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.

  8. It’s a great plan (and I plan to use it), but be sure to read the fine print:

    “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.”

    The majority of your data usage must be US-based. If not, they’ll cancel you and charge you loads of fees.

    1. I currently use T-Mobile in the US and I’m thinking about bringing it on a gap year that I’ll be taking starting in June. Andy Christian’s comment made a good point that T-Mobile’s policy states that the majority of service must be used in the US. Anyone have any idea how strictly this is enforced?

  9. Sometimes I feel like a walking commercial for T Mobile, so I’m getting some real personal validation out of this post. My husband and I have a shared plan and it costs us about the same for two lines as it does for my friends with Verizon to have one line. Also, on a recent trip to Europe, we used the crap out of the maps on the phone. I understand the benefit of getting lost during travel, but sometimes we just needed to get to our train on time. We also use our phones as our only cameras, so it was nice only having to carry around that one thing. We haven’t had any problems with coverage abroad (all major cities, though), but ironically, our house in the U.S. is apparently a black hole for all cell phone carriers so we sometimes have an issue there.

  10. I have T-mobile and it’s worked great for me while abroad. It was great to be able to call the United CS line when I had to arrange for emergency travel home, rather than delay making the plans trying to find a reasonably-priced way to call a US number. The irony of T-mobile is that it’s *terrible* for US domestic travel. I spent a week in Montana, and was on roaming literally the entire time, even in cities like Bozeman and Butte. The voice calls and texting were included in the roaming, but data was not. I don’t want to give up T-mobile since there seems to be no reasonable (cheap and simple) alternative to international service, but I’m left in the strange position of looking into pay-as-you-go domestic phone service. In other words, because I have T-mobile, I have to do for domestic travel what most people do for international travel.

    1. Lame. I do hope they improve the network, but it’s going to be a slow process. Building a nationwide infrastructure is obviously difficult, which is why we end up with just two or three major carriers while others scramble for tiny fractions of the market.

  11. I’ve heard this exact same thing from our friends who recently left our current home of Japan and went back to the states. There’s nothing worse than having to worry about finding a phone when traveling, especially during an emergency. Hopefully, T-Mobile will still have this plan when we finally do move back stateside.

  12. My strategy for dealing with maps was to get a copy of CoPilot GPS and purchase the $10 upgrade to include navigation. Navigation supports driving and walking. Adding a map of Europe cost another $40-ish. But the map and navigation features are available offline (don’t require a data connection). The downside is the complete Europe map takes 2 GB of flash space. However, once the maps have been purchased, you don’t have to have them all on your phone simultaneously. You can download only the countries you plan to visit.

    I’ve also just moved to being a smartphone user. Republic Wireless does their calls over WiFi and uses Verizon’s network as a backup. Calls can move seamlessly between WiFi and Cell. Unfortunately, their supported phones do not support GSM, so no cell coverage overseas. However, I am able to make/receive phone calls using my normal US phone number over WiFi in Europe (I’m there now) without any restrictions. For me, the cheapness of the plan ($10/month) offsets the inconvenience of finding a WiFi connection to call home. Perhaps someone will be able to convince Republic Wireless to add support for GSM and “rent” bandwidth from an international GSM carrier to expand their service… Here’s hoping!

  13. I’ve heard nothing but good things about t-mobile from you and Tynan. Then I went in to a store to sign up today.

    The representative was saying folks get canceled for using it international “too much”. I guess some folks on hashtagNomads have heard of people getting canceled too.

    I also read the TOC. It provides for arbitrary shut down of service if they deem it “uneconomical”: https://www.t-mobile.com/Templates/Popup.aspx?PAsset=Ftr_Ftr_TermsAndConditions&print=true

    “WE MAY LIMIT, SUSPEND OR TERMINATE YOUR SERVICE OR AGREEMENT WITHOUT NOTICE FOR ANY REASON, INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, if …your Off-Net usage makes it uneconomical for T-Mobile to provide Service to you”​

    Provided to help folks know what they’re getting in to. I didn’t know.

    1. Yeah, that is still a problem. The info I’ve heard is that you’re supposed to use it maybe one month per year, and you should therefore try to use Wi-Fi whenever possible to limit the data use. If you use the data connection just to check the map, you’ll probably be fine, even if you use it all the time, but if you’re streaming Youtube videos, you might end up with difficulties. But it’s still objectively better (for travelers) than the competition, so you might as well make as much of it as you can, but if you’re going for 6 months somewhere, then look into alternatives, such as getting a local SIM.

      I’ve seen something new called ComfortWay (it actually failed its crowdfunding, which infuriated me), which allows you to travel wherever you want, and roam for $2 a day. That’s all. It’s an iPhone case that fits over your phone, and that’s it. I think you’re supposed to use it in addition to a regular plan (it says you can keep your existing number, which means you have to have a number, and thus you need a regular plan), but then it’s just $2 per day of use, and that’s all.

  14. With new offerings in the work, such as Google Fi, that offer some incredible deals in international roaming, I wonder if this topic could be revisited. I personally signed up for a Google Fi invite, but the cost of buying a Nexus 6 and my concerns about the longevity of their service might dissuade me from following up at this time. Either way, Google Fi would be an addition to my current Verizon service, not an alternative, because I don’t trust the T-Mobile and Sprint networks well enough to rely on them exclusively while in the United States.

    There is also a SIM card offered by KnowRoaming, which looks pretty good. They offer relatively inexpensive calls and texts in quite a few countries, as well as data day passes in a few (mostly Europe). I’m trying it out.

    1. I know Sprint has jumped on board with free roaming, and I hope some of the other people do it too, but this Google Fi is new to me. Dealing with multiple SIM cards is such a nuisance to me that I’m happy to just deal with T-Mobile’s relatively modest shortcomings (I live in a big city, so it hasn’t been much different from AT&T, which I had before). Global SIMS are a great idea, but if you’re on T-Mobile, you basically have a global SIM at no extra charge, so…they’d have to offer a really superior deal to be worth the fees, which can be pretty substantial. I’ll try to keep track of new developments, but the convenience here is just so good that I can’t imagine dealing with anything else.

  15. I just wanted to add that I’ve been using my t-mobile plan for international travel for 17 months abroad and haven’t had a problem (6 months in Asia, 7 months in Europe and 3 months in Morocco, where I didn’t have coverage). It’s kinda slow at 2G speeds, but it’s perfect for messaging and maps. It’s okay for booking a hostel and going on couchsurfing to find hosts, but it’s better to use WiFi for that. I have been moving around a lot so though and while there were some places it might have been better to have a local SIM, when I’m moving about and not staying in any particular country at the same time, it’s nice to not have to worry about getting a new SIM and data plan. The coverage isn’t perfect and there are some dead or slow spots, but for what I got from it, being able to be flexible and not pre-plan so much that I have to download maps and get directions everywhere before I get somewhere, it’s great. It might not have been a problem since I am on my cousin’s family plan with his gf, and they haven’t been traveling internationally, but I am still on my same plan and it’s been great. At the same time, it’s really hard to abuse the data plan since it’s so slow, you’re not going to be watching videos or streaming anything and maintain your sanity. I just wait until I have wifi to do more data intensive things. Coverage at home on the other hand, could definitely be better.

  16. I’ve been a huge fan of T-Mobile’s international service for a couple years now, and I still check my bill in disbelief after using it extensively overseas. It connects flawlessly, just works and I never get penalized. In short, it’s been amazing, especially when moving fast from country to country! But recently, when I went to pick up an iPhone 7, I learned there’s some bad news built right into the new T-Mobile iPhones. It turns out that the designated T-Mobile (and AT&T) iPhones only support GSM networks. This is especially weird because Verizon and Sprint iPhones don’t cost any more, but they support both GSM and CDMA networks.

    Make sure you don’t get a T-Mobile phone even if T-Mobile is your preferred carrier because, if you do, it could be a real pain to switch carriers, resell your phone, or just function in a place where CDMA is dominant. This seems like such a gross move and totally counter to what I thought T-Mobile was about, but it is definitely the case. More details at MacRumors: http://www.macrumors.com/2016/09/08/att-and-tmobile-iphone-7-models-lack-cdma/

    If you want a truly global phone, it’s probably best to wait for the SIM free version which should come out in the next few weeks.

      1. Yeah, the unlocked, sim-free version of the iPhone 7 / 7 plus has the better cellular modem – GSM & CDMA. I’m on T-mobile as well, and a fan of the international roaming benefits, and I waited to upgrade until the unlocked version was released – which is typically 4-6 weeks after the launch of the locked versions.

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