Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Getting a cell phone in Korea: Part 1

I've had a working cell phone for just over a week now.  To be honest, it doesn't feel much different from my first month here that I spent without a phone.  I rarely look at it, and still do nearly all of my communication from a computer after work or on the weekends.

Why didn't I get cell phone service earlier?  Well, you must have a Korean Alien Residency Card (ARC) to do things like get cell phone service, have a regular bank account, get internet, and all that jazz.  I lucked out because my apartment's internet isn't in my name (the cost is actually included in my rent -- the rent that my school pays), so I had internet from day 1.  On the Friday afternoon of my first week here (back in September) I went with my co-teacher to apply for my ARC.

During that first or second week of school I bought a used iPhone 4 from one of the 6th grade teachers.  He had recently gotten the new iPhone 5 and happened to be selling his old one for a very good price when I arrived.  I have never owned a smart phone, but as I've mentioned in earlier posts, everyone has one in Korea.  Thus, this will be my year with a smart phone.

Contracts here are for two years like in the states, so I wanted to avoid that if possible.  I'd like to note though that many native English teachers will still get 2-year contracts here.  They just find a new arrival to take over their contract at the end of their year, or take over the second year of someone's contract.  In Spain I had a pre-paid phone, so I could only use however much money I put onto my phone

It had become clear to me though, that whenever my ARC did arrive in the mail, I would need to get phone service by myself.  As in, without my Korean-speaking co-teacher.  That's another reason why I didn't want to be tied to a 2-year contract: it was likely that I wouldn't understand all of the details and fine print to the contract (I don't speak Korean!).

I was actually enjoying the weeks without my ARC, because without my ARC the task of getting cell phone service was not weighing on my shoulders.  And then my ARC arrived on October 2, a Wednesday.  Although I now had to figure out how to get phone service, my ARC actually couldn't have come at a better time.  There was a national holiday on Thursday, October 3, but my school had that Thursday and Friday off.  Having Friday off was a unique situation because it wasn't a national holiday, so stores would still be open!

I did some googling and found this 2012 Guide to Getting a Cell Phone in South Korea blog post. BINGO!  The guide was more for people getting contracts, but I looked on KT Direct's global website to see what pre-paid options they had.  Looked good to me. You could get a Prepaid Data Plus package if you wanted data: 500 MB for 11,000 W (that's around $10/month).  Other possible increments are 100 MB, 300 MB, 1 GB, 4 GB, and 8 GB.

Their global website also had nice directions to the KT Direct store in Gangnam.  So that Friday I took the bus into Seoul and then took the metro to Gangnam.  They found the employee with the best English and had him talk with me.  I was going to buy a chip for the prepaid plan, and start with 500 MB of data the first month and see how much I used.  I had given the guy some of my information, my foreign residency number, what type of prepaid plan I wanted, etc.  He typed lots of things into his computer and waited for screens to load.  He told me he was going to San Francisco later that year, but he was afraid of getting shot.  Some more small talk like that.  Then he got out the sim card to put into my phone.  He wrote down my new phone number on a sticky note and handed it to me.  Wow, was I really going to be walking away with a working phone? It felt too easy!

I gave the guy my new (used) iPhone 4 so he could put in the card.  He asked what kind of iPhone it was, and when I said it was an iPhone 4 (not 4S or 5), his first words were: Why didn't you get the newest?  I explained to him that I bought it from a teacher at school and he took that as an ok reason.

At this point in my life, owning an iPhone 4 --regardless of it being used-- feels lucrative and unreal.  I could never afford one in the states, and no one in my immediate family has a smart phone.  So the U.S. me was a bit shocked by his question, but knowing I was in Korea and what the technology is like here, it made sense for him to ask.  Koreans have top technology, people!

Ok so I hand over my iPhone 4.  He pops out the small part on the side and takes out an old sim card, then puts my new one in.  He pops it back in, and looks at the screen.  Some words show up on the screen, saying that the sim card could not be read (or something to that extent -- I don't remember the wording at all).  There was mention of connecting the iPhone to iTunes via cord in the second sentence, but that's all I remember.

The guy made a face.  He took the card out and put it back in again.  Same thing, those words appeared on the screen and you couldn't do anything on the phone.  So he asks me where this phone came from: Where did the previous owner buy it from?  Uhhh I have no idea.  Then he told (and showed) me that when the old chip is in the phone, it works (and shows me the main screen with all the apps, etc.  "But when I put in the new chip, phone doesn't work," and we stare at the blank screen with text.

Uhh okay, so why? How can you fix this?

He gave me two options: You can buy this sim card (~$9) and you solve the problem, or you don't buy the sim card.

Ahhhh! What?!  You really can't do anything else to make it work?  Seriously? I don't work for a cell phone company! I just want a working cell phone today!

I told him, "I wouldn't know how to fix it." And he said, well you can ask the guy where he got the phone.

What could that information possibly help?  I was frustrated with the whole situation and felt helpless.  Was he not helping me more because I was foreign?  Was he not helping me more because I only wanted a pre-paid and not a contract?  What if he knows this card won't ever work on my phone, but he's trying to get a sale anyway?  Did I really just spend 2 hours coming into the city (and would spend 2 more going home) for this?  For a few moments I wished I were the type of person who could make things happen.  You know, the I'm-not-leaving-until-this-phone-works-so-I-demand-to-speak-to-your-supervisor-now type of person.

But I'm not and wasn't sure what else I could say or do.  For whatever reason, I bought the card anyway.  I guess I didn't want the day's journey to be completely worthless.  I made sure I was given a receipt, since he told me I could return the card if I came back within 14 days.  I did a few other errands before my 2-hour trip back home.  I was not pleased and I was exhausted.

I got home and googled some stuff about phones not accepting new sim cards.  My phone wasn't locked because it's a Korean iPhone.  I read that you must turn off the phone when you put in the sim card, and couldn't remember if the guy had actually turned it off or not when he put in the new card.  (Wouldn't a guy who works at a phone store know that needed to be done, though?)  I also remembered the message about plugging the phone into a computer.

So I found a paperclip, popped out the old sim card, and put in the one I had purchased.  I hooked the phone up to iTunes and.... it worked!  That message didn't pop up anymore; rather, I could see the regular home screen with all of the apps.  Is that seriously all that needed to be done?  Why didn't the guy at the store try connecting my phone to a computer?  Do I really have a working phone now?

Yes, it seemed to work, but I had no credit on the card.  So I couldn't make calls, send texts, or use data.  I'm over halfway there.

To be continued...
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