Activating your iPhone 3G: What you need to know

No, it's not a lot of fun standing in line for three-and-a-half hours to buy and activate an iPhone 3G. But I'm not here to recount Friday's ordeal or pile on about the activation snags that marked the global roll-out of Apple's latest iPhone.

Rather, I would like to talk to you--the gentle, discriminating and (as it turns out) exceedingly wise reader who decided to wait for the hoopla of the July 11 iPhone release to die down before buying your 3G phone. Even though you may not have to contend with the crowds, you'll still have to face in-store activation for the iPhone 3G--a change from last year's iPhone launch when you could buy the phone, take it home, and activate it at your leisure. I'd like to talk to you about how the process works--what you'll need, what to expect, and what to do if things go as horribly wrong as they did for me on Friday.

What you'll need

Apple sent out an e-mail earlier this week in advance of the iPhone launch detailing what you need to bring to the store. Those items include:

A credit card: Apple won't let you use cash to buy an iPhone, though on at the store I was at Friday, you could use cash to pay for a gift card, which you could then turn around and use to buy a phone.

A social security number: I assume this is used to run a credit check, a standard practice when you sign up for a mobile phone plan.

A photo ID: Any drivers license, state ID card, or other government-issued form of identification will do.

Your current wireless account number and password: If you're a new customer, that is.

If you've got a corporate account and plan to use your iPhone through that, you'll need to go to an AT&T outlet to pick up an iPhone 3G--not an Apple Store. A few people in line with me Friday made that mistake, and it's not fun to be re-directed to a new location after you've waited your turn in line.

Wondering about iPhone 3G availability at your local Apple Store? As it did last year, Apple shows the availability of each of its stores on its Web site, using a color-coded system of green and red dots to say if a store does or doesn't have phones in stock. The page is updated after 9 p.m. each night to show next-day availability. Plan your shopping accordingly.

What to expect

So you're at the Apple Store now--what happens then?

In my case, as soon as I entered the store, a woman was asking the people ahead of me their first names, and then introducing them to their personal store employees as they became available to help the next customer. When it was my turn, I followed an employee in a blue shirt further into the store, where he asked me what I was looking for in the way of iPhone goodness. I told him I wanted a 16GB white model, and he went into the back to retrieve one. He came back a minute later with a lovely box. That's when the fun really started.

I took a seat on a stool (which felt good after hours of standing in line), while the employee--Apple calls them specialists--asked what rate plan I was interested in. I told him what I wanted and didn't want (no monthly text messaging plan, for example), and he produced the handheld device that store employees use to speed up regular purchases in the Apple Store.

The specialist punched in a few things on his handheld and informed me that my iPhone would cost $499. I politely corrected him that the price should be $299, since I'm a current iPhone user. After a few more taps, he said that must be the price before the promotion, and that it would end up at $299. I mention this in case you're quoted a price that doesn't sound right--Apple is touting the $199 and $299 prices for its 8GB and 16GB phones and while most people qualify for those prices, some do not.

An Apple Store specialist works at activating an iPhone 3G Friday at the Stonestown Apple Store in San Francisco.Back to the activation process: the specialist asked me for my name, e-mail address, current AT&T phone number, billing zip code, and the last four digits of my social security number. After a minute or so, he informed me that there was an error and that I might have to go to an AT&T store to activate my phone. I was having none of it, so he went to talk to one of the orange-shirted employees. This other person got on the phone with AT&T, found out that there was some kind of business discount (one that I'd never heard of) listed on my account, which was causing the problem. After passing along my name, wireless phone number, and those SSN digits, the person on the other end of the phone forced something through and corrected the issue. After transferring my account over, I produced that ever-important credit card to pay for the iPhone. Because I was already with AT&T, my billing information just stayed the same on their end, and I wasn't required to give them my address or anything.

At that point, the specialist took me over to one of the MacBooks in the store to activate the phone through iTunes. We opened the iPhone box and he let me take it out, remove the protective plastic, and connect it to the 30-pin USB cable coming out of the MacBook. I did so and then... I waited. And waited. As iTunes tried to connect to the activation server, it timed out with an error message. Three times. At that point, the specialist told me I should just take the phone home and activate it through iTunes there. So much for in-store activation, I guess.

Presumably, the server issues bedeviling Apple will be fixed sooner rather than later and your activation will go through. If it doesn't, I can share how I got my iPhone up and running, which I will in just a bit.

But first, let's talk about what happens if you're a new customer buying an iPhone for the first time. Macworld Art Director Rob Schultz is such a person, and his experience at the Apple Store in Corte Madera largely mirrors mine (with decidedly fewer activation hassles.)

Like me, Rob was greeted at the door by a salesperson. Unlike me, Rob told the salesperson that he wanted to transfer his number from an existing account with another wireless carrier. The process of handing over name and billing information was much the same, only Rob supplied his existing phone number and account number from his current wireless provider.

And that was that. The specialist told Rob that he could either wait in a 10-to-15-minute line where another sales associate would help him activate the iPhone 3G, or he could take the phone home and do it himself. Rob went for the latter option and was out of the store in 15 minutes.

The lucky stiff.

What to do if things go wrong

Let's say you walk out of the Apple Store with an un-activated iPhone 3G--what do you do next? Here's what worked for me.

When I got home, I did a last sync of my old iPhone, then connected the new iPhone to iTunes. After 30 seconds or so of the same result from the Apple Store, it led me through the activation process. I put in my Apple ID, confirmed the registration information it already knew, and picked to restore the new iPhone from a backup of the previous one.

After a lengthy restore process (and even lengthier process of copying all my media files over) my phone was up and running. As part of the restore, I lost saved passwords for e-mail, Wi-Fi, and others. The AIM app I'd installed on my original iPhone with updated 2.0 software deleted itself for no good reason that I could tell. And even though iTunes copied my contacts, calendars, and bookmarks over to the new phone, it didn't have anything checked in the Info pane when connected to the iPhone 3G, so I had to reselect which items I wanted to sync. Then I overwrote the phone with my desktop data just to make sure I was starting with a clean set of information. But otherwise, all my other apps and settings came over pretty cleanly.

So now I have a working iPhone 3G--and an old iPhone which, as my colleague Dan Moren points out, is essentially an iPod touch. In other words, it has the playback and Web browsing and Mail (over Wi-Fi) features of an iPhone but not the calling capabilities. And someone who wants an iPhone, but doesn't care about GPS or 3G, can activate it as phone to live another life.

Art Director Rob Schultz contributed to this article.

[Jonathan Seff is Macworld's senior news editor and looking forward to a weekend where he isn't standing in line anywhere.]

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This story, "Activating your iPhone 3G: What you need to know" was originally published by Macworld.

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