It was big news on when T-Mobile, the fourth-largest U.S. carrier confirmed on Dec. 6 that the company would begin selling the Apple iPhone in 2013.
But, of course, it’s always been possible to use an iPhone on the T-Mobile network, but most people don’t know that. And even if they knew it, many didn’t know how to get an iPhone running on T-Mobile’s network. I decided to find out just what’s involved.
Right after I finished writing the story about T-Mobile CEO John Legere’s announcement in Bonn, I decided it was about time to make the move and sign up for a T-Mobile iPhone myself. The good news is that it works and everything is up and running. The bad news is that it’s not as easy to make the move as it might seem.
I decided that the first task would be to locate a nano-SIM at a T-Mobile store in the Washington, DC area. I knew that you can theoretically order one online, but the ordering area for pre-paid SIM cards on the T-Mobile website doesn’t seem to have nano-SIMs available for order, even though it has photos of them. So, I started calling T-Mobile stores to see if I could get the nano-SIM required by the iPhone 5.
It turns out that nano-SIMs are in short supply at some T-Mobile stores. The store that’s just upstairs from the Apple store at a suburban DC shopping mall is perpetually out of stock. I kept calling T-Mobile stores until I found a nano-SIM at a tiny T-Mobile corporate store in the historic town of Manassas, Virginia.
The next challenge was finding an iPhone. While I know that it’s possible to buy unlocked iPhones on the Web, I wanted an iPhone 5 because I plan to use LTE when it shows up. I found that unlocked iPhones are also in short supply, but located one in the same shopping mall that has the T-Mobile store that didn’t have nano-SIMs. I picked up the nano-SIM, then headed for the Apple store and bought a 16 GB black unlocked iPhone 5.
The folks at the Apple store showed me how to install the nano-SIM, which mostly requires a mild level of dexterity and a paper clip. The phone showed that it was connected to the T-Mobile network, but there’s more to a smartphone than being on a voice network. You also have to get the data stuff running.
iPhone 5 Works on T-Mobile Network With Four Days of Preparation
So I headed upstairs to the T-Mobile store to see if I could get help from the staff in configuring the iPhone. The store personnel showed me that there’s a website that will lead you through the process and install a couple of apps for use by T-Mobile iPhone customers. But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more.
The first page of iPhone settings doesn’t finish the job. There are additional settings that need to go into the iPhone for Internet access and picture messaging. Those instructions are on another page. To get everything working, you’ll need to type in some IP addresses and some web addresses by hand, since the T-Mobile automated tool doesn’t set these. And finally, if you have an iPhone 5, you’ll need to go to yet another set of instructions for MMS messaging.
One hopes that when T-Mobile starts selling iPhones, these settings will be handled before you ever see the device. It’s not that any of them are difficult, especially if you squint so you can see the tiny letters, but it’s much more time consuming than just buying a phone and popping in a SIM card, which is all that most people think they have to do.
It took me a couple of days to get all of the settings done right. This is partly because T-Mobile support is still modifying the instructions for the iPhone 5 and partly because everything isn’t all in one place. But once you find everything (which I’m pretty sure I have) then the iPhone works. But suppose you’re not buying the unlocked iPhone for T-Mobile? Then you’ll have to change the same settings, but the values you type in will be different. You’ll only be able to find them out from your phone company’s support staff.
I’ll share a word of warning that’s not exactly part of using an unlocked iPhone, but rather is one of the effects of the Apple ecosystem. If you’re using iCloud to keep things synchronized and you want to keep your Outlook Calendar along with your Contacts on the iPhone you should back up your Outlook mailbox. iCloud ate my calendar, contacts and tasks and moved them to iCloud without telling me. Fortunately, an Apple Senior Technical Advisor of astonishing competence helped me get them back.
So after four days of buying a SIM and an iPhone, and then configuring the device, was it worth it? It is if you want an iPhone and don’t want to wait until T-Mobile starts selling them in March or April. But if you’re intimidated, you might want to wait or get a tech-savvy 14-year-old relative to do the setup for you.