CONTRIBUTED BY SIBO LUNGU
My total cellphone bill Dec 2013 (USA): $160 per month for 2 lines.
My total cellphone bill Dec 2014 (Korea): $30 per month for 2 lines ($10 for mine, $20 for my husband’s).
Yep, I have most certainly been doing cartwheels for the past few months! Not only that, but the service I get is great and the internet is fast! Welcome to one of the most connected places in the world.
So how do you go about getting all set up?
First things first, put things in order with your current cellphone contract in the US. You can visit or call your cell phone provider to cancel your contract. With PCS orders, they will either freeze your account until you return, or they will cancel it without a termination fee. They obviously prefer to freeze the account since they will retain you as a customer but you do have the choice. My husband and I opted to cancel our Verizon contract because we will be living overseas for a couple of years. Just make sure the account holder’s name is on the orders.
Locked vs. Unlocked? If you plan to keep your current phone you will need to find out if your phone is locked or unlocked. Basically what this means is whether your phone will work with another provider or not. Unlocked GSM phones have a SIM card inside the phone that can be switched out to work with a new provider. Most smartphones are unlocked these days, but if you are unsure you can always call your provider to find out. They can unlock it for you once you explain you are leaving the country. If you are already here in Korea, the provider you choose will be able to tell you if it is unlocked or not, but to get it unlocked, usually the company you bought your phone from will have to do it.
Korea has three main providers: KT (Olleh), SK Telecom, and LG U+. The competition is fierce but prices are comparable so you can and should shop around for the best deal. Some things to think about are: pre-paid vs. contract; getting a new phone vs. using your current phone; and of course like anywhere else, your budget and usage habits.
As I said earlier, Korea is one of the most connected countries when it comes to telecommunications. Wi-Fi is everywhere. I have had Wi-Fi in a cab before! So with that said, you will likely not need as much data as you did in the US. We wanted (and used) unlimited data in the US but here we have Wi-Fi almost everywhere, hence my $5/month data bill. Just to give you sense of the difference; in the US I used to easily reach 4GB in a month, and here I live on 500mb for 2 months. I still have the same habits. However, it does depend where you are, too. My husband needs more data because the data network at his office is non-existent.
VOIP or internet telecommunication apps like WhatsApp, Skype and Kakao are also very popular, with Kakao leading the pack here in Korea. Literally everyone in Korea is on Kakao so I find that I never use my minutes. In fact, I last loaded my minutes over a month ago making my bill for minutes only $5/month.
Sign Up On Base
The BX at Osan AB has booths for the service providers. I imagine this is the same at other bases in Korea that have a large enough BX. The kiosks have unlocked phones available for purchase with or without a contract. There are also many data and calling plan options.
If you don’t have a phone you may prefer the contract option as buying a phone at retail price can be very expensive. You sign up for a contract based on the length of time you will be here, and you select a calling and data plan. The cost of the phone will be divided by the length of the contract so that by the time you leave Korea, your unlocked phone is paid off and all yours to keep.
If you do have a phone, then the pre-paid option is a good plan. You just bring your phone, buy a SIM card, pay the activation fee and buy as many minutes and data as you need. Whenever you run out, you can come back to the kiosk to reload. Most people do this monthly.
Sign Up Off Base
Off base prepaid options are similar. We just happened to be off base the day we were looking for phones so we signed up there. On the main strip outside the main gate, there are a couple of cellphone shops that are vendors for KT, SK and LG U+. My husband and I both had unlocked Samsung Galaxy phones. I signed up with SK, and my husband signed up with KT. For a reason we could not understand (this was only day #2 here), the vendor said I (non-active duty) had to sign up with SK.
KT total to activate was $46 ($10 SIM card, $10 minutes, $26 1GB data)
SK total to activate was: $50 ($10 SIM card, $10 minutes, $30 1GB data)
After we learned how much we use per month, we ended up reducing our minutes and data which is why our monthly bill is about $30. I top up every 6 weeks to 2 months, and my husband tops up every month.
Buying A Phone
One thing that did surprise me was how expensive smartphones are here! With LG and Samsung being Korean brands, I thought phones would be cheap. But alas, retail prices for the newest iPhone, Galaxy and LG models are just as high as, if not higher than, in the US. My Christmas shopping list got some downsizing after that discovery!
I broke my phone a while back and was able to get a decent LG smart phone for $180 in Osan off base. $600 to replace my Galaxy was way too steep, and I was still doing cartwheels about my new low cellphone bill.
Apart from the awesomely addictive smartphones, there are other models available in stores as well. A basic flip phone may not be cool, but it works! While they will probably raise hell and sulk for a year, getting one of these and loading it with prepaid minutes may be a good option for teens since there aren’t any family phone plans here to reduce costs.
Also, I have not been yet, but the electronics mart near Yongsan in Seoul may be worth checking out if you are looking for a phone.
One word: MagicJack. Two words: Get it.
I think all or most military families can attest to internet calling or VOIP apps being a lifesaver. Being able to communicate across oceans can be very difficult not to mention expensive, so finding Magic Jack was a blessing. There are international calling cards on and off base but I have never been a fan of them, even in the US.
Magic Jack is a free app you can download on your smartphone. It stands out from the rest because with it, you can call landlines. With good Wi-Fi connection the sound is decently clear, there is no delay, choppiness, or the annoying voice echo, and you can talk for a good long time. I have talked to my best friend for 4 hours straight! Well, then we got cut off so that may be the cap. But I just called right back and kept on going! Calling does work both ways, so be sure to remind family about of the time difference. 3 am Korean time seems to be my sweet mother-in-law’s favorite chatting hour!
So there it is folks. Phone service is available, easy to get, and you may even be able to save a bit depending on what plan you choose. But most importantly, you can reassure your family and friends far away that they will be hearing your voice very often. It will be almost like you never left!