Ask Maggie is back! Which iPhone 5 is right for you?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon assesses which version of the iPhone 5 is best for international travelers, and she offers advice about ditching AT&T for Verizon's iPhone 5.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
11 min read

The iPhone 5 is finally here, but figuring out which carrier version is right for you isn't as easy it sounds.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help one reader who plans on taking his iPhone abroad decide which device is best for him. And I offer my opinion on whether to dump AT&T for Verizon's version of the iPhone 5.

Also, I want to thank all my Ask Maggie readers for their patience while I was away. After a three-week hiatus, I am back. I'm still working through the many questions I received while I was gone, so if you haven't yet heard from me, please be patient. I will try to answer as many questions in the column or by e-mail as I can!

Which iPhone 5 is best for the international traveler?

Dear Maggie,

I am an American that lives overseas and I want to use an iPhone 5 overseas (and in the U.S. when I visit). Basically I want to know if I should buy an iPhone 5 without a plan from a carrier or if I should buy an unlocked iPhone 5 without a plan from Apple. Does an unlocked iPhone 5 mean that it works all over the world and on any U.S. network (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint)? Or does it still have restrictions between networks (AT&T and Verizon, etc.)? If an unlocked iPhone 5 does have restrictions, then should I buy the Verizon iPhone 5 because it will work on AT&T also? Your quick response is really appreciated because I am returning to the U.S. next week to hopefully buy a phone.


Dear David,

The addition of 4G LTE into the iPhone 5 has made things a bit more complicated, especially for international travelers such as yourself. I'm afraid there's no easy answer for you.

Anthony Fitch holds the first iPhone 5 sold in Paris Apple stores. He waited in line about 40 hours to get the phone.
Anthony Fitch holds the first iPhone 5 sold in Paris Apple stores. He waited in line about 40 hours to get the phone. Stephen Shankland/CNET

LTE is one of the reasons to upgrade to the iPhone 5 if you're already an iPhone user. As Google Android users can tell you, LTE is much faster than 3G. Once you experience the speed of LTE, you won't want to go back to regular 3G wireless service.

U.S. carriers have been leading the charge on 4G LTE deployments. AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint have each begun deploying their LTE networks. The good news is that carriers throughout the world are upgrading to this network technology, which will provide true broadband speeds on mobile devices like the iPhone. In fact there are nearly 300 carriers either operating, building, or planning to build an LTE network. But the bad news is that the frequencies these carriers plan to use are different from the frequencies U.S. carriers are using to build their LTE networks. Currently, there are at least 10 different LTE bands that have been identified for use.

Building a single device with all the necessary combinations of LTE radio frequency band support is impossible at this point. That said, Apple has done what other phone manufacturers have so far failed to do. The company has tried to pack various flavors of LTE into its devices in an effort to limit the number of different devices it has to manufacture. This is good for consumers, because it means there's a chance that in the future you'll be able to access 4G in the U.S. as well as abroad.

I say this is for the future because today none of the U.S. carriers offering 4G LTE will allow customers to roam onto foreign LTE networks. But that will likely change as more LTE networks are built throughout the world. The trick for you and other iPhone users is selecting the device today that may support the right LTE bands for your travels.

But here's where things get tricky. The iPhone 5 comes in three different flavors. And according to Apple's specifications they each support a list of 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies including different bands of LTE. There could be support for more bands built into each of these phones, but the ones I will be discussing here are the ones that Apple has indicated on its spec sheet.

AT&T version: GSM model A1428*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850; 900; 1,900; 2,100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850; 900; 1,800; 1,900 MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17)

Verizon Wireless/Sprint Nextel CDMA model A1429*: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800; 1,900; 2,100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850; 900; 1,900; 2,100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850; 900; 1,800; 1,900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25)

International GSM version-intended for Germany, the U.K., South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong: GSM model A1429*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850; 900; 1,900; 2,100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850; 900; 1,800; 1,900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5)

If your only expectation is to get 2G or 3G access on your iPhone 5 when you're traveling, then it doesn't really matter which iPhone 5 you buy, so long as it's unlocked, so that you can put another carrier's SIM card in the device when you travel to a different country. All three of these devices when they are unlocked will be able to access a 2G/3G network in most countries around the world. And the CDMA version made for Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel will also access other CDMA networks around the world, such as KDDI in Japan.

But if you want to be able to access 4G LTE wherever you go, the answer is trickier. And the truth is that none of the models offered by Apple will work on all LTE networks that are being established throughout the world. This means that you may want to pick the one that offers you the most options.

Apple's technical specs for the CDMA version of the iPhone (Model A1429, which is designed for Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and KDDI in Japan supports several 2G and 3G technologies and allows devices to roam from CDMA networks to GSM 2G and 3G networks. And it offers five LTE bands, including LTE Bands 1, 3, 5, 13 and 25.

Verizon uses LTE Band 13 for LTE, and Sprint uses Bands 5 and 25 for its LTE service. But this version of the iPhone 5 also supports LTE Band 3, which is already used in Australia for Telstra's LTE network. Band 3, which includes the frequencies around 1,800MHz, is also expected to be used in many other countries, especially in Europe. Band 1 is used in some parts of Asia.

That said, none of the different variations of the iPhone 5 support LTE bands in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies, which are frequencies also expected to be popular for LTE deployments in Europe.

Apple's international GSM version of the iPhone looks identical to the CDMA version used for Verizon and Sprint. But it seems to lack the CDMA and EV-DO capability.

The AT&T version, which also is designed for several carriers in Canada, lacks CDMA and EV-DO support. But it also seems to lack some of the key international frequencies for LTE. Apple lists it only as supporting Bands 4 and 17, which are both bands that AT&T currently uses.

So what does all of this mean for you? I would suggest that you do not buy an iPhone 5 on a contract with a U.S. carrier. Since you live in another country and travel to the U.S. periodically, it doesn't make sense for you to be locked into a U.S. cell phone contract.

If you buy an iPhone from any of the carriers in the U.S. under contract, then you're obligated to pay for that service for two years. Roaming internationally is very expensive, and it would simply cost too much for you to constantly roam internationally. You could buy an iPhone under contract in the country where you will spend most of your time, but as I will explain later, that will likely mean that you won't be able to access the LTE networks of AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint when you're traveling in the U.S.

Also, if you are still under contract with AT&T, the carrier won't let you unlock your iPhone 5 for international use.

That's why it's better to buy a device at full price. So which version of the iPhone 5 should you buy? I'd suggest buying the unlocked version of the Verizon iPhone 5. Here's why: For one, the Verizon iPhone 5 can be purchased at full price and it's unlocked right out of the box. Also, Verizon's version of the iPhone 5 supports its own 4G LTE network in the U.S. and it will support LTE in other parts of the world, such as Europe. This means that you should be able to slip in a SIM card from another carrier that uses bands 1 or 3 for LTE, and you should be able to get service on that iPhone 5 at LTE speeds. So if you live in a place where Band 1 or 3 is being used, you could still get those faster speeds overseas, while also being able to get 4G LTE at home on Verizon's network.

The international version of the iPhone 5 also supports the international LTE bands, but it doesn't support Verizon's or Sprint's 4G LTE network. Remember this is the GSM version of the device, which means it can't operate on any of Verizon's or Sprint's networks. But because it also doesn't support AT&T's flavor of LTE, you can't get 4G LTE access on this device in the U.S.

To make sure I answered your questions, here's a summary:

Should I get an iPhone 5 under contract or unlocked without a contract?

If you plan to spend the majority of your time outside the U.S. I would buy an unlocked iPhone 5 without a contract. You don't want to be saddled with paying a two-year contract to a U.S. carrier if you're spending most of your time overseas.

Does an unlocked iPhone 5 mean that it works all over the world and on any U.S. network (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint)?

The short answer to this question is no. I explained why above.

Does The iPhone 5 still have restrictions between networks (AT&T and Verizon, etc.)?

The short answer is yes. Even an unlocked iPhone from Verizon still won't work on Sprint, and vice versa. The hardware may be the same, but the devices are locked on the CDMA network to a specific carrier. Verizon's iPhone 5 is unlocked for international use, which means you can pop in a SIM card from a GSM carrier and use it. This also means it's unlocked for use on AT&T or T-Mobile's GSM networks.

If an unlocked iPhone 5 does have restrictions, then should I buy the Verizon iPhone 5 because it will work on AT&T also?

While it's true that the Verizon version of the iPhone 5 is unlocked and can operate on AT&T, it won't access AT&T's 4G LTE network. As I mentioned above, AT&T uses bands 4 and 17 for LTE, and Verizon uses band 13. The Verizon version of the iPhone 5 does not support the same band of LTE as AT&T. So Verizon iPhone 5 users who put an AT&T SIM card into their devices will get access only to AT&T's 2G and 3G services.

I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Ditch AT&T for Verizon iPhone 5?

Dear Maggie,

I am currently an AT&T customer. I am planning to get the new iPhone 5, and I'm considering switching to Verizon. The reason why is that I hate AT&T's 3G network. But I know the iPhone 5 operates on a 4G network, so maybe it wouldn't matter. Also, I'm nervous about giving up my unlimited data plan on AT&T. What should I do?


Dear Undecided,

You are in the exact same situation that I am in right now. And I have decided to ditch AT&T for the iPhone 5 on Verizon Wireless.

Here's why: Like you, I have been frustrated by AT&T's 3G wireless service. Downloads on the 3G network are slow, I sometimes don't even bother accessing the Internet when I'm outside of a Wi-Fi hot spot. I live in New York City and I've always been plagued with spotty voice service throughout the city. I've noticed recently that phone service has gotten even worse for me. And my calls are dropped often.

That said, I have used other 4G LTE devices on AT&T's network. This summer I had the pleasure of using the Samsung Galaxy S3 on AT&T for a few weeks. The speeds were incredible. In fact, there are some people who say that AT&T's LTE speeds are even faster than Verizon's LTE network. This may be true in certain instances.

But you have to remember that AT&T's network is still only lightly loaded. (That's also true of Verizon's LTE network.) Over time, as more people get on the network, performance is likely to degrade. But more than that, I think the real problem with AT&T's network is its footprint.

At the end of of the second quarter of 2012, Verizon covered 230 million potential customers in 337 markets with its LTE network. This is more than all the other carriers building LTE combined. By the end of the year, Verizon expects to cover about 260 million people in more than 400 markets. By contrast, AT&T's LTE network covers only about 80 million people in the U.S. today, and it will add only another 70 million by the end of the year.

Both carriers offer 4G LTE where I live and work in New York City. But I travel often, and the fact that Verizon's network is so much bigger means it's more likely that I will have 4G LTE access on Verizon's network when I leave NYC than if I keep AT&T's service.

Some people say they are bothered by the fact that Verizon's iPhone 5 can't do voice and data at the same time. But for me that's not issue. I've never needed to be talking and accessing the Internet at the same time on my phone. Maybe I am just not a very good multitasker.

And as I mentioned in the answer above, I think the Verizon version of the iPhone 5 is better suited for international use. Since I travel internationally from time to time, I like the flexibility of being able to pop in a SIM card from a foreign carrier when I travel and if LTE is available, having at least some chance of accessing it.

But like you, I am nervous about giving up the unlimited data plan. I know I have said a million times in this column that most people, including me, don't need unlimited data. But like many of my readers it's a hard psychological hurdle to get over. What if I suddenly need that unlimited data plan because LTE is so fast that I am downloading everything in sight? Given that my monthly usage is typically under 1GB, I doubt that particular worry is really justified. So I plan to say goodbye to AT&T and all those dropped calls as soon as I can get myself to an Apple or Verizon store to make the switch.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.