Will My iPhone Work in South Africa?

If you don’t have an iPhone, this might not interest you, but you might want to read on anyway, as I will also try to explain the myriad cell phone plans on offer in South Africa and what’s needed to register your phone.

The short answer to the iPhone question: no. But if you’ve been reading my blog, you will know that I am not able to give short answers. So brew yourself some tea and sit back for the lengthy explanation.

American iPhones will not work here. Apple puts some kind of special lock onto them, so that they will only work on an AT&T network, to protect AT&T’s exclusive rights. HOWEVER, there is a way around that, which I will explain here and which, as you might have guessed, has led me on another wild goose chase yielding plenty of blog material. Of course, I could just simply go out and purchase a new iPhone cum plan, as they do have those here, but I am cheap and quite unwilling to dish out R3000 if there is another way.

Please forgive me if the technical details are not entirely correct. I’m just trying to explain it the way I understand it. Even in the U.S., some iPhone users who don’t want to be locked into AT&T as a provider, or who’d like to use apps that are not “approved” by Apple, go through a process called “jailbreaking” their iPhone. It is also referred to as SIM-unlocking. This is what you have to do if you want to use your existing iPhone here, instead of having to buy a new local one for R3000. There is code for this out there that you can download yourself, or, if you’d like to play it a little bit safer, you can take it to a place that will do it for you (but you should be aware of the fact that in either case by jailbreaking your iPhone you will forfeit any warranty claims you might have, and will also forever have to steer clear from any upgrades, as Apple puts new and improved locking code into each upgrade so as to thwart potential jailbreakers, making this a neverending cat-and-mouse game).  I chose the latter route and landed in a Joburg suburb called Cresta in an office that looked like the upstairs of Bill Gates’ garage. The lady from our relocation company had dug up this apple authorized reseller called AppleCart, and about two weeks into our move I ventured there on a rare day that I had a driver, as I was still without a car then. The place was in an entirely residential neighborhood, recognizable only by a large apple symbol on the outside wall, and after being buzzed through several security gates, I was led past the pool and upstairs where there were some desks, a few people, and tons of computer equipment. And, at first sight, Bill Gates himself, in his younger years, who proceeded to tell me about the intricacies of SIM-unlocking. I did not accomplish much on that first visit, as it turned out that my iPhone had the latest update installed, which the hackers hadn’t found a way to crack yet. (This confirms my lingering suspicion of upgrades in general – hardly anything good ever comes from upgrading!) But it wouldn’t be long, I was assured, maybe 2 more weeks.

In the meantime, I proceeded to research phone plans, as in either case, with or without iPhone, I’d have to get one of those. This proved to be very frustrating, as no one really seemed to be able to explain them well. In a nutshell: There are several cell phone networks in South Africa – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Virgin Mobile, with Vodacom being the biggest with the most stores. I chose Vodacom, just because I was tired of having so many options, and a brief foray into an MTN store left me even more confused. But most providers have similar plans. When you get a cell phone with any of them, you basically have two options: 1) Getting a prepaid phone and reloading airtime via ATM or most supermarkets, and 2) Signing a 2-year contract with the advantage of lower (but not THAT much lower) rates. There are myriad options ranging from about R75 (for perhaps 30 minutes airtime) to over 1000 minutes, with additional SMS and data bundles. Option 2 can be further divided into 2a) Top-Up, where you can no longer make calls after reaching your monthly limit unless you top up your account with extra cash (that’s what I got for the kids), and 2b) Contract, where you will be billed the out-of-bundle rate for any additional minutes beyond your plan. When selecting a plan, you should always start with a rather low number of minutes, as you can always change it upwards, but not down.

That’s really all you need to know. Don’t be confused by all the package deals. Some phones come for free when signing a contract and some cost extra money which you can then pay upfront or monthly over the contract period. What I would suggest (and what I should have done) is to buy a prepaid phone that can later be changed onto a contract, once you’ve figured out what you want to do. That way you have a phone from the start, which you really need, especially since landlines are a bit shaky. It will also be easier from a paperwork perspective, as the phone company won’t be worried about you meeting your 2-year contract obligation. Or maybe you do NOT have an iPhone and it just might be possible to buy a new SIM-card and put it in the one you already have. But even then there is some paperwork involved. You can’t just go and pick up a new SIM-card like a bunch of bananas.

What is the paperwork, then? Funny you should ask. I don’t think anybody knows what exactly is required, but rest assured that whatever you do bring won’t be enough. Let me tell my Vodacom story before I get back to my iPhone odyssey:

Day One: After weeks of agonizing over phone plans (should I get 240 minutes? Do I get an additional SMS bundle? How many? Does that include international SMSs? What about data?) I felt I was ready to brave the Vodacom store. I dutifully waited in line and was thrilled to see that the next available rep looked fairly smart and friendly. I told him which phone I wanted (a Samsung Jet) and which phones the boys wanted, and we proceeded to fill in the blanks on the contract. Name, address, etc etc. He also needed a copy of my passport and our lease agreement for proof of residence, which I both had. I had been lugging my passport around for weeks for that very purpose, as nothing happens in this country without you showing your passport. Same goes for the lease agreement, all 38 pages of it. So far so good. But then he wanted to see the last 3 months of our bank statement, which is kind of tricky if you’ve only had said bank account for less than a month. I had been told that our platinum check card would be sufficient, but obviously that piece of information had been wrong. As the banks were already closed at the time, I reluctantly left my friendly attendant with all the paperwork and promised to return the next day, not before asking if there was anything else I still needed to bring. No, I was told, just the bank statement.

Day Two: Bright and early I arrived with a printout of all our bank transactions so far. There were quite a lot of them. What we lacked in length of time we made up in pure numbers. Mostly money leaving our bank account.  It seemed to make him happy. But then he frowned and said that “they” – whoever was approving my phone contract in some back office – needed a financial guarantee, since I was unemployed, and who would my guarantor be? My husband of course, I said, and even – ha! – produced HIS passport. That was duly copied as well, but of course it turned out not to be sufficient, as we now needed an employment contract that stated he would actually be there for the 2 years of the contract term. Anybody who’s ever worked for an American company knows that they don’t do employment contracts. We did, however, have some kind of vague offer letter, but guess where that was? Not on me, that’s for sure. I don’t typically carry our entire file cabinet around with me. If I even had one – at the moment it was probably somewhere on a ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and all the new papers we had accumulated here were piled in messy stacks around the house.

Day Three: Let me just say, if I didn’t have my Kindle and the New York Times on it, I would have gone crazy. What I haven’t mentioned before is that each time I entered the Vodacom store, there was a long line of other people in front of me and I had to settle down to wait. It was either watching cricket on TV, or reading the Times. When I finally was helped again (Friendly Attendant was off that day but had thankfully given all my paperwork to a colleague and even explained the situation to him), Noisette’s employment letter did seem to please the powers that be, but only for a brief moment of bliss, because it was then decided my passport needed to be looked at closer, especially my South African visa. I sensed doom descending, as I knew what was coming: Due to a “backup at the Department of Home Affairs” the kids and I hadn’t been issued a permanent residence visa yet, just a temporary one. Well, that changes everything, I was now told, only permanent residents are allowed to have phone contracts. What? So even though my husband was guaranteeing payment of my phone contract, he couldn’t do so if I didn’t also have permanent residency. Weird. And I have a feeling on a different day that rule might have been different. But there was nothing to be done but ripping up the entire contract and writing it again, this time with Noisette as the applicant instead of me. I was already prepared to go home yet again to have him sign it, or perhaps even drag him in personally, kicking and screaming, but strangely I was then allowed to sign the entire thing, with MY signature under HIS name. VERY strange. But I wasn’t going to argue. Because here I was, after nearly a month in South Africa, being handed  my new phone!

Meanwhile, my iPhone story continues. After the promised two weeks, I called the apple dealer again about jailbreaking. Yes, I was told, my upgrade was now jailbreakable, please do come out and bring it to them. A pure pleasure, as by now I had my new car, the registration of which is another story. I dropped my phone off with the friendly lady – Bill Gates was  not present that day – and was assured it would be done in two days, at which time I would be called. Just so you know and won’t waste time waiting, in case you ever come here to South Africa, no one EVER calls you back. They really don’t. They all take down your information with the greatest sincerity, but they Will. Not. Call. Back. So, after about a week of waiting, I called to inquire about my iPhone. Oh yes, I was told, it is done, but unfortunately the guy who did it is currently in Cape Town, so you’ll have to wait until after the weekend. Hmm, I was thinking – is my iPhone IN Cape Town with him, or is it somewhere at his place where no one else can get to it? Either way, it sounded a bit weird. But I’d been waiting for so long, a few more days didn’t seem to matter. Except that when I called back Monday, the story had slightly changed in that he actually was NOT able to jailbreak my iPhone, and that it would take another 4 weeks until this upgrade was breakable, and did I want my phone back in the meantime?

To this day – and it has now been 4 months that we’ve lived here – I am still without iPhone and missing it terribly, but, on the upside, probably saving lots on airtime as all I’m actually doing with  my Samsung Jet is making and receiving phone calls and a few texts. I’ve never been able to get the exchange server working on it, although it is advertised that it should. And it is terribly clunky compared to the iPhone – just to send a text message you have to press seventeen buttons. Going back to have Bill Gates look at my iPhone once more has been on my list for months, but I find that I’ve adopted a bit of the “welcome to Africa” spirit where things seem less important after a while.

If you are a newly arrived expat in search of a phone plan, and if all the above is still confusing to you, just get what I got, I find it plenty sufficient for my initial needs and you can always upgrade from there: Talk 130 for myself, giving me 130 monthly minutes and costing R315, and Topup 75 for the boys, costing R75 each. I wouldn’t worry about SMS or Data bundles yet, as you can’t buy them at the same place anyway but rather over the phone, and it’s nice to see your first monthly invoice to have an idea of how much you are actually using.