We’re always trying our best to find the most up-to-date information on cell phones, plans and providers in South Korea. Use this guide as a start to understand how cell phone services and plans work in South Korea.
For Korea’s simplest short-term rental phones and SIMs, long-term phone lease, and medium-term SIM plans (1-24 months) check out The Arrival Store’s options. All service now includes unlimited talk, text, and data.[/note]
This guide is an updated version of one from a South Korean Reddit user who did quite a bit of research to find all of this incredibly helpful information and advice on Korean mobile operators, services, plans, smartphones, and more. If you need help understanding cell phones and plans in South Korea and/or need to get one, the Arrival Store’s Transition Experts are here to help, and it’s free! You can also just go straight to our online store and find a plan that works best for you.
Click here to check out the original post. This article updated October 2015.
1. Mobile operators
There are three major Korean mobile operators. Olleh(formerly KT), SK Telecom and LG U+(formerly LG Telecom). They provide 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks.
- 2G Voice: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 1x (currently not available)
- 2G Data: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 1x Ev-DO rev.0 (currently not available)
- 3G Voice: 2.1Ghz WCDMA
- 3G Data: 2.1Ghz WCDMA HSDPA/HSUPA/HSPA+
- 4G Voice: 1.8Ghz LTE (Only in case of VoLTE voice call)
- 4G Data: Bands 3, 8, and 26
- SK Telecom
- 2G Voice: 800Mhz CDMA2000 1x (expires on 2018)
- 2G Data: 800Mhz CDMA2000 1x RTT (expires on 2018)
- 3G Voice: 2.1Ghz WCDMA
- 3G Data: 2.1Ghz WCDMA HSDPA/HSUPA/HSPA+
- 4G Voice: 1.8Ghz/800Mhz Multi-carrier LTE (Only in case of VoLTE voice call)
- 4G Data: 1.8Ghz/800Mhz Multi-carrier LTE
- LG U+
- 2G Voice: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 1x (expires on 2018)
- 2G Data: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 1x RTT (expires on 2018)
- 3G Voice: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 1x
- 3G Data: 1.8Ghz CDMA2000 Ev-DO rev.A
- 4G Voice: 2.1Ghz/800Mhz Multi-carrier LTE (Only in case of VoLTE voice call)
- 4G Data: 2.1Ghz/800Mhz Multi-carrier LTE
Only Olleh and SK Telecom provide global 2.1Ghz 3G WCDMA frequency band. None of them provide 2G GSM network.
2. Purchasing your phone
Before we start, I’m going to mention an uncomfortable fact:
The Korean mobile phone market is seriously distorted. You can’t just buy a phone and pay it off like you can in most western countries. Here is how the Korean mobile phone market works.
- The device manufacturers sell their phones to mobile operators at a really high price called ‘출고가(original price)’.
- The mobile operators sell these overpriced phones to the customers. Because the price is abnormally high, customers do not buy the phones separately. Moreover, mobile operators and manufacturers avoid the independent retail distribution of devices, and the competition that comes with it.
- So, the customers buy their phone from the mobile operator, paying ‘할부원금(payment price)’, which is a discounted price based on a large amount ‘보조금(subsidy; same as rebate)’ from the mobile operators.
- The 출고가(original price) minus 보조금(subsidy) is the 할부원금(payment price).
- But here is the trick. Mobile operators give subsidies to each customer differently. In an offline distribution channel, like retail phone shops and stores on the street, they give customers only a limited subsidy, and conceal this by offering ‘약정 및 요금제 할인(contract-and-plan-based discount)’. in other words, customers must subscribe to an incredibly pricey plan and keep maintaining a 2-year contract in order to offset the lack of subsidy.
- But most consumers do not know they do this, and because the subsidy amount is highly flexible, they think the payment price is the important actual and real price of the phone and feel that they bought their phone ‘for free’ or ‘super cheap’.
- On the contrary, in the online distribution channel, mobile operators sell their phones at almost the maximum subsidy. Yes, it’s much cheaper, but because most Koreans hold the stereotype that buying from an online retailer is likely fraudulent and doubtful, people keep stick to buying phones from the store.
- Mobile operators earn tremendous profit from massively ignorant offline customers, and spend some of its profit on subsidizing the online distribution channel.
- Meanwhile, the government keeps regulating the mobile operator’s subsidization, rather than normalizing the market. As a result, customers must pay for overpriced phones without a rebate.
So, shopping for a phone offline is almost impossible, especially for foreigners. They’ll rip you off with complicated numbers and the language of ‘Terms And Conditions’, but sadly, there are no proper ways for foreigners to buy a phone online, because they limit those sales to native customers.
Exception: If you are going to buy an iPhone, just visit any retail phone shop or telecom store, and ask for both iPhone and subscription. iPhones are almost fixed-priced because there’s no subsidy. You can get it at almost the same price in any shop, with no rip-off.
Here’s a better deal. You can buy almost-new or good-condition used phones, and subscribe to a telecom service for your phone separately.
You can get used smartphones from here:
- Cetizen (http://market.cetizen.com)
- 중고나라 (http://cafe.naver.com/joonggonara)
- 올레 그린폰 (https://shop.olleh.com:448/weblogic/GreenPhoneSellServlet) *Certified used smartphone from Olleh
- T에코폰 (http://www.tworldshop.co.kr/handler/UsedPhoneSell-GetSktSellList#none;) *Certified used smartphone from SK Telecom
If you can’t read Korean, use Craigslist or just ask for help from your Korean friend.
3. Check this!
The word ‘가개통’ means that it’s an almost-new, used product. Not used, just unboxed.
IMPORTANT: The words ‘확정기변’, ‘완납’, ‘공기계’, ‘공기기’, ‘공단말기’ means that the phone is completely under no one’s ownership. You must buy a phone with these words.
Before paying for your phone, You must ask the seller about every limitation, lock or restriction on the phone such as 분실신고(report of stolen phone), 데이터안심차단(automatic data blocking), 휴대폰보호서비스(prevention of changing USIM) which may not recognize your USIM.
4. LG U+? no thanks
- Limited devices: LG U+ uses exclusive CDMA frequency band. It means every device manufacturer in Korea must design and produce a different product only for LG U+. It’s not attractive to manufacturers. so there are relatively few phones for LG U+ in the market, and there are no worldwide-released phone for LG U+ in Korea. The customer’s right of choice is very limited.
- Low hardware efficiency: Every smartphone needs both AP(Application Processor) and broadband chipset. AP is for operating the device, and broadband chipset is for wireless telecommunication. SK Telecom and Olleh uses WCDMA+LTE. and there are many WCDMA+LTE integrated chipsets on the market, mainly from Qualcomm. But LG U+ uses CDMA+LTE. and there’s no device for LG U+ yet which has integrated CDMA+LTE chipset. LG U+ uses seperate AP and broadband chipset, not integrated one. Integrated AP+broadband chipset means that it’s more power efficient and requires less space on the circuit. but LG U+ doesn’t, so every device for LG U+ has a relatively thicker body and higher battery consumption.
- Subscriber identification: WCDMA identifies the subscriber using USIM. All of the subscriber’s identification belongs to USIM. it means it’s not device-dependent. if your device is broken, just eject your USIM, and insert it into your new phone, then new registration of the phone is yours, hassle-free. CDMA, instead, identifies the subscriber using a special serial number inside your phone. All of the subscriber’s identification belongs to the device. This means it’s device-dependent. If your device is broken, you should visit customer centre to change the ownership of your phone. It’s inconvenient and inefficient.
So, I do not recommend you to subscribe LG U+ or buy their phones. Every information below excludes LG U+ as an option.
5. Bring your own phone to Korea
Yes you can, if your phone is unlocked and supports the 2.1Ghz 3G WCDMA network, as most modern phones now do, even those from companies (like Sprint and Verizon) that in the past used CDMA technology. Check out our article Will My Phone Work in Korea? for more details.
Most modern smart phones will work in Korea without a problem, but to avoid fringe issues, we recommend a Samsung Galaxy (Note or S), iPhone 5s or later, or recent LG phone. You can normally find factory refurbished versions of these devices at massive discounts on Amazon, EBay and Groupon.
FYI, Motorola and HTC withdrew their businesses in Korea. only some customer centres remained and no new products are available.
7. Bringing a Korean phone back to your country and using it
Yes you can, if there’s a mobile operator using 2G GSM network or 2.1Ghz 3G WCDMA network in your country. Most of the Korean smartphones support several global multiband channels.
After purchasing a contract-free used phone, you should subscribe to a mobile network service for your phone. You can choose Olleh or SK Telecom (The Arrival Store provides their service through Olleh). They’re almost the same but slightly different in rate, WiFi coverage, and membership benefits.
- Olleh: Formerly public enterprise. Far-from-perfect customer service. Relatively cheaper than SK Telecom. Largest WiFi coverage in Korea. Well-organized prepaid plan available.
- SK Telecom: Relatively good membership benefits, good customer service, slightly more expensive than Olleh.
You can subscribe to them by visiting their official telecom store, not the retail phone shops. Phone shops are for purchasing phones and subscriptions, and as wrote above, they’ll rip you off.
What you have to do is 신규가입(subscribe for a new account). Ask the clerk for it. They’ll give you some documents. Fill it in. Show them your Alien Registration Card. Pay the registration fee (24,000 won for Olleh and 39,600 won for SK Telecom) and the price of the USIM card. They’ll ask you what 요금제(plan) and 부가서비스 (add-on service) you want.
TAS SIMs and phones are available as soon as you arrive in Korea, without your having to wait for an ARC. They’re also simple, unlimited everything plans and prepaid services. Check them out here.