“Hey, are you getting Wi-Fi?”
“No. I’m just using my free international mobile internet connection that lets me travel all over the world and prance around on the internet all day long at no extra charge.”
For many years I spurned the technological advances of international smartphone travel, paranoid as I was that I’d lose my potentially-most-precious possession, and ferociously irritated at the prospect of having to jump through all the spiked and flaming hoops required to accomplish this should-be-simple task.
Sure, there are plenty of ways to use smartphones abroad, but all of them suck. You might as well just disappear off the grid and never call anyone ever.
The two stupid options for international phone roaming
- You could buy a local SIM card for each and every country you visit to make the calls local and cheap (or buy a regional one that’ll cover a few countries at a time), but then you’re stuck with the nonsensical hassle of having to carry a bunch of easily-losable, easily-breakable, and utterly tiny little SIM cards from each and every region you visit, all of which will be loaded with a certain amount of call credit (AKA money) which you may or may not ever use after you leave the country. And what if someone has only your new phone number, and none of your other dozen?
- The clearly superior alternative would be to get a global SIM card, which allows you run around all over the planet without swapping out the cards every time you cross a border. Sadly, this option is stupid too. Some global SIM cards actually give you two different phone numbers (one for Western countries and another for everything else), and the data plans are often so obscenely expensive that you probably won’t even bother using them anyway, except in emergency circumstances. Phone calls and text messages are usually cheap enough to be usable (though not enough for an actual conversation), but watching a couple Youtube videos could actually cost you hundreds of dollars. You can get free phone calls and texts with apps like Viber, but only if the other person has the same exact free-phone-call app as you. Which is also stupid, because they should just all band together dammit!
- I won’t even bother going into detail regarding the option of using your home carrier’s international roaming options, because that could rack up a bill of thousands of dollars.
Obviously I just never bothered using my phone internationally. Internet cafés are cheap, and email has no roaming charges. If I needed to call someone, I borrowed a local phone. If someone needed to call me, I just said no.
But you know what finally convinced me? Getting it all for free.
I know. Shocking, right?
The one and only good solution:
Switch to T-Mobile. Yes, it’s just that simple.
T-Mobile is one of the smaller carriers in the United States, and in an effort to win over new customers, they have enacted the daringly outlandish strategy of actually giving customers exactly what they want.
They’ve been at it for quite some time, periodically announcing new perks that are rolled out to customers at no extra charge beyond the $50-plus-tax per month of their standard plan.
All these have been great, but their greatest bit of bribery is that you can travel to over 120 countries and use local cell phone networks…without switching out dozens of SIM cards…and without incurring ridiculous roaming fees…at no extra charge.
Which is exactly how it should be dammit.
Important fine print: This is a US-based company (or rather, the US-based branch of a German company, or whatever the ownership situation is at the moment), so it is only for Americans, and not intended for extended use; it’s intended for people who live in the US, and travel outside the country occasionally. They say it’s intended for trips of maybe a month, but I expect you could get away with it for two or three months if you only use it sparingly. Permanent nomads or gap-year kids are better off buying a global SIM card and hopping on free Wi-Fi whenever possible.
But if you’re one of the applicable people, T-Mobile’s international roaming plan gives you:
- Calls: $0.20/minute
- Texts: Free
- Data: Free
Yes, internet usage is free. All day, every day.
Do you have any idea how useful it is to walk off a bus at 4 in the morning with no one in sight who speaks any language of yours in the middle of a snowy winter with below-freezing temperatures and biting winds and blinding fog and no idea where you are and then opening the map on your phone and knowing exactly where to go? Because I sure do.
Damn you, Caserta. Damn you and your improperly labelled road signs and sniper-filled military bases straight to the fiery pits of Dante’s Inferno.
The slight(ish) downside
It’s slow. It says it’s 3G, but it’s slower than any 3G I’ve ever seen. Then again, it may have been because I was in Guatemala (that’s where I’ve gotten a chance to test it), and maybe it’s just slow there. It was fast enough for streaming music (sometimes), but not video.
But in a way, it’s actually perfect. You could pay extra for high-speed plans, but when you’re limited on slower networks, all you ever do with your phone is basic communication: Texting with friends and family, catching up on the news, checking email, and figuring out where the hell you are. Useful stuff, rather than waste-time-watching-cat-videos-all-day stuff.
Obviously you can speed this up by jumping on Wi-Fi networks wherever they’re available, but staying on cell phone networks allows you to avoid the potential nuisance of hacked Wi-Fi, and the nuisance of having to type in a long password of letters and numbers and getting it wrong half a dozen times.
Occasionally the 3G connection would drop, and I would have to reconnect once in a while by switching into airplane mode and back, but it was just a minor hassle which the price tag of zero mitigated quite thoroughly.
Oh, and at the moment you’re limited to 120 countries, leaving about 80 outside the plan (many of which are in Africa), but chances are it’ll work just fine where you’re going, as the coverage is more likely to be in highly-visited countries.
I mean…it’s just great.
How to get free international roaming on other carriers
Complain all day, every day. Loudly. Angrily. Vengefully.
Because you know what? It’s just this easy. One of the smallest carriers in the US just decided one day to say “You know what? Let’s let all our customers use their phones all over the world for free.” And they did it. That’s how easy it is. You think the larger carriers with even more oceanic cash reserves can’t handle the same thing?
So although a few years ago it may have been challenging to tell AT&T or Verizon that their plans were stupid and you wanted better service, now the argument is indisputable. Whenever they roll out their nonsensical when-in-public blathering of “We have competitively priced plans for serving our customers as best as possible,” you’ll have the ready-to-go retaliation of “T-Mobile gives everyone free international data roaming at no extra charge. Why don’t you?”
And in your heart, you’ll know…it’s because they suck.
Shame them. Shame them deeply! It’s the only way they’ll learn.
Or just switch to someone else. They’ll learn even quicker.