Making Your U.S. iPhone 5 Work in Singapore

Update 24 August 2014 – New Information in Green

There is a lot of misinformation floating around on the web about whether an iPhone 5s purchased in the United States will work in Singapore or not. If you have an unlocked iPhone 5s purchased in the United States, it will definitely work in Singapore. All you have to do is head to the nearest SingTel shop, buy a nanoSIM card for it.

The Model Number Confusion

If you look at Apple’s support website, you will get the impression that there are all sorts of different models of iPhone each of which only work in a certain region of the world. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that these “models” have different components in them. You would be wrong. If you look carefully at the bottom of that website, in a tiny little font you will find some mumble words about phones perhaps working in other places, don’t call us, good luck. There are not multiple iPhone models. This is the same marketing-restriction nonsense that we have seen with DVD “region codes” Every DVD player in the world runs on universal chipsets that are fully capable of playing any DVD on the planet, that are then “crippled” to work with only one region’s DVDs. I know this, because I own a Pioneer DVD player that was sold through business partners in the United States – with Pioneer providing them with clear step-by-step instructions on how to NOT disable (“Be sure not to disable the crippling using these steps!”) the crippling on the pain of having the warrantee for the unit voided. That is, unless said business partner restored the factory settings before sending the unit in for repair. The clue that something similar is going on with the iPhone 5s is that the website lists a large number of models that seem to have different frequencies, but if you examine the list for the United States model, you will see that the United States model’s frequencies are the superset of all the other models. With a proper SIM, the United States model will work anywhere in the world.

Unlocked Phone

One thing you DO need, however, is an unlocked phone. That means that you pay for the phone separately from the service. I purchased my phone directly from the Apple Store as an unlocked phone and it was rather expensive. I believe that Virgin Mobile and/or T-Mobile also provide options to buy unlocked phones on an installment plan. That is, they sell you a phone on an installment plan that is separate from their service. You are free to stop using their service, but you still have to pay off the cost of the phone.

Getting the SIM Card

OK, you have your unlocked iPhone. Head to your nearest SingTel store – almost every mall in Singapore has one. Note, however, that you will need to go to an actual SingTel store, not to one of their business partners. You will need to bring your passport.

Blog 10 A - Head Directly to Cashier

Blog 10 A – Head Directly to Cashier

Once at the store, don’t be dismayed by complicated systems for taking a number to talk to a sales associate. You don’t need to talk to a sales associate. You can just head to the cashier directly.  The cashier will take care of everything including swapping the SIM for you. Note that unless you are never going back to the United States, you want to be sure not to lose the nanoSIM that you were using previously. Normally, the SingTel cashier will put your old nanoSIM back into the little card case that the SingTel nanoSIM came in. Put that somewhere safe. You will need it when you get back. The SIM card costs S$38 (about US$ 30) Note that the card comes with $30 of credit as well as a special 7-day, 1GB data plan. By the way, I should also note that the service I received at the SingTel stores so far has generally been excellent. The staff are very pleasant, cheerful, competent, and helpful. They are a pleasure to work with.

Make a Note of Your Phone Number

Your new SIM card gives your phone a Singapore local phone number. It is written on the card. However, if you every forget it, you can find it again in Settings->Phone

What about All My Apps and Contacts?

The only thing that changes when you swap SIMs is your phone number. All your contacts and apps are still there. Your contacts will simply work…provided you have been disciplined about how you entered them in the first place. The key point is that you need to enter all phone numbers starting with “+” and the country code. For example, U.S. phone numbers need to be entered with “+1”, Singapore with “+65”, Japan with “+81” and so on. If you have entered your contacts this way, the phone will be smart enough to figure out what country it is in, what prefixes it needs to dial and so on. Of course, the downside is that placing international calls is REALLY EXPENSIVE…so you don’t want to actually use this feature. However, it is comforting to know that it will work in an emergency.

Understanding the SingTel Prepaid Accounts

The SingTel prepay system has a “Main Account” and then any number of other special purpose accounts like “Free texting from Argentina on Thursdays” most of which are entirely useless. This will be important when you get to purchase a “Top Up” card.

This is the Reload Card You Want

This is the Reload Card You Want

The basic approach to keeping your phone running is:

  1. Purchase a $10, $20 or $50 “Hi! Prepaid Card”  but NOT any of the others like “$22 DataTalk”
  2. Activate the card. This step will transfer that amount to your “Main Account”
  3. Log in to SingTel’s website.
  4. Purchase a DataPlan. This step will activate data for your phone and give you a certain amount of credit. The cost of the DataPlan is deducted from your “Main Account”

I work in Singapore for 28 days at a time. I find that one $10 and one $20 card is enough to cover my needs for a 28-day cycle.

Topping Up Your Account

As mentioned above, you can purchase the top-up cards from the cashier at any convenience store, 7-11 and others that are all over place.

  1. Don’t expect the cashier to understand these cards. They don’t. Even worse, they will answer “yes” to any question you ask them about these cards, potentially causing you to waste money on a card that doesn’t do what you need it to.
  2. As I mentioned above, you want the $10, $20, or $50 cards. However, I have never been able to find the $50 card anywhere. That means your choices are only the $10 or $20 cards.
  3. You don’t want any of the other odd denomination special promotion cards that SingTel sells because these only add value to the “Free Texting from Argentina on Thursdays” accounts and do NOT add value to your “Main Account”  They are a complete waste of money!
Scratch Off to Reveal Codes

Scratch Off to Reveal Codes

Once you have the card, find a quiet place to sit down. Turn the card over. Scratch off the little foil strip on the rear. There are two numbers, a 10-digit number and a 6-digit confirmation code. Call the number shown on the card, follow the voice prompts, and key these in. Very easy.

Purchasing a DataPlan

Once you have topped up your “Main Account”, purchasing a data plan is easy. I think there is a way to do this directly from the phone, but I prefer to use SingTel’s website.

  1. Bring up the website
  2. Enter your phone number.
  3. SingTel will send a 6 digit code to your phone.
  4. Enter that code.
  5. Purchase the data plan.

It is that easy. Since my trips are always 28 days, I buy one 30-day, 1 GB plan for S$20 each trip.

Swapping Back to Your U.S. SIM

You will need a paper clip. I was a little surprised not to find anything like a “SIM Swap Tool” online. A paperclip will work. However, popping the SIM out with a paperclip does require a bit of finger strength. Someone with arthritic hands might have difficulty.

Popping Out the SIM

Popping Out the SIM

Power the phone completely off. Place the phone on a flat surface. Insert the paperclip into the small hole on the right side of the phone. Push in until the tray pops out.

Swap the SIM

Swap the SIM

Remove the tray, swap the SIMs. Push the tray back into the slot. Power the phone on again. That is all there is to it.

Personal Hotspot aka: “Tethering”

Update 24 August 2014

Does tethering work? That depends on how you do it. Wireless LAN “Personal Hotspot” tethering does not work. Even worse, it looks sort of like it might be working and wastes an enormous amount of your time as you struggle to try to figure out why you can get Google to come up once, but after that nothing seems to work. Don’t waste your time trying to make your iPhone 5 provide a personal wireless hotspot in Singapore using Singtel prepaid service!

The good news, however, is that there is another way that works amazingly well and that is to tether your iPhone using USB. I am using it from a shopping mall right now and the performance is blazingly fast and rock solid. Here is how to make it work:

  1. Go to the Apple Store (or Challenger in Singapore) swallow hard, grit your teeth, and pay the outrageous price for an official Apple USB to lightning cable. Don’t waste your time and money on cheaper, knock-off cables – they won’t work.
  2. Install iTunes on your notebook computer.
  3. Setup iTunes to manage your iPhone. That is, connect your iPhone and go through all the rigamarole to get them trusting each other, backing up, synching, etc…

With that, you are ready to go. When you are ready to use the service, make sure your iPhone is setup for “Personal Hotspot” = “On” <even though you won’t be using a personal hotspot!> Plug in the phone using the official USB cable. iTunes will start and within a few seconds you will be connected.

You do need to pay a little attention to what you do while you are connected this way. I generally buy the 1GB 30-day data package for S$20 and that provides more than enough data for all the e-Mail, web browsing, Facebook, photo posting, etc… that I want to do for four weeks. However, I do NOT try to stream any 3-hour HD movies or anything stupid like that.

Power Supplies

Do I need a special power supply for Singapore? Do I need to carry a transformer to convert 220 volts to 110 volts? That would be “No” and “No”. Even the tiny little cube of a power supply that Apple ships with the iPhone is actually capable of running on pretty much any power in the world. All you need is an adapter plug. Singapore uses the same plugs as England. What I actually do is carry a small U.S. power strip with me. I use the adapter plug to plug the power strip in to my hotel room wall socket. I then plug my iPhone, iPad, and notebook computers into the U.S. power strip. Not many hotel rooms provide three separate sockets for customer use (although hotels are waking up and that situation is improving) and the British plugs are the bulkiest in the world. The entire arrangement ends up a bit more compact by doing the British-to-U.S. conversion in just one place.

On-Line Top-Up of Your Account

On-Line Top-Up Does Not Actually Work

On-Line Top-Up Does Not Actually Work

Gee, all that fiddling around with prepaid cards sounds like a pain. Can’t I just get on a website and charge it to my credit card? In theory, you can. However, when I tried to do so, it did not work. Note that this may have something to do with the overall chaotic credit card situation in Singapore. Unlike most other places, Singapore does not seem to have unified credit card processing services. Most restaurants have at least three separate swipe terminals, some have as many as five or six. Even worse, the ability of those swipe terminals to actually charge things to United States cards is very erratic. The connections between Singapore’s credit card processing systems and the big ones in the United States seem to be pretty wobbly.

Other Kinds of Plans

The prepaid plan works perfectly for me since I go to Singapore for consulting and I can simply directly add the prepaid costs to my expense report. There is no question of charges for other time when I am not in Singapore. It works perfectly for me. That having been said, SingTel does definitely offer regular monthly plans. If you are staying for a longer period of time, one of these may fit your needs better than the prepaid plan – and also possibly provide official support for tethering as well.

T-Mobile Alternative

Update 24 August 2014

Since I first wrote this post, T-Mobile has introduced a service that provides global roaming including data roaming without extra charges. This service is a great idea – finally someone in the industry putting down the “Stupid Juice” bottle and thinking about what the customers actually need!  I am using this service and it does indeed work in Singapore. Nevertheless, I still swap SIMs when I get here for two reasons:

  1. Network Performance. T-Mobile’s partner is M1. It works, but the coverage and speeds are not nearly as good as Singtel’s.
  2. Local Number. By swapping SIMs I have a local number which I have in fact printed on business cards. It is a lot handier to have a local number if you are going to spend a lot of time in Singapore.

T-Mobile’s initiative is exactly the direction the industry needs to go (put down that Stupid Juice bottle!) and I am an enthusiastic supporter. Nevertheless, it is a really challenging and complicated undertaking. T-Mobile has to sign up partners in something like 70 countries, work out revenue sharing agreements, technical support arrangements, and so on. It is still a little wobbly. It will probably be a few years before it really gets to the “It Just Works” level. For some people, however, the T-Mobile plan might be a better approach. Note: you have to get the right T-Mobile plan. That is, this sort of roaming works only on their post-paid, monthly plans. It does NOT work on any of their prepaid plans and not all T-Mobile employees are sufficiently up to speed to guide you to the correct plan.

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