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Most travelers face a dilemma before embarking on any international trip: Should you pre-pay for your carrier’s expensive roaming package, deal with the hassle of buying a SIM at your destination or risk wasting hundreds or even thousands of dollars by using your phone like you do at home, without planning ahead? If you have service with T-Mobile, you don’t have to worry at all—your monthly prepaid plan (most likely) comes with unlimited international data.
Here’s the Deal
How in the world can T-Mobile afford to offer unlimited international data (and text messages) in over 120 countries? Well, like most unbelievable deals, this one’s a bit too good to be true. T-Mobile caps free data at 128 Kbps, which is geek speak for S-L-O-W. In many cases, that means just about any WiFi hotspot (except, perhaps, one on a plane) will offer a better browsing experience, though when it comes to email and even apps, T-Mobile can still get the job done. Let’s break it down.
As part of my T-Mobile experiment, I borrowed two phones. I started out with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, which I swapped for a Galaxy S6 edge once it become available in mid-April. (If you’re in the market for an Android phone, definitely go with the GS6.)
First up: A business trip to Whistler, British Columbia. You’d think our neighbors to the north would offer better roaming arrangements given the frequency that travelers move between the US and Canada, but no can do. As far as the carriers (and data roaming) are concerned, Whistler might as well be in Cambodia.
On the first trip, I needed to stay on top of email. I sent and received a ton of mail, and never ran into any issues. Service dropped out during the two-hour drive from Vancouver airport to Whistler, but I’ll blame that on Telus, the Canadian roaming partner I decided to use on this trip (depending on the country you’re visiting, you can hop between foreign carriers). On my second trip, to Bermuda with the Galaxy S6, I didn’t need to spend quite as much time reading and responding to email; with the exception of the dead zone that was my hotel room, the service was just fine.
Phone Calls and Texting
No, phone calls aren’t free (unless you’re set up for T-Mobile’s WiFi calling—another nifty feature), but they’re cheaper than the competition. You’ll pay just 20 cents per minute to call both landlines and mobile devices from your smartphone. I was a bit bummed that while data worked fine in Canada, I was only able to successfully make a call about half of the time. In Bermuda, phone calls worked just as well as they do at home.
Unlimited text messages are included as well, so as long as you don’t need to make a phone call, you can keep in touch with family and friends back home without spending another dime. T-Mobile also has an arrangement with Gogo that allows you to send text and picture messages, and access visual voicemail while on a Gogo-equipped flight. For free. That feature only works with a handful of phones right now, however.
Instagram and Twitter
Let’s be real about why you really want data: You want to show off your awesome travel photos to family and friends stuck in their cubicles back home. The good news is that Instagram works really, really well. My guess from using T-Mobile’s free data roaming in a handful of countries off and on over the past year is that the nasty 128 Kbps data cap probably doesn’t apply to select apps—Instagram being one of them. You shouldn’t have a problem sharing photos just as quickly as you do at home, although loading images can be a bit sluggish, depending on the local network.
I didn’t have the same experience with Twitter. Tweets loaded relatively quickly, but images often took quite a while to pop up. That might have more to do with where they’re hosted—Instagram’s photos all come from Instagram’s servers, though pictures on Twitter might be hosted elsewhere, making it difficult for T-Mobile to give the green light to Twitter pics.
Maps and Other Apps
After email and Instagram/Twitter, you’re probably wondering about Google Maps. Or that not-so-great Apple Maps app that comes preloaded on iPhones (tip: download Google’s version before you leave home). Maps works pretty well. Not, like, Instagram and email well, but it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds for a destination and route to load. To speed things up, you can also save an offline version of the local area in Google Maps while you’re connected to a WiFi network.
Other applications can be hit or miss, depending on how much data they use. Obviously things like Skype (for phone and video calls) and YouTube are out unless you’re connected to WiFi, but if you need to update your flight status, pull up a boarding pass or check hotel details, you should be good to go. It might be a bit more sluggish than you’re used to at home, but assuming the local network is decently fast, T-Mobile’s speed cap shouldn’t slow you down.
Is T-Mobile Worth It?
Free is free, and there aren’t any tricks to part you with extra cash here, beyond the high-speed offerings T-Mobile provides for an additional fee. Plans range from a 1-day plan with 100MB of data for $15 to a 2-week plan with 500MB of data for $50. You can add more data as you need it, and if you run out, you’ll just drop back down to the 128 Kbps you get for free.
If you’re going the paid data route, it may pay to check rates with your current carrier. International data plans, while still pricey, have become much more affordable within the last year or two. AT&T’s Passport plans, for example, are valid for 30 days after activation and give you 120MB of data for $30, 300MB for $60 and 800MB for $120. If you’re looking to buy a new phone without spending a lot, AT&T might actually not be a bad bet, thanks to the AT&T Access More Card from Citi (this offer has ended). With that card, you can earn a $650 credit toward a smartphone purchase after you make $2,000 in purchases without the first 3 months of opening your account.
(Note that T-Mobile is currently offering to pay your early termination fees and your phone payment plan balance with another carrier, up to $650 per line.)
And while Verizon may not have a credit card bonus to help ease the pain of buying a new phone, the carrier does offer international data plans. For $25 per month, you’ll get 100MB of data, or for $50 per month you can jump up to 250MB (every additional 100MB is $25 more). If you opt to pay as you go, you’ll spend $2.05 per MB in Canada, $5.12 per MB in Mexico and a whopping $20.48 per MB everywhere else. Upload a few Instagram photos from London and you’ll have tacked 100 bucks onto your bill.
However you choose to get your international data, just be sure to research rates before you go. It’s not unheard of to return from a trip to Europe to a $1,000+ cellphone bill, thanks to obscenely expensive pay-as-you-go roaming.