I've been updating my blog entry entitled "Using my iPhone in Israel" for over a year now, and it seems the time has come to file a separate entry instead of continually updating that single entry which started in June of 2009 (when I had an iPhone 3G) and was most recently updated in October 2010. Since that particular entry still gets lots of hits, I'll add a link to that old post and here update the curious reader.
Basically, I'm going to give up following the news on the iPhone 3G and 3GS and just stick with the iPhone 4 from here on out. Counter-intuitively, the route to success is much easier with one of those older phones, not nearly as complicated as the situation with the iPhone 4. And since the phone I now own is an iPhone 4, I see no need to monitor the situation on those older phones any longer. If you want more information on the older phones, go back to my original post.
[In fact, as of April 4, 2012, I am not going to update this entry any more. There are now numerous ways for applying an untethered jailbreak with baseband preservation for iOS 5.0.1 to the iPhone 4 & 4S (sn0wbreeze, redsn0w, absinthe), as well as unlocked iPhones available directly from Apple. There is simply nothing more to report. There are no so many practical ways to possess an unlocked iPhone 4 & 4S that I consider the matter closed. Thanks for reading.]
(NOTE: This entire post applies to the iPhone 4 supplied by AT&T and designed for use on GSM networks, with a microSIM card slot on the right side. The new iPhone 4 on Verizon works on a completely different network architecture known as CDMA and does not handle SIM cards.)
To quickly sum up my earlier post: if you want to use your US-based, AT&T Wireless-networked iPhone 4 in Israel inexpensively (not paying AT&T's international rate which is $1.99/min and $.50/SMS msg), your best bet is to unlock your phone, making it a universal GSM phone. Then, when you go to Israel purchase at a cell provider kiosk a Pay-As-You-Go GSM SIM card. For example, I use a plan provided by Orange Israel called Big Talk (here's a link to the Hebrew page). I've got my own personal phone number in Israel, which doesn't expire because of non-use. Voice and data prices are much more reasonable with a domestic PAYG card, more like $0.22/min for a domestic Israeli call and an additional $0.07 to US or Europe; SMS to Israel at $0.14 and to the US at $0.24. You can even get 3G with a data plan (please see the update below, dated July 16, 2011). Free wifi abounds, so don't worry about the Internet when in Israel. Even if you are going for a short visit, it pays to go this route.
Sounds wonderful, right? The trick is that you must unlock your iPhone 4 so it can accept a non-AT&T GSM microSIM card. And that ain't easy. Before you can unlock your iPhone, you need to jailbreak it. As I said in my previous post:
To "jailbreak" is to alter (read: increase) access to the phone's operating system and perform modifications on the phone not allowed by Apple and its monopolistic app store. To "unlock" a phone is to render the iPhone into a universal multi-band GSM phone.
Neither of these steps is easy. But be warned: avoid all the web sites claiming to unlock your phone for a fee. THEY ARE ALL SCAMS, either claiming to do something that can't be done, or charging you for something you can do yourself.
(To find out what your iOS and baseband are, go to Settings-->General-->About. Look at "Version" for your iOS and "Modem Firmware" for your baseband. Just what is a "baseband"? It's the software and separate processor that handles most matters pertaining to the phone's antenna and phone/"radio" functions.)
(See Updates below -->) Now, if your iOS on your iPhone 4 just happens to be 4.0.1 (and no higher - not even one decimal!) there is a way for you to unlock your phone and take it to Israel or anywhere else in the world, buy a local PAYG microSIM card, and have a great time paying significantly cheaper rates. Here is a link to a reliable web site with clear step-by-step guides.
Update 2 (Feb. 4 2011): Finally! It took a bit of doing and a few nerve-wracking false starts, but I was able to upgrade to iOS 4.2.1 and preserve the 01.59.00 baseband using the latest version of a program called Tinyumbrella. Then, using the jailbreaking software greenpois0n
Update 4 (April 4, 2011): And just a few days after my last update, it all arrived! This morning an untethered jailbreak which preserves baseband 01.59.00 was released. The Windows package is called Sn0wbreeze 2.5, and if your are going to preserve your 01.59.00 baseband look to this step-by-step for how to do it. I have hit a few minor snags along the way but nothing awful, no worse than any previous jailbreak. There are some issues, like the strange behavior of the signal bars which now always report out at one bar no matter how strong your phone signal might be. But a new version of ultrasn0w is in the works which will fix that trivial inconvenience. The key is this: if your iPhone 4 baseband is higher than 01.59.00 there is still no way you can unlock your phone, and if you jailbreak now, you will likely lose the possibility of unlock FOREVER! If you have been following along in my suggested path, you still have a preserved 01.59.00 baseband on your phone, and in that case you can jailbreak using sn0wbreeze. The ultrasn0w folks are working on later iPhone 4 basebands -- but the new version due to hit in a few days doesn't deal with that problem -- it's just coming to help fix some of the problems associated with the latest jailbreak of iOS 4.3.1.
(Update 5, July 16, 2011): I've been in Israel for a bit more than a week, and unlike my compatriots who were constantly searching for WiFi hotspots or paying 80 NIS per calendar day for hotel WiFi that came and went as the gods saw fit, I bought an Orange PAYG data plan for 99 NIS at a convenience store and thereby gained access to a modern 3G network at the hotel, on the bus, in an open field, and basically anywhere I placed my foot. The 99 NIS plan gave me 5 gigabytes of data stream per 30 days, which is a tremendous amount of 3G data. I could stream television or movies and still have data to spare. I probably could've bought a cheaper plan, but still I feel that given the price of hotel WiFi or the silliness of running around leeching off open networks, I did the right thing. Only problem was that after I bought the data plan at the convenience store, I discovered I needed to go to the Orange service center to trade out my old 2G SIM card for a newer model 3G micro-SIM. I couldn't do this simple act at an Orange store and therefore had to go to the Orange service center (in this case in Givat Shaul) to make the free upgrade. I also had to use the Orange over the phone menu system to add the data plan, and then reboot the phone. But as soon as I did so, I was connected - all the time and everywhere. I highly recommend this simple and elegant solution.
So just to confirm: Orange does make micro-SIMs for the Big Talk plan, and you can have both talk minutes and 3G data on your JB and unlocked iPhone4. Just don't expect the fools at the local Orange store to know a thing about it. If you don't already have a 3G card, you can get it at the service center. Period. It all works.
Two limitations: I can't get FaceTime to work on the Orange network (no surprise given the proprietary aspects of FaceTime), and I receive an error message telling me to contact Orange when I tried to create a hotspot out of my iPhone4 (that makes sense too, given the bandwidth issues of hotspotting). Other than that, I can't discern any issues.
Update 5, April 4, 2012: This might be the final update for this long-running saga. Why final? Well, first, there is an untethered jailbreak with baseband preservation available for iOS 5 & 5.0.1, released a few months ago (Look for latest version of redsn0w or sn0wbreeze if you are using an iPhone 4, absinthe if running an iPhone 4S.). Once you jailbreak, there is an unlock available, though still for no better than baseband 1.59.00.
Second, and more importantly, Apple is now officially selling both the new iPhone 4S and the older iPhone 4 in a natively unlocked state, and while it costs a lot of money (for example, an unlocked 32 GB iPhone 4 sells for a whopping $649 at the Apple Store), it is a practical solution to the unlock problem. The unlocked 32GB 4S sells for $749.