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A tale of two SIM cards and one iPad

August 28, 2010

Here’s the background to this story:

Apple’s iPad is distributed in Japan by the mobile phone carrier Softbank. Just before the iPad was released in late May 2010, Softbank announced that they would be SIM-locking or restricting the iPad to their network only. Many people, including myself, were upset by this announcement because the iPad would be sold unlocked and without a contract in the United States and other countries around the world.

There was quite a bit of confusion because, while Softbank said it would be SIM locked, Apple Japan said it wouldn’t be and then Apple changed what they were saying. Finally, Steve Jobs (Apple’s CEO for those who don’t know) commented in an e-mail to a customer that Softbank’s iPad would only be SIM-locked in Japan, but when traveling abroad it could be used with a SIM card from a local carrier. This was later confirmed by the Wall Street Journal. (A good timeline of this story can be found on the Mobile in Japan blog.)

While I was excited about the iPad, the SIM lock gave me pause. I spend most of my time in Japan (that’s where I live) but I typically spend about six to eight weeks a year in the United States and I really wanted to be able to bring my iPad to the States and use it by swapping out the SIM card.

After the WSJ confirmed the situation, I felt reasonably confident that I would be able to do what I wanted and I ordered an iPad. However, at the Softbank store when I made the reservation, I asked about the SIM lock situation and was told that it was SIM locked. I chalked it up to the sales clerk not being knowledgeable and proceeded with the order. When I picked up the iPad and signed the contract I again asked about the SIM lock situation and again was told that it was SIM locked.

The truth was that the SIM lock was not really a deal breaker for me. While I spend around two months a year in the States, I still spend most of my time (more than ten months) in Japan. While I felt confident that I would be able to change the SIM card and use the iPad when in America, I knew that I wouldn’t really know for sure until I got to the States and tried it. That day came yesterday.

I am happy to report that iPads purchased in Japan are not SIM locked outside of the country and can be used with a SIM card from another carrier. I bought a SIM card from AT&T, installed it in my iPad (purchased from Softbank) and was able to connect to AT&T’s 3G network. It works!

The process:

I went to an AT&T store, not a kiosk in the mall or the counter at Best Buy, but it wouldn’t matter. In fact, they didn’t have any iPads in the store and told me that they didn’t deal with them. If a customer asked about an iPad they referred them to Apple. The sold me a SIM Card ($15) and I had to install it myself. A little bit of culture shock there, I was expecting them to take care of the installation, etc. for me like Softbank did in Japan, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. I simply used the tool that came with the iPad to remove the Softbank SIM card, put the AT&T card in the tray and inserted it. Next, I turned off the airplane mode and allowed the iPad to connect to the network. This took about 90 seconds. Next, under settings->cellular data->view account, I created an account with AT&T by putting in my credit card and billing information. I could choose from 250 MB of data for $15 or 2 GB for $25. I will only be in the States for another 20 days, so I chose the 250 MB plan. The whole process from purchasing the SIM card to installing it to creating an account took about 5 minutes. It was very easy.

A couple of things:

I had to buy the SIM card for $15. I didn’t think that I would have to do that. I assumed that by buying data, I would be given the card for free. However, I can keep the card and use it the next time I am in the States, so it is a one-time purchase. Second, the 250 MB of data is good for 30 days and while I didn’t have to make a contract with AT&T, they will automatically bill me for more data every 30 days until I cancel. To cancel, I simple go to settings->cellular data->view account->add data or change plan on the iPad and touch the cancel plan button. But I have to do this before the 30 days are up and before I leave the States. Otherwise $15 will be billed to my credit card every thirty days.

All in all, I am happy with how things turned out — so far anyway. For $30 I am able to use my iPad when I am out and about in the States for the next couple of weeks.

I will update this post at the end of my trip when I cancel my data plan and with any other experiences/observations that I have about using the iPad on AT&T’s network.

UPDATE: A couple of days before I left the States I logged on to my account via settings on the iPad and canceled my data subscription. It was very simple. I received an email a little while later confirming the cancellation, but I could keep using the data. That turned out to be convenient because of an electrical problem, I spent two hours sitting on the plane at the gate in San Fransisco. It was easy to pass the time using the internet. I ended up using no where near the 250 MB of data, mostly because there is so much free WI-FI in the states.

When I got back to Osaka, I simple inserted my Softbank SIM card and was back on their network with no problems. I have to say that this was one of the easiest and most straight forward technology experiences that I’ve had in a long time. It wasn’t expensive, it worked perfectly and I have no complaints.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Chibizaki permalink
    November 6, 2010 7:57 am

    Hi Kansai Greenie,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with the iPad bought in Japan in this article.

    I am a person of Japanese lineage that spends most of my time in Canada.
    I am fluent in Japanese (spoken and written)
    I plan on going back to Japan this December and was planning on using the iPad for maps and looking up info on the go.
    I was counting on a local Canadian provider to allow roaming outside the country but it does not let me do so unless I make a contract with them for a year
    (which I do not want to do because I do not want nor need to have 3G access year-round — only when traveling.
    Also the roaming charge seems ridiculous at $7/MB on top of the monthly fee.)
    I was wondering if it’s possible to buy the iPad in Japan and make a one month deal with Softbank, even though I presently do not have a fixed permanent address in Japan.
    I COULD possibly use a relative’s address but I don’t want to trouble them.
    I also do not have a Japanese bank account, nor Japanese credit card so I’m wondering if this will cause issues as well.

    Thanks for your time.

  2. December 31, 2010 3:46 am

    Can I ask, if when installing your new sim, were you presented with a “connect to itunes” screen, or was all your data still intact on the iPad, with no need to re-sync? Thanks

  3. EvaB permalink
    March 6, 2011 12:19 am

    Thank you for sharing this process. I am about to explore your same experiences as I live in Canada and travel to the United States for short periods of time on a regular basis. Technology is best when it is invisible and it sounds like yours was perfect. While there are many wi-fi locations in North America, they are not all seamless. Many charge money for using them and are slow!!! I am hoping the 3G in the U.S. will be seamless. Thanks again!

  4. Ocean Nomads permalink
    July 28, 2011 2:12 pm

    I was wondering if Softbank SIM locked iPhone4 works the same as the iPad? I’m planning to go home to visit my family in Malaysia – it has been awhile since my last visits.

    Would really appreciate if someone could give me a positive answer.

    Thanks!

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