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How do I set up a cell phone in Korea?

You have four options for phones in Korea. Here is an overview of your options: 

1. Korean SIM Cards. Until very recently, it was not possible to get a SIM card the day you landed in Korea, and not all cell phones were able to be hooked up to Korean networks. You can now bring over your own phone and insert a compatible SIM card into your device. In order to set up your phone on a contract plan, you will have to wait until you have your ARC and bank account set up, and then you can keep your same phone number with your Korean cellular provider. Your phone must be factory unlocked (ask your carrier at home before you leave) and support 2.1Ghz 3G WCDMA network. KT has set up a pretty informative expat services blog here. Please note that it usually takes 2-4 business days to get a SIM Card set up with a local provider in Korea.

2. Rent a phone at the airport. This can be a good short term solution if you need something while you wait for your Alien Resident Card (ARC), which takes anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks to receive. Rental phones are typically not a good long-term option as they get expensive very quickly.

3. Get a prepaid phone from a local convenience mart. Prepaid phone plans are available at certain phone shops in Korea, but still require an ARC card. You’ll probably need to find or buy a used phone instead of paying off-the-shelf prices (₩180,000 or more) for a new phone. These phones are typically more inconvenient as minutes must be purchased at a cell phone store or local convenience mart and lack many of the common features you’re used to like caller ID, missed call alerts, etc. Secondhand phones can also be aggravating, as one never knows the condition of the phone until you start using it and repairs are tough to come by. Still, they are often the least expensive option out there.

4. Sign up for a 2 year phone plan. Offering some of the cheapest monthly rates, if you’re going to be in Korea for at least 2 years than this is the option you’ll want to go with. You’ll have to have your ARC and bank account set up before you can sign a phone contract, but that’s why they have Rental Phones or Prepaid SIM cards. If you decide leave the contract early, you’ll get dinged at least ₩500,000₩.