Why I swear by T-Mobile for my international phone and data plan

Dec 21, 2019

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Should you go with T-Mobile, AT&T or Verizon for a cellphone plan, if you are a frequent traveler outside of North America? Or should you choose Google Fi, which offers connection to local cell networks in around 200 countries for $10 per gigabyte of data, and 20 cents per minute of voice call?

I have no doubt: For me, T-Mobile is the way to go.

I pay $147 a month for the T-Mobile One Plus International plan (T-Mobile One plans have been recently renamed to Magenta) giving me unlimited data in 210 countries and territories, for myself and an additional line, which my wife uses. There are no fees and voice calls to the U.S. from those 210 countries are 25 cents a minute. T-Mobile doesn’t keep a list of those 210 places, but you can check here if your destination is covered. (A recent test on that page showed that in some of those 210, such as Bhutan and Zimbabwe, there were restrictions — for example, no data roaming was available in Bhutan.)

The free international data roaming is officially limited to 2G speeds but in practice I often get much faster 3G. (In Canada and Mexico, the plan offers 4G speeds.) That’s historically been enough for me for loading maps and navigating, which is the most data-intensive activity I’m likely to use my phone for while off Wi-Fi overseas. The plan also offers unlimited international texting from the U.S. — nice to have, although I mostly use WhatsApp for texting. 

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But aren’t we put off by the risk of having access to data roaming cut off by T-Mobile if we use it abroad extensively, as others have reported?

T-Mobile warns that you should not use more than 50% of your voice or data off-network for an extended period of time. Users have reported having their access to data roaming blocked if they went over the limit for that “extended” time. The company doesn’t define how long that is, but alerts users that the plan is meant for “traveling abroad, not staying abroad.”

Street food while data-roaming in Singapore. (Image by the author)
Street food while data-roaming in Singapore. (Image courtesy of the author)

The TPG employees who are arguably the biggest travelers on our staff don’t do T-Mobile, after all.

Our editor-at-large, Zach Honig, is a Google Fi aficionado; our senior points and miles reporter, JT Genter, who knows a thing or two about traveling all over the world, says he and his wife Katie “are happy paying the reasonable $10 per gigabyte data price and 20 cents per minute on overseas calls for seamless connection almost anywhere in the world.”

If I were JT or Katie, who cover 250,000 miles a year flying all over for TPG and sometimes stay for weeks in one country, or hyper-globe-trotter Zach, I might seriously give Google Fi a shot. But I’m a far less hard-core traveler; this year I’m barely hitting 80,000 flight miles and a lot of my travel over the past few years has been quick in-and-outs to various countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Even factoring in longer vacations abroad, my wife and I are nowhere near that 50% limit set by T-Mobile.

When it comes to connectivity, I value above all the convenience of taking my phone off airplane mode as soon as the wheels hit the runway and being ready to text, email and Slack with my co-workers in the New York and London offices. With T-Mobile, I have no worries about additional charges and nothing to configure or tweak: It’s good to go from the first second until I hop on a plane out of there.

Related: The ultimate guide to international smartphone use

It works even in remote locations. “I had service at the top of a volcano in Guatemala,” says our weekend editor, Jane Frye, who was there with TPG colleagues for a trip with PeaceJam. JT says that on a recent trip to Liberia for another PeaceJam event, “everybody on T-Mobile had service,” while he and Katie on Fi did not.  

Google Fi is better “if you’re trying to do intense work,” says JT, who recalls filing stories for the site from a bus in Bosnia using his phone as a mobile hot spot. I have used the hot spot function of Samsung Galaxy phones on T-Mobile’s international roaming, but it isn’t the biggest plus for me.

(Source: T-Mobile)

But here’s where T-Mobile really earns my business: The One Plus International plan, now Magenta Plus, includes free Internet for the entire flight on planes equipped with Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi, as well as Netflix. Those are huge pluses for me.

I do most of my flying on Delta Air Lines, whose fleet has Gogo. That means I get in-flight internet for free, for the entire flight. Even if the free internet only works on mobile phones, not on laptops, it’s a really great perk. Curiously, sometimes the splash screen after I log in tells me I have one hour of free internet — like I would on a simple T-Mobile One plan — but that’s not true. I can go all flight long, and that includes international long haul.     

Gogo internet is also available on some American Airlines and United Airlines flights, which comes in handy for me a couple of times a year on average. Not a big deal, but nice.

However, my favorite feature may well be Netflix. Under the T-Mobile Magenta Plus plan (formerly called One Plus), T-Mobile covers the $12.99 monthly fee for the Netflix Standard streaming subscription, for two screens at a time. As someone who’s happily cut the cord and ditched cable, I’m very happy that T-Mobile is picking up the tab for the service that has replaced a lot of my cable TV. And while someone else is watching Netflix at home, I can watch on my phone while on the road, in high definition. That helps make T-Mobile’s Magenta plan an easy choice for me.

Featured image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 

This story has been updated to clarify that free Wi-Fi under the T-Mobile plan described in the article covers the entire flight, not just one hour. It also has been updated tto reflect that under the plan, T-Mobile covers the entire $12.99 monthly cost of a Netflix streaming subscription. 

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