Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How To: Setting Up an Unlocked iPhone for O2 UK's £10/mo Prepaid Data Plan

Have an iPhone? Going to the UK? If you'd like to use your American AT&T contract iPhone for data in the UK, you're most likely way better off unlocking it and swapping in an O2 UK prepaid SIM with their £10/mo unlimited iPhone data package than paying $24.99 for 20MB, $59.99 for 50MB, etc. for AT&T's international data roaming plans (plus the fear of overages), or worse yet, using your iPhone for roaming data with no int'l roaming package (you will probably cry when you get your phone bill). So don't do that.

This may go without saying, but in order to use a SIM card other than your AT&T SIM card, you'll need to jailbreak your iPhone and then unlock it using the ultrasn0w software unlock. There is plenty of documentation about how to do this elsewhere on the internet, so I won't cover this in detail here. These are all safe, reversible, and relatively easy processes, so quit being a wuss, and stop mumbling about your warranty or whatever. You can do a regular iTunes restore and it will go back to normal. Nobody will know, I promise.

The Background:
Having recently installed the ultrasn0w software unlock to my iPhone, I was anxious to try it out. Like many tweaks for jailbroken iPhones, the ultrasn0w unlock was one of those things that I didn’t need to do, it was more just a matter of being able to do it that made me interested. I'm already on AT&T in the U.S., so I didn't really have a need for a carrier unlock, but then recently I found myself in the UK, and I read that O2 (the carrier that handles the iPhone in the UK) offers a prepaid iPhone data plan for just £10 a month (~$17 USD). This is a tremendous deal for several reasons, the first being that most carriers don’t offer any sort of monthly “unlimited” data plan on a prepaid basis, let alone one that is cheaper than AT&T’s $30/month in the U.S. (Finally, something that is cheaper in the UK than in the States). Also, getting an O2 SIM card in the UK and putting credit on it about as simple as can be. In the UK it seemed like pretty much every corner shop was selling prepaid SIM cards for every single UK carrier, and what’s even more common is places where you can buy the “top up” prepaid credit to keep your prepaid SIM going. Corner stores, grocery checkouts, ATMs, the internet, they all offer top up service for pretty much every carrier. Plus, you'll have a UK phone number, you get free incoming calls, and be able to dial around and send texts to UK numbers for very reasonable prices (especially cheap if you're calling other O2-wielding iPhone hipsters). There are details here (but don't buy this site's SIM card with no credit for $25, just wait until you get to the UK and buy one for £1 at the airport or anywhere else).

So I went around the corner and bought an O2 SIM card for £1, and then bought £15 of “top up” prepaid credit (£10 for the data plan, another £5 for regular phone credit [I wasn’t planning on doing too much talking, since I know about three people in the UK anyway]). I put the SIM card in, the iPhone did its "searching" thing for about 60 seconds, and then voila, “O2-UK” shows up in the carrier display, and 3G shows up in the connection display. Ultrasn0w works. Freedom from AT&T! Plenty of bars. Life is good. Right? Sort of.

There are a few things about getting the data plan set up on the iPhone that are not mentioned in the O2 literature that comes with your SIM.

First off, the booklet that comes with your O2 SIM card says that you can add the iPhone data plan (the "data bolt on" as it's called) via a text message or by calling their service number. Here’s the thing: Don’t do it by text, unless you like waiting. If you subscribe to the data plan via text, they’ll send you a text back saying that your data plan will be activated within 48 hours. 48 hours? WTF, right? They can send you an automated text message back saying they’ve received your request, but they can’t actually do anything about it for up to 48 hours? If you are a person who is alive, you will find this to be pretty unacceptable (especially if you're a traveler trying to get stuff done). This either means that the data that you DO use until then will be pulled out of your prepaid credit at the rate of £3/MB (!!!), that you’ll be too afraid to use data for this reason, or you’ll simply not be authorized to use data until your account is authorized (this was the case with me). All bad options.

Make the Call to Customer Service to Activate Data Plan:
This is why you should call the service number to activate your data plan. Dial short code 4445 from your O2 phone. It will cost 25p of your credit, but it’s worth it to call them, to tell them you want your account activated NOW, not in 48 hours. After about 20 minutes of waiting on the phone, they were able to tell me that my money had gone through (a text message saying that the data plan was activated and that £10 had been taken out of my credit came while I was still on the phone with the phone rep). So, they say you’re set up (this time the phone rep told me he couldn’t guarantee that it would be working immediately, but that my data plan would be working within 24 hours), but you’re actually not. The man on the phone told me I just needed to restart my phone and everything would be fine. Not true. I have no idea why he didn’t tell me that you need to tweak your carrier settings specifically for a prepaid account in order to get iPhone data working. So here I thought I had working iPhone data, but nothing was coming through. Phone calls worked just fine, I was getting promotional text messages from O2 just fine, but every time I tried to access data, I got a notification on my phone saying that I wasn’t set up properly to access data on the phone. I thought this was because of the 24-hour delay, but once I got back to the hotel and got on the internet, through much poking around on their website, I found out that there are carrier settings that need to be tweaked in order to get data working. Nice. Thanks for telling me about that, O2 phone dude. Anyway, once I followed their instructions, everything was fine, data came in at a nice speed, I stopped feeling like I wanted to punch someone. It made me wonder if there was actually any waiting period at all, but there was no way of telling if it was the the settings being wrong or the plan not actually being activated yet.

So here’s what you need to do:

(From the O2 website, hidden deep in the "How do I activate my iPhone?" section of their help menu.)

  • Put the iPhone sim card into your iPhone.
  • Connect your iPhone to a USB port on your computer (but not on the keyboard) using the dock and cable in the box. iTunes will open automatically
  • iTunes will guide you through activating and syncing things like contacts, calendars, music, photos, podcasts, videos, email accounts, and web bookmarks.
  • Download the latest iPhone software if there's an update available
  • Top up £10 or more

You'll need to change the APN settings to Pay & Go to get things like internet and picture messaging (MMS) to work.

Click here for a step-by-step guide of how to change your settings or follow the below steps:

  • Go to the settings menu and choose General
  • Choose Network, then Cellular Data Network
  • In the Cellular Data APN box, change to – you don't need to change the username and password
  • In the MMS APN box, change to – again, don't change the username or password
  • Ignore the Visual Voicemail APN box – it's not available on Pay & Go
  • Turn your iPhone off and on again
  • Text keyword "MMS" to 1010 for free. We'll set up picture messaging and let you know when it's done.
  • If you've got a 2G iPhone, you won't be able to send picture messages. But we'll send you a text message with a link so you can view them.

Once I did this, everything worked fine. Everything else about the O2 experience I found to be very nice. The phone tells you how much credit you have left every time you make a call or send a text message, so it won’t be a total surprise when you run out of top up. They sent me little text messages about promotions, free stuff you can get on their website, etc. They also sent a free text message with an MMS picture, showing that unlike AT&T, you can in fact use MMS here (although for the prepaid plan, it costs something like 25p per message).

O2 Coverage:
I found O2's wireless reception to be very good, especially compared to what I was used to with AT&T in the U.S. When the phone said it was getting 3G, the data speeds were as fast as one would expect with 3G (unlike how it is in the U.S., where the phone might say 3G, but sometimes actually gives you no data or very slow, intermittent data). 3G coverage was available in just about every city (even little ones) I passed through, and seemed to be almost everywhere in London. And even when there wasn't 3G, and even when there wasn't EDGE, when I was getting that mysterious "0" in the middle of the countryside at the Latitude festival, data came through, slowly, but surely. It always came through, even amongst all the hundreds (thousands?) of other iPhone-wielding nerds at the festival who were all tweeting away or whatever. This is a HUGE contrast to what it was like at SXSW 2009, where you could barely make a phone call from downtown Austin on AT&T, let alone use data. At SXSW, my phone would claim to be getting 3G, but mostly just produced error messages. So all in all, I have to give a thumbs-up to O2 in this department. Their coverage actually covered.

Breaking the Rules:
O2’s terms of service forbid tethering and VOIP over the cellular data network (two things that jailbroken iPhone users tend to enjoy) but I did both pretty frequently and they worked just fine, my service did not get cut off, and I didn’t hear from the provider about it. I wasn’t BitTorrenting movies or anything, but I also wasn’t really holding back. I used about 200MB for the 5 days I had it, and had no problems.

Side note - O2's JPG Compression:
One weird thing: Maybe this is how they can afford to make it so cheap. Unlike AT&T in the U.S., all jpg’s that go through O2’s cellular data network get severely crunched. They have a server-side thing that noticeable reduces the size (and quality) of jpg’s that get sent in to the iPhone. It wasn’t immediately apparent at first when using just the iPhone, but I first noticed this while I was tethering, when I looked at photos I had uploaded to my Flickr account (via hotel WiFi earlier) and noticed that they looked like a really crappy, low-quality jpg. Surely this is not how the pictures I took actually look, I thought. I check the photo files I had saved on my computer, they looked fine. Did a little Googling and found this article (which offers a fix to the problem). Sure enough, they’re crunching them down before they send them out. But ya know what? I’d almost say that that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take for speed’s sake. Most of the time when I look at a picture on my iPhone, it’s scaled to about 33% of its original size anyway, and I’m just looking for the general gist, not a super nice picture. Sure, the colors might look a bit wonky, but I’m willing to accept that if it means that stuff loads faster. And if it really bugs you, if that’s a trade-off you’re not willing to accept, you can change it from within your carrier settings.


Eleanor A said...

Thanks a million, for real. Had been looking all over for info on this and had been hampered, mostly by the fact that you can't mail order a SIM from the US, generally.

Will take this advice. Thanks for writing it up.

muthu said...

good information.I searching for the iphone unlocking informations for many mobile unlocking sites include
unlockfree.But I did not found.But from this article I got the very clear information about the iphone unlocking.Thank u very much

ctbritt said...

Rockin'... This is exactly the information I'd been looking for, as my data plan never seemed to be activated. Once I got the APNs changed, worked like a charm.

Eleanor A said...


Went to the UK, with an unlocked, jailbroken iPhone.

Bought an O2 "My Country" SIM card from a vending machine in the baggage pickup area at Heathrow.

Took it back to the hotel, called the number provided with the SIM and as of last week they had a "press 1 for iPhone bolt-on package" prompt, so you can do it over the phone without even needing to call. The system will text you when the service is activated. Using the settings available in this post, I got the service working immediately.

HOWEVER. I started using data straightaway and was charged the (much) higher price. I noticed I was prompted to top-up more or less immediately, which I did - couldn't call 4445 for customer service until the Monday. When I called they not only activated the bolt-on immediately, but refunded my money from the top up. ALSO I got 100 free international minutes with the O2 SIM - now you just can't beat that.

The iPhone totally saved my bacon, since a.) I always get lost in London, b.) GPS is totally useless there - lots of tall buildings, and c.) you can get an iPhone app that calculates Tube and bus routes.

Saved me an immeasurable amount of time to have a working iPhone available. Everything worked fine, except visual voicemail - you just call 901 to get your messages, and O2 will text you whenever you receive one.


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