T-Mobile’s free int’l service keeps me around

Over the summer, I made a switch to T-Mobile that I thought would probably be temporary. After my recent trip to Europe and experience with T-Mobile’s international service (and a number of other recent T-Mobile enhancements), T-Mobile has become too good to leave. As a frequent traveler, I think T-Mobile’s strengths are so strong as to make dealing with its limitations worthwhile.

Making the switch

Until this summer, it had been more than a decade since I last had cell service with a major carrier.

However, over the summer, T-Mobile finally drew me in with a deal I couldn’t refuse: they were offering 4 lines of unlimited service for $140/month total. My wife and I initially planned to go in on the 4 lines with a couple of family members, each paying $35 a month for unlimited service. That didn’t end up happening — but we did put those two extra lines into use on our recent trip. The prospect of being able to listen to Pandora while working out and streaming Netflix on the road with “unlimited” access seemed appealing. It didn’t hurt that I knew T-Mobile had put a brand new tower in our town about a year ago. While I had for years known T-Mobile as the little cousin of the big networks (that had no coverage in my area), I have learned that they have been aggressively expanding, now available in my tiny rural town and with a map that looks fairly impressive expected to be fully operational by the end of 2017:

Finally, we had an international trip coming up at the end of the summer/beginning of fall and I knew about T-Mobile’s free international roaming in 140 countries. We wanted to try that on for size and see how it worked.

The price definitely seemed right. It was then icing on the cake when I found that TopCashBack was offering up to $200 back on new activations at the time (they’re only offering up to $75 right now). The first month was more expensive because of a couple of add-ons and sim cards and the fact that an autopay discount wouldn’t kick in for a month. So I initially paid $185 to open the four lines — and TopCashBack gave me $200 back:

That at least mitigated getting hit with a hard pull for account opening with T-Mobile :-).

Why international service is appealing

Here were the flights for my recent trip.

I’ve been traveling abroad for years and have long refused to buy a phone here at home that is locked to a network. Since most of the world uses GSM technology, the type of wireless network operated by AT&T and T-Mobile, I have long had an AT&T-based prepaid service here in the United States and then brought my unlocked phone abroad and simply bought a local SIM card upon arrival. This is usually easy enough to do in the airport and most countries have very reasonably-priced short-term plans for tourists. For example, I traveled to Singapore earlier this year and I think I paid around $11 for a SIM card that had 100GB of data that was good for about a week.

However, it always takes some time to get cell service set up upon arrival. There is usually a mobile phone shop in the airport, but they need your passport, sometimes there is a line in which to wait, and it just takes a a little while to get it set up. You also have the risk of losing your SIM card when you’re changing out SIMs from country to country (Pro tip: use a piece of scotch tape and tape your home SIM card to the first plastic SIM card holder you buy abroad. Toss that in a zipped compartment in your bag where you won’t lose it and leave it there until you’re landing at home).

While I’ve always been fine will the steps above, it would certainly be nice to eliminate that small time suck. I’ve also had a few instances where I arrived very late/early or I had someone waiting for me and I didn’t want to waste the time getting a SIM card set up. The idea of turning my phone on upon landing and just having it work sounded nice. It would certainly be convenient to land and pick up my bags and call an Uber without having to fiddle with a new SIM and service or connecting to airport Wi-Fi. In theory, it certainly sounded good.

T-Mobile’s international service

T-Mobile offers free texting and unlimited data at up to 2G speeds in 140+ countries on the T-Mobile ONE, Simple Choice, New Classic, and Select Choice plans. You can add T-Mobile ONE Plus to a T-Mobile ONE plan to double the data speed to 256 kbps. There are a few other benefits of adding T-mobile ONE Plus to a line — including 10GB per month of tethering/mobile hotspot with the phone and free unlimited GoGo Wi-Fi on that device. It usually costs an extra $10 per month per line to add ONE Plus, but at the time when I signed up it was being offered for $5 per line, so I upgraded two of my lines to be able to compare. I actually didn’t realize until researching this post that ONE Plus entitled me to free GoGo Wi-Fi for entire flights or I would have put it to use on a flight last week.

You can check coverage by clicking here and entering a country. Remember that text and data are free, but calling isn’t — you can see voice rates at that link as well.

You can also zoom in and out on coverage maps. For example, I visited Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, Here was the coverage map of the island:

As you can see, there is coverage on the vast majority of the island, which I certainly found to be the case. I also used the phone in the UK, Norway, and Portugal as well as on layovers in Zurich, Switzerland and Munich, Germany. I mentioned at the outset that we had bought and activated 4 lines but were only using 2. My sister and my wife’s sister were meeting us in Europe on this trip, so we gave one line to each of them to make it easier to rendezvous on arrival at London Heathrow — which worked out very well. My wife’s sister also used her line in Ireland — so we had a decent sample set in terms of European countries for testing on this trip. I sent texts back and forth with her and my sister while we were all in separate countries and had no problems sending and receiving messages. Voice calls, at least from the Park Hyatt Mallorca, were more challenging, though they mostly worked if I was outside or near a window.

Note that you can only search one country at a time. There is coverage in Ireland, also — it just isn’t shown on the UK map.

Speed tests

I knew that the speed of connection would be remarkably slower than at home with T-Mobile, and this was my main hesitation with whether or not this service would work for me. After all, I’m used to being able to get deal alerts on my phone and do quick research so I can post a business class error fare sale while I’m walking around an aquarium with the family (true story), so I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle going back to the stone ages of 2G service. And let there be no doubt: even on the T-Mobile ONE Plus plan, data speeds are slow. However, they were more than adequate for pulling up Google maps / navigating (though it did take a while to search the maps for the place we wanted to go) and summoning an an Uber was easy. I was able to send and receive emails and texts and could occasionally look up something on the Internet, though more often than not it just spun without much happening when I tried to Google. For what it’s worth, my sister and my wife’s sister had no complaints about the speed of service when navigating. I think for basic web services like navigation and Ubering, the difference between 126 Kbps and 256 Kbps is not all that noticeable.

I did use Speetest.net to get some numbers for comparison’s sake. These tests were taken in different countries on this trip with my phone (which has the “Plus” add-on):

For those without a firm handle on those numbers, here is a comparison to the numbers from home.

As you can see, the T-Mobile international speeds are a lot slower. It’s definitely not quite as convenient as having your phone at home as you don’t have access to as much capability due to the slow speed of the Internet connection.

On the flip side, with Wi-Fi at your hotel and a growing Wi-Fi presence in restaurants and public spaces, I might venture to say that many people might be fine with the slower speed for a week or two. If you don’t need to post directly to Instagram as life happens and can wait until you  sit down at the end of the night to fully connect to the outside world, the slower speeds might be fine. If that describes you, and you mostly just want the ability to be able to navigate with your phone, T-Mobile’s service is an excellent solution. If you want to be able to insta-post or live stream your lunch, the T-Mobile free international speeds aren’t going to cut it.

In my case, I mostly needed service to be able to navigate and call a car when necessary. For those purposes, the service nailed it and worked almost flawlessly.

Other T-Mobile enhancements

In the few months since I joined, T-Mobile has made a couple of other key enhancements that I think increase its value proposition for frequent travelers. First, they have increased the throttling limit to 50GB per month. For those unfamiliar, our domestic cell carriers sell “unlimited” data packages, though this doesn’t mean you will have unlimited access at full speeds. If you use too much of your “unlimited” data, the carrier may slow your service speeds down until your next billing cycle (called “throttling”). AT&T and Verizon each throttle at 22GB of data used. T-Mobile was about the same when I signed on. Then, they increased that limit to 32GB and they have now increased the throttling limit to 50GB per month — more than double the limits imposed by other carriers. For a frequent  traveler, that’s huge. It means that you might listen to Pandora while you’re waiting at the airport or on driving on your road trip and you could stream a few Netflix movies from your hotel room (or download them to later watch on the plane) without any real fear of reaching the cap. While there have now been months where I have come close to 20GB, I haven’t come anywhere close to 50GB yet. There is some nice future-proofing in that limit.

Furthermore, T-Mobile has begun offering free Netlix with plans that cost $120+. If you’re on a plan (like my $140/month plan) that costs more than $120, T-Mobile will cover the cost of your subscription for basic Netflix service (See: T-Mobile Netflix offer.). My wife streams a lot of Netflix these days without worry about whether or not she’s on the Wi-Fi.

T-Mobile Tuesdays can provide some value, too

Finally, every Tuesday, T-Mobile offers some freebies as a form of customer appreciation). In the past, those freebies have included everything from free Dunkin Donuts credit (which I used last week to buy a bagel at the airport on my way out of town) to oil changes, free pizzas, and a subscription to MLB.TV. Some weekends include a free Redbox rental or Vudu rental — almost every week I get at least a couple of bucks out of T-Mobile Tuesdays.

Bottom line

T-Mobile’s International coverage combined with high data allotments at full-speed here at home make the service very appealing for a frequent traveler. Whether it’s the ability to stream Netflix while in your hotel or on your train or the ability to navigate your rental car to your destination hotel in a foreign land without having to monkey with buying a SIM card, I think T-Mobile is offering a lot of value to frequent travelers. When we add in the T-Mobile freebies, the price of the plans (and lack of any commitment/contract), and 5x earning on the bill with the Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash cards, I think I’m stuck with T-Mobile.

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

More articles by Nick Reyes »

Comments

  1. Don’t forget about BingeOn from T-Mobile where most music and video streaming apps don’t count against your cap!

  2. Just came back from a two-week Netherlands and Germany trip where one in my group had T-Mobile. I agree the convenience of free international roaming is spectacular, but his 2G service was largely unusable. Considering a 3GB Vodafone SIM only cost €20 in Amsterdam, I feel prepaid is still the way to go for most international travel.

  3. Love T-Mobile for international! If 2G speed dorsnt work, you can buy a 10 day/1GB data pass for $20 through their app or website anytime. I’ve used mine all over in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and Bangkok. Even had LTE service in Railay Beach, Thailand. The basic 2G works for maps and translate, and I’ve found the $20 data pass to get 4G and sometimes LTE depending on the country and network. Had our plan for 3 years: 2 lines with unlimited everything domestic, 1 hour free GoGo WiFi, and the international access for $100/mo (don’t think it’s around anymore) makes T-Mobile unbeatable. Domestic service in my area (RI/Southern MA) is pretty solid too.

  4. Just back from six weeks, Qatar, Jordan, Scotland, Sicily, Poland. T-mobile everywhere except Jordan, where we used hotel wifi to make calls via T-mobile wifi connection. Worked just fine everywhere. Yes, data can be a bit slow at times. But, coming home to the same $140 bill for four lines, instead of a $300+ bill that I used to generate with Verizon/Vodafone international plan makes T-mobile a no-brainer.

    • Coming from Verizon, do you notice more potty areas or lost signal with T-mobile? I love the idea of T-mobile but I am afraid I won’t have the same coverage.

  5. Does Tmo have a requirement where at least X amount of time must be spent in the US? We’re moving abroad next summer so we’ll be needing data internationally, but we won’t spend much time in the US.

    • I wouldn’t count on this option; as someone else pointed out T-Mobile does flag accounts for this. I’ve personally had no issues using my T-Mobile phone abroad the majority of the time over the past two years, but 1) I mostly use Wi-Fi calling so roaming is limited and 2) I’m just one out of six lines on the account, although I have no idea if either of these actually make a difference in whether T-Mobile flags the account.

      • I had no issues using it for 7 months straight in S. America. I think as long as you’re moving networks and not stationary (i.e. living abroad) you should be fine. That’s what they’re really trying to prevent. Data is so slow internationally I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t just get a local sim though.

    • Not time. X amount of voice/data. They start flagging you if you have 3 months in a row with more than 50% of voice or data abroad each month.

    • I have. I don’t like the idea of being stuck with such a limited range of phones and it would be much more expensive for me based on my data usage. I believe the normal cost is $20 for the first line plus $10 per GB of data used. I/we use far too much data at home to consider that. Most months, my wife uses 6-8GB (starting to grow substantially now that she streams more with T-Mobile) and I use somewhere between 13-18GB. Even at the low end, that’s about $225/month for 2 lines ($20 for first line talk/text, $15 for second, $10 per GB).

      That said, I’d love to know the comparison in international service. If you’re buying one of the phones that works with it and you mostly use Wi-Fi at home, I could see where it might work out really well.

        • I’ve been with T-mobile since they unveiled the international roaming in 2013. I have been pretty happy but the data speeds (2G) just got a bit too slow. Just switched to Fi today because they recently released the Moto X4, for Fi. The first Android one phone @ $399. I’m either home on Wi-Fi or traveling internationally. I only use between 1 – 1.5 GB’s of data per month. My bill should be between $35 – $45, with insurance on Fi. I was paying twice that with T-mobile unlimited + JUMP.

      • We tried T-Mobile in Europe last year in multiple countries and the data was basically unusable. We cancelled the service when we returned home (we had kept our AT&T lines, 3 of 4 of which still have grandfathered unlimited data).

        We then got a Project fi Nexus 6P and used it for a trip to Brazil. What a difference! Fast reliable data, plus text and voice. We only use it for travel, so it costs us just $30/month. Even for domestic travel here in WA, sometimes the fi phone will have service where AT&T doesn’t. It also included free portable wifi hotspot service, so we were able to provide a data connection for our Australian friends while we were driving around showing them the sights. It also has Bluetooth and USB tethering, which we haven’t tried.

        If we didn’t have the grandfathered unlimited data we would seriously consider T-Mobile for our domestic service, but keep the fi for travel.

  6. I jumped on Thanksgiving 2016 under a promotion that was suppose to be 2 lines for $100 + 2 free lines. They didn’t wrong way and after 4 months of no credits, I decided to close the account and jump to another promotion where I got $200 for each transferred line from another carriers + the 20% hook up code + T-Mobile One Plus (without gogo). I’m actually paying $160 – kick back (on 2 or 3 lines) -20% so my bill is $112 or $104 and I’m still using the $600 credit that I got from MWorks (authorized dealer).

    For you guys that flight overseas like me, remember you can download the offline maps on Google Maps for the city you one to, that way it will be faster.

    Fed

    PS: fix the typo, is KB not MB

  7. I’ve been a T-Mobile evangelist (not on their payroll) since they started the “Uncarrier” campaign. Even other carriers’ customers have benefited hugely from the competition – Verizon and AT&T customers can thank T-Mobile for not having contracts anymore. I’ve used the international service myself and agree it’s a huge benefit. (Small nit – “126 Mbps and 256 Mbps” should be Kbps not Mbps. If you got 126 or 256 Mbps on a cell network you’d really have something to write about!)

    Although T-Mobile has made many consumer-friendly moves, it’s too bad they grandfathered the Simple Choice plans ($50 for the first line, $30 for the second, $10 each line after that). High-speed data is limited to 2GB/line but that’s entirely adequate for many people.

  8. Had some great tmobile tuesday deals, including dunkin donuts, and 7-11 slurpees too. Though Meineke deal was dead on arrival deal (Meineke pulled it). Thought I’d mention this.

  9. Look, these guys have great deals (Senior 55+ Plan is only $60 for unlimited for 2 lines) but their coverage in the US sucks compared to Verizon. What’s the use if you have dropped calls? I live in Los Angeles.

  10. GSM won’t give you any meaningful data speeds, you want HSPA and LTE.
    But even if your phone supports these (an AT&To or TMo phone), it doesn’t necessarily work in Europe, as they might use different frequency bands. If the phone does not see the bands the network is preferring for data, then they are to use GSM as fallback, maybe that’s why you are so slow speeds aboard.

    Newer phones are better, but the US version of Galaxy S8 is still not supporting all bands to see LTE networks everywhere in EU.

  11. If we lived in an area where T-Mobile had decent coverage, I’d consider it. I switched us to T-Mobile over the summer for literally 48 hours. The service was fine in the city (we live in a small Virginia city), but as soon as you drive out a couple of miles — nothing. It was like being in 1998 all over again. I was shocked. Then I looked closer at the coverage map and realized the macro view of the whole USA was really misleading. Oh well, the good news is it’s getting better all the time, and I love my Verizon MVNO now.

  12. I have the T-Mobile 55+ plan for $30 per month each for 2 lines. Just spent a week in Croatia on a small island (Murter) along the coast north of Split and it worked everywhere. Had WiFi in the apartment and every restaurant had WiFi if I needed it so was very happy. Super slow for downloading anything but really just needed it for text and maps.

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