Sprint cleared up its policy regarding international roaming on the iPhone 4S Thursday, announcing its intent to lock the phone's micro-SIM slot and then unlock it for good customers only by request.
On Tuesday, I reported that Sprint and Verizon would handle "international unlocking" of the new iPhone 4S. The new phone is capable of working on those carriers in the U.S. and switching to the more common GSM radio standard for the rest of the world. My report said that Sprint's iPhone 4S would come with its GSM card slot "unlocked," meaning you could insert a pre-paid SIM card bought while traveling overseas if you wanted to save some cash on international phone surcharges.
On Wednesday, numerous other media reports said that Sprint had claimed my report wasn't accurate, and even suggested it might not be accurate for Verizon, either. (For the record: Verizon has never waivered in its explanation of its policy--Verizon will unlock your phone's micro-SIM slot for international roaming once you've had it for 60 days so long as you're a customer in good standing.)
On Thursday, Sprint spokesperson Michelle Leff Mermelstein issued a new statement to me regarding the iPhone 4S and international unlocking for Sprint customers. Here's the deal:
Indeed, the Sprint iPhone 4S will ship with its micro-SIM slot unlocked. However, Sprint now says that it will be locking that slot "shortly after launch" via an update pushed to those devices. After the slot has been locked, Sprint says that it will allow customers in good standing to unlock the SIM for international use in the future.
So far as I can tell, this means that after a short period of the phone shipping completely unlocked, Sprint will revert to a policy more or less in line with Verizon's. If you are a good customer and pay your bills on time, you can call Sprint and ask the company to unlock your microSIM so you can slip in a foreign, pre-paid SIM.
Of course, lots of people won't want to fiddle with pre-paid SIM cards. That's okay: Both Sprint and Verizon will ship their phones with a "roaming SIM" that's tied to your account with those carriers and uses the networks of their international partners. So if you take your Sprint or Verizon iPhone 4S overseas and never pop out that SIM card, it'll work just fine--you'll just pay the higher data and voice rates that come with international roaming.
Just so there's no confusion, here's Mermelstein's verbatim statement:
Sprint's policy is to have the iPhone 4S SIM locked to our network domestically and internationally. At launch, the International SIM will be unlocked. We do expect a SIM lock to be pushed to the devices shortly after launch. We will then allow existing customers in good standing to unlock the SIM for international use if needed in the future.
Customers can sign up for one of our international rate plans and use this phone all over the world. When traveling internationally, there is a setting that must be turned on within the device to connect to GSM. The phone will work with a SIM that is provided within the device out of the box. International voice and data charges are on a pay-as-you-go basis and vary based on the country where the customer is using their phone; a list of rates is available at www.sprint.com/international.
Sprint offers two international voice plans that customers can subscribe to for discounted voice rates:
The Canada Roaming add-on is $2.99 per month and all calls placed from Canada are only 20 cents per minute. Without this add-on, calls from Canada are 59 cents per minute.
The Sprint Worldwide Voice add-on is $4.99 per month and offers discounted rates in countries around the world. For example, calls from Italy are $1.69 per minute with this add-on or $1.99 per minute without the add-on; calls from Peru are $2.29 per minute with the add-on or $2.49 per minute without it.