Why iPhones Should Be Off Limits For Digital Nomads

tl;dr - Apple's iPhones can only be replaced under warranty in the country where they were purchased. Officially, that takes them out of the consideration set for any digital nomad or full-time traveler without a base to call home. So don’t get into a $900 hole like I did. Here’s the story that started back in September… and remains unresolved in mid-November. #thanksapple

You know what makes a 33-hour train ride through Vietnam even longer? Getting the blue screen of death on your iPhone ten minutes into the journey.

I know… I know… The “blue screen of death” is a PC thing. How the heck was I experiencing it on an Apple-made phone? Damn fine question. The good news was that on the other end of the 33-hour train ride was a flight to Hong Kong, where four different Apple stores were within walking distance of our house sitting assignment. I’d be without a phone for a couple of days, but I could live with that. The solution was only three days away.

Spoiler: Not.

We’d arrived in Hong Kong just days before the big iPhone 6S launch. It was a Very Big Deal, as this time the “global” launch would actually cover Hong Kong. Not wanting to fight that kind of line, I made an appointment with the Genius Bar in the Causeway Bay Apple store, a beautiful three-story affair. As often happens in busy locations, they were running behind, so it was a little over an hour after my appointment when the Genius could help me. Luckily, it didn’t take him more than a few minutes to replicate the issue and diagnose the problem: a “kernel panic”, due to faulty hardware. And since the device was still under the first year warranty, the solution was simple: replace the phone!

Well, that would have been the solution had I been standing in an American Apple Store. And that would have still been the solution had I been a Hong Kong citizen standing in a Hong Kong Apple Store. But since I was presenting an “American” iPhone in a Hong Kong Apple Store, things were much more complex. International trade regulations, I was told by the quite helpful and apologetic Genius, prohibited him from simply swapping out my malfunctioning made-for-America iPhone for a shiny new made-for-Hong Kong iPhone. 

(Astute readers will note that yes, my malfunctioning iPhone 6+ was manufactured in China. And according to the map on the wall, Hong Kong is marginally in China. I pointed this out. It did not help.)

When he learned that I had no plans to return to America anytime in the foreseeable future (global travel is what I do), he went off to consult with the other Geniuses to see what could be done. After several minutes, he returned with an option. While they were unable to swap out the phone, they would be able to replace the defective parts.

The catch? The guts of my phone and specifically the parts that needed replacing were not the same parts as sold in Hong Kong phones. Hence, they would have to order the replacement parts from…? You guessed it: America. 

While this solution was sub-optimal, it wasn’t the end of the world. My phone was working in a limited-capacity mode. Some of the keys were offline much of the time, and random characters would appear as I typed, but I could live with that for a bit. The parts would take a week to arrive, but I would be in town for ten days, leaving a few days cushion. Replacing the part would take just a few minutes with no appointment needed. They’d email me when the parts arrived. Great! A working solution.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Ten days came and went. No parts. No fully working phone. Color me frustrated. So I did what any intelligent person would do: Move things up the food chain. But “the food chain” in this case was a call into the US-based Apple Support, who work US-based hours. Did I mention I was in Hong Kong? 

So at midnight my-time, I initiated what would be a 2+ hour conversation up the client support chain at Apple, culminating with Tracie Hunter, an Apple Care iOS Senior Advisor. She learned a lot about the limitations of the iPhone as a global product during our conversation. Apparently, this doesn’t come up a lot, so it’s not in the standard training. But I specialize in complex problems.

Tracie was, at this point, great. She listened to my grumbling, dutifully related unhelpful policy statements to me, and worked with me to come up with a novel solution: They -- Apple USA -- would ship me a brand new iPhone 6+ to the next country on our itinerary, Thailand.

Again, sub-optimal. Because of vagaries of shipping electronics into the kingdom of Thailand without incurring 30% duty charges ($300 for a replacement device, in this case), it took about three weeks before the phone made it to me. But it did arrive, all bright shiny and new. Even with a little power in reserve. So with the end of ghost-typing literally within my hands, I eagerly moved my local SIM card from the malfunctioning phone to the new and rebooted the device.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: SIM CARD NOT VALID!

Now, mind you, that so-called invalid SIM card was working perfectly fine in the malfunctioning iPhone. So I switched to my Hong Kong SIM card. Same message. Let’s try the Vietnam SIM card. Same message. OK, let’s try the old US-based SIM card. Success! Well, only until that SIM card is removed. Even once “activated” on the US SIM, local SIM cards again cause the same SIM CARD NOT VALID screen to appear. Without any option to cancel or proceed. Local cards revert the bright and shiny new iPhone 6+ to little more than a paperweight. It wouldn’t even work as a wifi-only device. No dice.

That begat another late-night call to Tracie, this time from Bangkok, who once again worked diligently to try and trouble-shoot the issue. It took her some time to understand that the SIM cards were not the problem. Again, they could NOT have been the problem, as they worked perfectly fine in my old phone. But not in the new one, which I was beginning to suspect may be locked. Unlike my old phone, which was obviously unlocked or those local cards would not work, right?

It was after this that Tracie’s reliability started to slip. She’d fail to email back when she said she would. She’d take longer to return my calls. I got the genuine feeling that she wasn’t getting the support she needed at Apple, and was really hoping I just drop the whole thing.

Not likely.

As luck would have it, I was traveling to Australia in just a few more days. So I kept coaxing my malfunctioning phone to doing what I need it to do while I waited to arrive in a country with another Apple store. So I bought a new Australian-based SIM card, installed it on my tweaking phone, and took it with me to my appointment at the Bondi Junction Apple Store. 

Again, a very nice Genius tried her best to help me. But as you probably guessed, the new local SIM card once again bricked the phone. She did, however, get to the root of the problem: it wasn’t locked. But remember those “international trade” regulations from earlier? Turns out that the phone MUST FIRST be activated in America. After that, it’ll work anywhere. In theory.

The pisser? Apple blew a chance to tell me that. The phone was in my son's hands in the States. He could have activated the phone with his SIM card while in his possession before shipping it off to me. But he didn’t, because an Apple Care iOS Senior Advisor failed to identify this necessity. Because the iPhone is not, as I was beginning to understand with all-too-much clarity, not a global product.

And I can’t count on a theory. The malfunctioning phone continues to deteriorate, so I was forced to purchase a new working smartphone in Sydney. No, it wasn’t an iPhone. Any iPhone purchased in Australia would only be covered under Apple’s warranty in Australia, and I’m not settling here. Or anywhere else for that matter. I’m a digital nomad, a traveler without a home base. I need products that function for me in that capacity. The iPhone, sadly, isn’t one of those.

So now I’m traveling the world with three phones: A mostly broken iPhone 6+, a brand new but completely non-functioning iPhone 6+, and a cheap Android that, when (not if) it malfunctions, I’ll just toss out and get a new one. Because it didn’t cost me $900.

Oh, and I’ve got Tracie, an Apple Care iOS Senior Advisor that’s dodging my calls and emails, who has already charged me for a phone that doesn't work, who won't send me any information on returning the malfunctioning or homesick devices, and who isn’t getting a Christmas card from me anytime soon.

Now with all of that, do I hate Apple? No, I don’t. I’m typing this on my MacBook pro. When we were in that Sydney store, Sheila upgraded her iPad. We’re still Apple people. But until Apple -- a global company -- figures out how to make a globally-warrantable phone, I’ll stick with the lesser products. 

Let my story of woe be your tale of caution. iPhones are officially off the table for digital nomads and those of us who travel full-time. Boo, Apple. You owe me some money.