Extra! Korea

January 3, 2010

Can foreigners in Korea get an iPhone?

Filed under: expatriates, technology — extrakorea @ 3:32 pm

Let’s look at this article from the JoongAng Daily.

Many expats here who have tried to buy the device in Korea have been turned down at the cash register or were blocked from pre-ordering the iPhone before it went on sale. Take Robert Koehler, an American citizen who has lived in Korea for over 10 years on an E-7 visa and currently works at a publishing company. Last week, Koehler – who recently penned a guidebook in English about Korea – tried to buy an iPhone at the Apple store in Myeongdong but was turned away.

“Basically, KT has made it so that the only foreigners who can get an iPhone are either married to a Korean or are gyopo [foreigners of Korean descent and Korean emigrants],” he said. “I have lived here for a decade and pay taxes. I even wrote a book about Korea, but I can’t get a cell phone?”

If you’re married to a Korean or have a significant amount of Korean heritage, you can have an F-series visa. Can people with those get an iPhone without difficulty?

Even some foreigners who have one of the required visas are having a hard time getting their hands on the iPhone through KT. Michael Hurt, who has been in Korea for more than a decade, has an F-4 visa. Three weeks ago he tried to purchase an iPhone at several different KT booths in the Yongsan area, only to get rejected. “The people there kept saying that their computer system is denying my visa,” he said. Offended by KT’s handling of the situation, Hurt even wrote a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and posted the contents on his blog.

So they can’t get an iPhone either? But wait …

After getting denied the iPhone, Hurt was strolling around the Gildong area in eastern Seoul, spotted a KT vendor and decided to try one more time. In less than 10 minutes, he had one.

Okay, people with F-series visas can get iPhones, but how about the other foreigners? The blogger called The Chosun Bimbo (a.k.a. Stafford, who I believe is on an E-2 visa) got one. Here’s his summary:

To cut a long story short, KT Show WILL let a foreigner sign up for an iPhone but only on a 12 month contract [as opposed to a 24 month contract]. You can still get the plans they offer (in my case I’m looking at W90000/mnth for 500minutes, 300messages and 3GB of Data), but the Gotcha is that KT will only subsidise the handset to the tune of W70000, meaning you, as the foreign customer has to pay W744000 for the handset, up front, and in CASH.

[ snip ]

Come to think of it KT Show won’t give any foreigner any contract unless they have a credit card issued by a Korean bank.

Actually, the JoongAng Daily said that, too, though it’s buried in the text.

For foreigners who do not have a F-type visa, they need to pay for the device and some of the service charges up front.

[ snip ]

“Because many of the KT booths across the country are not directly run by KT, we admit there is a lack of understanding on the employees’ part when it comes to foreigner subscriptions,” said the KT official.

This sounds like the kind of treatment you get at immigration and at banks. That is, the people dealing with you don’t know the rules or don’t care, and what’s more important is what kind of mood they’re in, whether or not they had a good breakfast, whether or not they’ve gotten laid recently, etc.

If I were the president of KT, I would be annoyed with these people because:
a. Foreigners want to give me money, and these incompetent employees are standing in the way. People are always complaining about foreigners earning money here and sending it abroad. Here is a way to keep that money in Korea and they’re messing it up. And
b. These people are making Korea look more xenophobic that it really is.

Kushibo pointed out:

[I]n Apple’s home country (the USA) there are similar restrictions for foreign nationals who are not permanent residents (say, people on student visas or temporary work permits).

In fact, here in Hawaii, I have been asked by more than one student visa holder to allow them to piggyback a two-year iPhone 3Gs plan with AT&T onto my own …

But there’s a big difference between someone on a student visa and someone who has lived and worked in a country legally for more than a decade, paid taxes all of that time, wrote a book promoting said country, and edits a magazine that, again, promotes said country.

Chris in South Korea said:

While there are two different rules in place, there’s reasons for that. We are a flight risk at any time, and yes, a company does have a reason to be wary with a heavily subsidized and demanded phone.

And Stafford replied:

In the case of the KT people Mike had to deal with it’s more a case of ignorance, and putting things in the too hard basket because theirs a foreigner involved. In my case, my good name (and credit) is not being recognised because of some dumb Canadian* f**k who screwed over KT 10 years ago. (Or whatever).

Had KT turned round to Mike and said, look sorry, because you are a foreigner we can’t give you a 2 year contract but we CAN do this, this and this I’m pretty sure he would have had at least LESS of a problem.

In my case I went into KT knowing there would be no 2 year contract available and didn’t take the blanket “no” for an answer. There is always an alternative. However it seems to becoming more and more of an art to get Korea and Koreans to look for that alternative.

All good, but I have to say that yes, he’s correct about the phone companies getting screwed about ten years ago by foreigners who fled the country with huge cell phone bills. However, they were not Canadians or westerners but people from developing countries who came here to do 3-D (dirty, dangerous, and difficult/disgusting) jobs. These days, they are still treated poorly, but back then, some of them suffered horrendous injuries, such as fingers or hands cut off in industrial accidents, and the compensation that they would receive from their employers was a big, fat nothing,** so I can’t blame them too harshly for getting out of Dodge and sticking it to a place where they had experienced such exploitation. Of course, the price had to be paid by those of us who stayed or came later.

* I’m not sure why he assumes that the perpetrator is Canadian.

** There were newspaper articles, with accompanying pictures, published, but this predates the days of the widespread Internet in Korea.


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  4. But there’s a big difference between someone on a student visa and someone who has lived and worked in a country legally for more than a decade, paid taxes all of that time, wrote a book promoting said country, and edits a magazine that, again, promotes said country.

    Here is one of the inherent problems: It doesn’t matter if you’ve done all these things if you’re on a visa that must be renewed and provides no protection that you will stay for the length of the contract and pay back the subsidy for this heavily subsidized phone. Having paid taxes, having lived in the country a long time, etc., etc., doesn’t matter much. It might indicate that you will stick around longer, but there’s no guarantee. Why should they subsidize hundreds of dollars for your phone when they have no guarantee you’ll stay in the future? What if you lose your job, even after ten years in the country? Again, I think the similarities with other countries (or at least the US) are quite apt. For those who think that Korea looks xenophobic by this, I submit they are not looking too carefully at the situation for non-permanent resident foreign nationals in other countries.

    Comment by kushibo — January 11, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    • If you’ve lived and worked, legally, in a country for ten years, you’ve probably got some savings, and if you do suddenly lose your job, you’ll probably be able to settle things up before they unceremoniously throw you onto a plane heading out of Incheon airport.

      I think that you’re just trying to make excuses for your exchange student buddies, whom I thing are more of a risk than the expatriate I described above.

      Comment by extrakorea — January 12, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  5. extrakorea, getting credit in Korea (which is what obtaining a subsidized iPhone is) is not so much about how much savings you’ve got. What it’s about is a legal way for the company to get their money if you leave, which you can easily do when your term of contract ends.

    The important thing — and I think a lot of people forget this or didn’t know it in the first place — is the 신원보증, or sponsor, who is obligated to pay whatever the sponsoree does not pay, including a phone bill. (Frankly, this system falls apart for F4 visaholders, for whom they are going on the “well, perhaps their familial attachment will push them to do the right thing,” but I can see where some companies are uncomfortable with that, too.)

    And while I know plenty of people who have been in Korea for ten years who have some savings, etc., I also know a few who have been on E2 visas for ten years and have nothing to show for it (I know this from having had discussions about real estate, as I’m a proselytizer of apartment ownership for those who stay in Korea for more than a few years), and a few who, upon getting fired or not getting renewed, decided they didn’t need to fulfill any other obligations (including cell service) upon departure. This happened with a former tenant of mine, in fact, who stuck me with 300,000 won or so in utility bills.

    This is going to happen again and again and again, because the 신원보증 for your contract period does not translate into any kind of protection that ROK nationals enjoy. Apple in Korea is prudent for recognizing that, as is Apple and AT&T back in the US. What will have to be done is, perhaps, finding a way of making a 신원보증 insurance or some such that non-ROK citizens (say, with at least one year in country) can buy into to cover for such things.

    Comment by kushibo — January 12, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    • My previous reply was not well thought out. I had enjoyed delicious Korean fried chicken and beer* and hammered out that response before falling into a warm cocoon of sleep.

      Very good points, but, honestly …

      But there’s a big difference between someone on a student visa and someone who has lived and worked in a country legally for more than a decade, paid taxes all of that time, wrote a book promoting said country, and edits a magazine that, again, promotes said country.

      Are you really disagreeing with this and saying that these two people should be treated the same, even though Mr. K. has a source of income, and has established a good credit history, and the other does not/has not (yet)?

      * Daaamn I’m going to miss that if/when I leave. You can’t exactly order beer at a KFC.

      P.S. For whatever strange reason, your replies keep getting sent to the spam box, even though I had approved your previous ones. Strange.

      Comment by extrakorea — January 13, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

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