No joy for foreign mobile phones

Written by admin on June 20, 2009 – 2:13 pm -


UPDATE : I wrote this article in 2009 and I am no longer living in Seoul, South Korea. Please check other sites for more current info regarding using a foreign 3G phone in the ROK.

You might be wondering why you’re looking at a pretty old Nokia E61. Well I’m not here to do a review on it, in fact I’ve lost all interest in smartphones for now. Why? Because most of Korea’s offerings in the smartphone market are Windows Mobile 6. Being a Mac fan, Windows would be a last choice for me but its a given that you can’t change the language on a WM6 device short of reflashing the ROM, which is something I’m not prepared to do, especially after shelling out close to KWN800,000 for an Xperia or T-Omnia.

So what options are left for us waegook gadget freaks? Nothing much… I tried bringing my trusty 3 year old Nokia E61 to an SKT outlet. I had my Globe Prepaid SIM in there and had selected SKT as my network, I did this to show that rep that my E61 was a 3G (WCDMA) phone and it worked on their network, albeit it was on roaming. I inquired wether it was possible for me to just buy a sim card and have it work on my phone. The rep took my phone and examined the model number and after a few minutes of staring blankly at it said that it was not possible, unless Nokia Korea started selling it locally.

Now that completely sucks!!! Especially since the iPhone 3G or 3GS won’t be sold here in the near future.

I learned that SKT and KTF lock other phones out of the network by their IMEI numbers. The IMEI is sort of a serial number that is unique to your mobile. If your phone’s IMEI is not in SKT or KTF’s database then there is no way your phone can get on the network with a local SIM card.

I’m going to start venting here since this has been a long time frustration for me over the past 10 years. When South Korea decided to pick WCDMA as its 3G standard I was stoked because I thought I finally would have choices when it comes to a true smartphone. Seems like I was mistaken.

UPDATE : Don’t hold your breath for the iPhone 3G or 3GS, it ain’t coming to Korea in the near future, and you thought WIPI was a stumbling block, it seems like one of the bone of contentions in the distribution of content. Apple has their iTunes Music Store and it seems that KTF want their own brand of App store, I don’t think Apple is going to let that happen. Oh what the he@#$ that’s what I get for living in the hermit kingdom.

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Posted in South Korea, Tech | 17 Comments »

17 Responses to “No joy for foreign mobile phones”

  1. By andrew on Jul 2, 2009 | Reply

    I agree it is damn frustrating here in S.Korea – not being able to get the iPhone – I have the iPhone touch with Skype and make use of the various Starbucks free internet connection to make phone calls ;)

  2. By admin on Jul 2, 2009 | Reply

    @Andrew, its not only the iPhone. It would save most foreigners the trouble of dealing with the hassle of getting mobile service if getting a prepaid line were as painless as most other countries. The friggin problem is that they lock all other phones out of their networks. This used to be understandable when they were running CDMA but now that they have gone WDCMA, most foreign phones are on the same global 3G standard.

  3. By KJ on Jul 5, 2009 | Reply

    I agree!

    I think I’m just going to stick with my crappy Samsung phone just for calling people and finally shell out some dough for an iPod Touch for everything else.
    Honestly, when will Korean phone companies start giving their consumers (foreigners included) some innovation, simplicity, and most importantly, choice?

  4. By Gia on Jul 29, 2009 | Reply

    I have an Iphone 3G and subscribed to Globe Telecom. I’ll be visiting Seoul for the 3rd time this October, will my Iphone work on roaming in Seoul?

    On my previous visits I usually rent a phone via SKTelecom at the airport, they use my Globe SIM card and I sort of get I think a local number when they put the SIM in the phone they provide, but all calls and texts get charged to my Globe acct. I don’t want to rent from SKT again because the phone they provide totally sucks.

  5. By admin on Jul 29, 2009 | Reply

    @Gia, your iPhone 3G will work in Seoul on roaming. Just keep an eye on your data usage when roaming. Any 3G (WCDMA) phone will work with either SK Telecom or KTF.

  6. By Gia on Jul 29, 2009 | Reply

    Thanks so much ^_^

    One more question, I usually have data push off and fetch manually to save on battery and cost and I usually disable 3G unless I need to email or browse, it’s that ok? Should I enable 3G for my phone to work? Sorry if I my questions sound kinda clueless :(

  7. By admin on Jul 30, 2009 | Reply

    @Gia, leave data push off to save money on data charges, but you do have to turn 3G on or you won’t see the available networks. South Korea does not have any GSM networks only CDMA and WCDMA (3G).

  8. By Stafford on Aug 2, 2009 | Reply

    So IMEI numbers are blocked. Ergo there is a database somewhere in the depths of SKTelecom, or a line of code that excludes a range of numbers that could be altered.

    Surely it’s a matter of changing a tiny number somewhere on the network.


    It’s not like SKTelecom aren’t going to get money off me from calls and their overcharging for Data use.

    What possible rationale is there for blocking foreign handsets!!!!!?????

    Although did you notice on your Korean handset there is no mention of an IMEI?

  9. By Pete on Aug 3, 2009 | Reply

    I purchased an iPhone 3GS on my last trip to the US, unlocked it, put in my Korea SIM and was very disappointed. With my US or Japan SIM I can roam the iPhone here, it just won’t register with my SKT SIM. I’m trying to talk the SKT folks into registering my phone but so far no luck.

    Providers here have controlled the content forever, the don’t want to give that up as a revenue source.

    Also with some of the old “National Security” laws I’m sure they want close control of what and who can make wireless calls. There use to be a law against an individual owning a two-way radio, don’t know if that still exists or not. Seems with international roaming allowed now that the SIM lock is a little ridiculous. Lock the Phone to your SIM ok, protect your special pricing etc on that but if I have an unlocked phone why can’t I use it if I purchase your SIM and/or phone? Just doesn’t make sense……

  10. By tae-ahn jahng on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    Sorry… Currently Korean providers keep IMEI whitelist (not blacklist) policy, you cannot use unless register your phones’s IMEI. But you may use your smartphone. Recently Korean EMC Lab certified Phone 3G and 3 Gs ( by request of Apple. Thus there are ways of using iphone. For more detail email to me.

  11. By Lyn on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    tae-ahn jahng what ways are you able to use the iphone?? as of today here in korea there isn’t anyway to use any unlocked foreign phone in korea. i’ve tried many times at many different places to see if they are able to let me us my G1 on KTF, SKT or LG Tele’s network. not until the providers get rid of the SIM locks or the IMEI list foreigners are doomed with the crappy selection korea has…funny how a few years ago korea was top on the cellphone market game…now they are trying to play catch-up…

  12. By Matthew Wilson on Sep 7, 2009 | Reply

    Hi Jang TaeAhn,
    I would be really interested in finding out more so I can use my iPhone 3Gs on SK I am a VP customer and pay them about Won400,000 each month but they refuse to connect me. Currently I can only use my 3Gs outside of Korea. Can you mail me at mwilson250574 AT gmail DOT com?
    Thanks in advance

  13. By Tony on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply

    Hi Tae-ahn Jahng

    Apple got the MIC approval. They also over-ruled the location service law where KOREAN technology is required. KT announced that Iphone will be on sale 23 Oct. So… how do I tell the SK folks to register my unlocked US Iphone on the whitelist?

    Somewhere I read that it is illegal for Korean operators to refuse phones to be registered if MIC provides approval.

    Please email me at tik2you at gmail dot com. Better yet, post it here and everyone will thank you.

    Thank you

  14. By MiNO on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply

    Hi guys,

    I have Blackberry Bold (3G) unlocked Australian release.. Im heading over to Seoul soon and I know I can roam there…but data for me is $15 per meg… I heard that BB is available in Korea?… has anybody got a BB working over there? or does it have to be a Korean release?

  15. By admin on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply

    I wouldn’t count on your BB working in Seoul, not for technical reasons but if you look at previous posts here you’ll see that most carriers have a white list based on your IMEI for your phone to work with a local sim card

  16. By Kazetrigger on Feb 3, 2010 | Reply

    So, from what I understand here is that NO foreign phone will work on Korean networks unless the IMEI is registered. However, what if I’m on a Global Roaming service with one of their international SIM cards (i.e. Telestial, or OneSIM)? Will those be blocked, too? I asked the companies and they say their phones will work with their SIMs as long as it’s WCDMA/HSDPA 2100 compatible. Can someone clarify this?

  17. By admin on Feb 6, 2010 | Reply

    @ Kazetrigger If you are on global roaming and your phone is WCDMA/HSDPA then you won’t have any problems getting on either SKT or KTF. Make sure to turn on 3G, some people forget to do so.

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