How we’ve been using our cell phones while abroad

How we’ve been using our cell phones while abroad

I’d hope that within the next 5-10 years, cell service will have advanced to the point that using your phone internationally won’t even cause a second thought. Since it’s only 2018, unless your job pays for it or you don’t leave the country much, international cell phone usage is still something that travelers have to plan for.

What I had before

Until last year, T and I had been with AT&T. She’d joined my account a few years back, and I’d been with them on my own for almost 10 years. Their roaming options had been terrible – lots of money for a tiny bit of data. So, when it came to cell phone usage on international trips, we’d always tough it out and just use wi-fi wherever we could find it. It wasn’t convenient, but travel was always just a normal vacation, and not having a constant connection wasn’t the end of the world. However, things like ride-sharing services and live directions are clunky when needing to depend on wi-fi, and the more we traveled, the more we realized having access to the internet whenever we needed it was pretty valuable.

What we have now

We’d known that T-Mobile started giving their users free international data a few years back, and early last year, we finally made the switch. Not only would it be cheaper monthly, but they also had a promotion at the time that netted us a $600 VISA gift card, plus a free upgrade to their “ONE Plus” data service, which made the decision pretty easy.  Their standard T-Mobile ONE plan gets users unlimited, international roaming data and texts in 210 other countries at no extra costs. Calls are charged at $0.25/minute. If you’re on wi-fi and have T-Mobile wi-fi calling enabled, calls back to the U.S. are free.

Slow data > no data

The main caveat with the free data roaming is that that your download speeds are throttled to 128KBps – if you’re not too familiar with data speeds, this is like saying that you get free gas for your car, but can only go 10mph. It’s awfully slow, but, yes, it is better than nothing. Upgrading to their ONE Plus data plan for $15/month/line gets you 256KBps roaming speeds, which is a little better, but still slower than the dial-up modem you were using in 1998. The upgrade also gives you HD video streaming and a chunk of high-speed hotspot data, but we wouldn’t pay $15 per month per line for it.

Even though it was slow, having data whenever we needed it was awesome. No more detours to find wi-fi when we needed to look something up. No more making the wrong turn because we didn’t have live directions. Now we were making the wrong turn because we’re stupid. It was great.

High-speed data > slow data

On August 1st, T-Mobile started offering high-speed roaming data passes at $5/day with a cap of 500MB. I might pay $5/day for unlimited data or $5 per 500MB of usage, but when they were combined as limiting factors, I didn’t find it all that worth it.

Just last week, however, T-Mobile added a new “Consumer Global ONE Plus” data plan to the list of options. For $50/month/line, you could get yourself unlimited calling, high-speed data, and 5GB of high-speed tethering while roaming. Since we’d be making use of this every single day, it’d be like paying $1.67/day for unlimited, high-speed data. That in itself was worth it, but realizing that we could just activate it for one line and let the other person tether off the 5GB pool meant we’d effectively be paying $25/month for high-speed data for each line, since we’d likely never go through the 5GB allotment.

We activated it on my line and it’s been great so far. A few speed tests have shown 2-4MB download and 1-2MB upload speeds, which is as fast or faster than a good chunk of the public wi-fi spots that we’ve used while abroad.

If you have T-Mobile and want to take advantage of this data plan while abroad, keep a couple things in mind:

1. It’s a data plan, not an addon. This means if you had a promotional plan like I did, you will lose the promotion.

2. T-Mobile does not pro-rate their data plans. This means that, if your billing cycle ends on, say, the 15th of each month and you make the switch on the 10th, you will pay the full $50 monthly charge even though you only had 5 days left in your cycle.

Limited roaming timeframe

Here comes the bad news for us. T-Mobile roaming is not meant to be used for long periods of time. Their terms & conditions state that roaming can be cut off if, for any 2 billing cycles in a 12-month period, more than 50% of your overall usage is roaming. After maybe 6-7 weeks of being abroad, we received a warning from T-Mobile about our usage, and just last week, we received the notification that our roaming will be turned off in January. Given that we’re still planning on being abroad for much of next year, we’ll need to find another solution, which will likely be Google’s Project-Fi service. It has its pros and cons, which I’ll go over in another post, but at least for the next 7 weeks, we’ll enjoy our $1.67/day high-speed, unlimited international roaming.


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