Editor’s note: A day after we published this story, Apple removed a footnote from its press release saying that the iPhone 14 Plus would be released in Colombia on October 28. When we reached for comment, Adriana Huerta, Apple’s head of corporate communications in the region, said the company had no additional information to add to what it had said earlier this summer. In a statement, Apple had said that the court decision based on a Colombian patent claim was unfair and that it had appealed the decision.
In a small footnote in a recent press release, Apple announced it would release the iPhone 14 Plus in Colombia later this month. The problem was, the iPhone 14 has been banned in Colombia since its launch, due to Apple’s ongoing litigation with Swedish telecommunications company, Ericsson, around 5G networks. Carlos Olarte, Ericsson’s attorney in Colombia, was unaware of the announcement when Rest of World reached out. “I suspect it’s a mistake,” he said, underscoring that such a course of action would directly violate the ban.
In July, a judge banned the importation and sale of any of Apple’s 5G devices after Ericsson filed a patent lawsuit against Apple in Colombia and many other countries. Ericsson wants Apple to pay for the use of its patented 5G technologies, though the network has yet to be deployed in the country. Its asking price is a $5 fee per iPhone, but Apple has refused to pay. So far, Colombia is the only country to have banned Apple’s 5G devices as a precautionary measure until a final verdict is reached.
Rest of World reached out to Apple for comment but received no response. The press release announcing the launch of the iPhone 14 Plus in Colombia on October 28 was still up at the time of publishing.
In its lawsuit against Apple, Ericsson claimed that Colombia only “account[s] for approximately 0.2% of Apple’s worldwide sales.” Still, the Swedish telecomms giant insists on litigating in Colombia because it is a “precautionary measure that sends a very important message in the [legal] negotiations,” Olarte told Rest of World. “If you do the math, it is still a huge number.”
When the latest iPhone launched globally in September, Colombians weren’t able to find it at Apple-licensed stores, big-gadget retailers or carriers. The remaining option was to purchase one on the black market. Buyers and sellers told Rest of World that brick-and-mortar stores manage to get the phones into Colombia through a trickle of highly paid smugglers. Some vendors pay U.S.-bound Colombians a smuggling fee of up to $300 per phone to stow them away in their luggage. The vendors that Rest of World spoke to claim the higher prices are the cost of the risk they’re taking, which leaves customers paying far more and worried that their new iPhones might not even work on the Colombian telecomms network.
“People will travel to the U.S. and offer my bosses to bring back phones,” a clerk from Thania Cel, a small phone shop in Bogotá that promotes the iPhone 14 on Instagram, told Rest of World. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being singled out by authorities.
A clerk from another phone store in Bogotá, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Rest of World that some smugglers — often just ordinary passengers interested in the smuggling fee paid by shop owners — had been asked by customs agents at the airport if they were carrying an iPhone 14, during the usual border checks. The clerk told Rest of World none of the smugglers who work for the store have had phones confiscated by the authorities.
Uncertainty about the risks surrounding these phones is used to justify high prices. The phone’s base model is listed at $799 on the Apple website, but it cost 36% more at a Colombian store — almost 5 million pesos (around $1,084). Uncertainty also means that prices vary a lot between stores: one store can charge up to 600,000 pesos (around $130) more than another for the same model.
Meanwhile, Apple has appealed the decision and, in the hopes of a different ruling this time around, has obtained a certification for the iPhone 14 from the Colombian telecommunications regulator — a process companies carry out before they put phones on the market.
While the legal technicalities of the case go on, people continue to buy and sell iPhones across Colombia. Yet, even if the economic risk of smuggling falls almost entirely on the vendor, buyers must still contend with the worry that their costly new iPhones will not work or will not be serviced if something goes wrong.
“The ban also means we can’t import devices for spare parts,” a technician from an authorized repair shop told Rest of World, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were sharing confidential information.
The clerk at Thania Cel assured Rest of World that the U.S. warranty still applies, though a customer would have to wait a long while to get it serviced a continent away.
Once this banned device is sold, the power dynamic switches, as buyers become entirely dependent on those who sold their iPhone to them. When asked how best to get a new Apple phone fixed in Colombia, one vendor opted to give Rest of World an ambiguous response: “If you have issues with your iPhone 14, just bring it to me. I’ll deal with it.”