even though I requested roaming through Vodacom before I left. I went to a local SHOW store (they sell Kt phones), and was told that I might be able to use my phone here, but it will set me back 300,000 won to register it. Now for that price, I might as well buy a new phone here. To understand all the confusion one have to first realize that Korea has been fairly constricted in terms of what phones they sell here. As far as I can tell, until recently, only locally produced phones (such as Samsung and LG) were sold in stores. It is only fairly recently that phones such as Iphone has made it into the market. These Korean phones use a different signal frequency, compared to the rest of the world, and therefore, many phones do not work here.  I have read stories of people that were able to use their iphones bough in the states and other countries in Korea, so it does seem like things are improving slightly. Also, many phones here, do not use simcards as we know them in SA. Instead, the phones have build in chips. This means, you cannot just simply go buy a simcard at a local store, and pop it into your phone.  But even this is improving it seems.  After about 4 hours of walking today, I, with the help of a co-worker, were able to get my SA phone working on the KT network. We started in a SK shop, where we were informed that as a foreigner, I am not illegible to get a free smartphone on a monthly contract (unless i pay in 600,000 - 800,000won). SK does do pre-paid (i.e., pay-as-you-go), and for 30,000won, they will provide me with a basic phone, after which I can buy 10,000won vouchers as required. Problem with this is, the phone is very very basic, and as I understand it, cannot take sms's longer than 80 characters, and there is no internet on these. The short sms's is one thing, but I am tired of getting lost in Korea, hence, internet for the map application on my phone is essential. Besides, most of the messages that I receive is via email and facebook, so internet is rather important. OK, so after visiting a host of other SK shops, we were informed that SK does not deal with Nokia phones, and that we instead had to try KT. Two KT shops later, and we were referred to the KT head office for the area, at the Hongik University station (come out of exit 5, and turn left into the first road,,,,you will see a "Technical KT" sign across the road). Alas, not even the regional headoffice could help us, but they referred us to another SHOW shop, 8min walk up the road (in the direction of the university). Anyway, long story short, the assistant in this SHOW room said that I might be able to get my phone registered, but that there were several stages that we had to go through before I might be able to use my phone in Korea. They wanted to know whether my phone was locked to the SA network, and after confirming that it wasnt, the process started. I could not understand what exactly they had to confirm, but the assistant made various calls to various people, and looked very busy. All in all, this took about a hour, after which I was asked for my ARC, and had to choose a mobile phone package. Here another problem presented itself, KT doesn't do prepaid packages (i was told), so my only option was to apply for a monthly contract. The base fee, regardless of what package I choose, was 12,000won. For 55,000, one can have some free call time, sms, and unlimited data. At the end, i opted for a 1Gb option (for 15,000won on top of the base fee), with the option to move to the unlimited data plan if i wanted to at a later stage. I was not particularly amused about this to be honest, because a friend were able to get a Samsung smartphone with the help of a co-worker for 55,000won/pm, how that was possible, I still do not know, because all 20 shops I visited said I would need to buy the phone in cash. But at that stage I was just so tired of the whole process, and was actually quite willing to pay much more just so that i can have some sort of connection. 20min later, and the assistant seemed satisfied that i have passed all the requirements, and it was time to test out the simcard in my phone. I was able to call out, but couldnt receive calls for some strange reason. The sim was removed again, and after doing "something" to it, it was inserted back in the phone, and i was able to receive calls. However, the internet didn't work, and the assistant was unable to setup the APN (access point - number settings).  This is usually not a difficult process, so I just asked the assistant to write down the APN, so that i could set the phone up at home (which i was able to do a few hours later). So after all that i am happy to report that my SA phone now indeed is working in Korea. But it was one hell of a mission, why they make it so difficult, i cannot tell you, and unless you are lucky, and find this specific store (or another similar store like it), you are likely to find it difficult as well to register your phone. Oh yes, there was also a 25,000 registration fee (8,000 won will be deducted from my bank account over 3 months), and additional, once off charge of 5,000won for the sim.

There are three main mobile operators in Korea, namely: SK, KT, and LG.  A fourth operator might be introduced into Korea as well in the next few months according to some reports.

LG Monthly plans (From Mstrum's blog):

SK (Pre-paid)

Mobile VOIP and Skype:
It also seems like you may not be able to use Skype on your smartphone here. One article reported that it is completely non-functional (blocked) on the LG network, whereas with SK and KT, it may be possible to use on the higher paying unlimited data packages (if at all). This from a Korea Times Article:

"Since August, SK Telecom, the local wireless kingpin that controls more than half of the country’s mobile-phone users, have been preventing customers signed to monthly fixed-rate plans of 45,000 won (about $39) or cheaper from using VoIP apps on its cellular network. The carrier is intent on allowing only high-volume users paying more than 55,000 won a month to use VoIP on 3G phones. KT, the No. 2 carrier and exclusive provider of the Apple iPhones here, is now mimicking its rival, allowing only customers paying more than 55,000 won a month to use the VoIP apps on its network. LG Uplus, the country’s smallest carrier, is disconnecting VoIP apps from its cellular network entirely. " (http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/tech/2011/03/129_78068.html)

Secondhand Phones:
If you are looking for a cheap, secondhand phone, Gmarket is a very good option, since they also sell secondhand phones. Craigs List, and even Daves ESL, also have Forums where one can buy and sell secondhand phones and other things.

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