Why every international traveler should switch to T-Mobile immediately

“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.”

“…What?”

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

Rock and hard place road sign
I wish all those “how to use your phone abroad” articles gave fair warning that it was going to be stupid.
  1. 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?
  2. 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!
  3. 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

Slow tortoise
“Hey, at least I beat Achilles.” (photo by Adrian Pingstone)

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

Angry Carl Fredricksen
“Don’t make me fly over there.”

Complain.

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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

34 Comments on “Why every international traveler should switch to T-Mobile immediately”

  1. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to travel International much lately but I do plan on it next year and have only done minimal research on what the best mobile phone setup would be that wouldn’t break the bank. As you hint to above, it isn’t so much the voice calling aspect of a plan but the data access so that you can use things like your phone’s mapping apps and what not.

    I had no idea that T-Mobile offered such a great deal and will definitely look into them when I said out into the world. The free data coupled with a free voice app like the new Google Hangouts Dialer app means that you could avoid the 20 cents/minute voice charges all together making for a pretty sweet deal.

  2. Interesting timing. We’re just starting to look for phone options for a semi-RTW trip hopefully starting next year. That T-Mobile plan looks great, except that when something seems too good to be true, it’s usually because it is. From T-Mobile’s website, the proverbial (and literal) small print at the bottom:

    “Not for extended international use; you must reside in the U.S. and primary usage must occur on our U.S. network. Device must register on our U.S. network before international use. Service may be terminated or restricted for excessive roaming or misuse.”

    I take this to mean that if you go out of the country on occasion, but mainly use your phone at home in the US, you’re fine. But if you’re out in the world all the time and rarely come back to the US, then that could be a problem.

    Check out this post and comments section, where we learned about the “catches”:

    http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/t-mobile-for-travelers/

  3. I’m currently on a rtw trip and investigated the great T-mobile program prior to leaving.
    After speaking with supervisors at T-mobile they said it is only intended for trips of 1 month or less. It’s in the fine print at the bottom of promotions.
    It is a great program and a step in the right direction but, unfortunately, not meant for long term travel.
    If anyone hears about a change in this program please let me know!
    Mahalo and happy travels!

  4. I am glad you found a carrier which benefits your needs. But let’s just say we agree to disagree. To me, Everything T-Mobile does is a cleaver marketing ployed. From their reworded no contract advertisements to their supposedly cheaper plans, T-mobile is much more expensive than my current AT&T. 3G is quite useless and too slow for me when traveling, something I much rather pay only 30-60 dollars more for 4G and LTE service abroad. Although I do like TM’s free texting, But it’s not worth the extra $1000+ more every 4 years. But everyone is different, I just hope people actually do their own research and patiently add up the math themselves especially those who upgrades their phone every 2 years. T-mobile is def. not for me!

    1. Um…extra $1000? AT&T’s current individual plan is $65/month and T-Mobile’s is pretty much the same thing for $50. Except with free roaming. And in either case, you can pay to use 4G abroad, but at least T-Mobile gives you the additional option of paying zero if you don’t mind it being a little slow. I don’t see what makes T-Mobile more expensive…unless you mean the phone subsidy that AT&T provides, but that’s built into their $65/month plan instead of $50. Unless all this is based on numbers outside of the US, which may be the case.

  5. I wanted so much to like T-Mobile. I bought an unlocked phone that came from the T-Mobile network meaning to put a SIM card in it and use it. None of the local carriers were able to do that here in Iowa, telling me that because it wasn’t one of their phones their network “couldn’t see it.” So at last I tried T-Mobile, and at first it all looked good. I was working at a remote rural location that week and didn’t have any signal of ANY kind, and of course no internet. I thought it was the location, but no, I dropped calls (haven’t done that in years,) I had no internet and usually no service unless I was in reach of wifi, including in my own house. I live just outside of Des Moines, and found that most anywhere in the city I couldn’t maintain a phone conversation, much less text or surf the web. I cancelled it and moved on.

    I just got back from spending time in Mexico, where I figured I could put a SIM card in it and use that unlocked phone at last! TelCel didn’t have anything compatible, although I heard a rumor that there might be another company that could. I never found them. So my unlocked T-Mobile phone works really well….as long as there’s wifi. I’m thinking ebay would like it more than I do.

    1. Well, I wish I had a better solution, but T-Mobile is still smaller than their competitors, and network coverage is a potential problem for a lot of people. For those living in big cities, it’s probably fine, but that might be it. But you’re right about eBay. Unlocked phones are pretty popular there.

  6. For long-term travel though, wouldn’t staying on an American phone plan be a bit of a money-suck? If you’re spending months in crazy cheap places, then does it make sense to pay for your phone in USD?

    I’m not speaking from experience at all – I’m just wondering about this. For extreme-budget traveling, wouldn’t local SIM cards with a “free” phone end up cheaper?

    1. You’re right when it comes to long-term travel; this plan is more for people who live in the US primarily, and travel sometimes. It’s not for people who wander for 6 months at a time. The only options like that that I’m aware of are getting local SIM cards again and again, which is cheap, but annoying, or getting a single global SIM card, which is pricier, but more convenient.

  7. I’ve been thinking about making the switch from Verizon for the convenience of international data. I’d love to skip buying a SIM card and have maps and messaging available as soon as I land. Escaping the airport and getting checked into wherever I’m staying would be much more convenient.

    Have you had any issues with voice or data coverage or speed in the US?

    1. I’ve been fine, except in a couple stores that have massive parking lots on their rooftops. I’ve known of other people who have had coverage issues in certain areas, but I expect it’s only going to improve, particularly as they add subscribers, and for people living primarily in major cities, it’s probably a non-issue. As for the middle-of-nowhere areas of the US, I’m far more likely to travel internationally than to a tiny little nothing town in rural America, so for people like that, it makes plenty of sense.

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