T-Mobile’s All-Inclusive Plans Offer Free International Data, Cheaper Calls

If there’s one thing I hate most about traveling outside the U.S., it’s trying to use my cell phone. I carry a $700 miniature computer in my pocket more powerful than some desktops, and yet the $170 a month my wife and I shell out every month to Verizon Wireless doesn’t include the occasional call or email when we’re in Paris or Bangkok. That means I can’t call my wife, text my friends, or tweet to you guys when I’ve got a monkey crawling on my head!

Bali Monkey Forest

I find this especially infuriating because I am not a heavy user of my phone for calls or data. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2004, and I signed up for text messaging last year only because it was finally included for free. (Before then, I blocked text message on my phone to avoid paying for incoming messages.) I’ve long objected on principle to the outrageous fees that most carriers charge for incremental improvements on existing infrastructure.

T-Mobile family Simple Choice planThe value of T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan is easy to grasp if you’re a frequent traveler. For $50 a month — or $80 a month for two lines on a family plan — you get 1 GB of LTE data as well as unlimited talk, texting, and data within the U.S., and unlimited texting and data in over 120 countries (calls are 20 cents a minute overseas). That means unlimited data at slower speed after using up the LTE allowance, but it’s not expensive to add more LTE data. My wife and I could each have 3 GB for a total of $100 a month, and I’ve only occasionally gone over 2 GB myself.

Not only is T-Mobile cheaper, but it’s easy to use. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re leaving the country. Just get up and go. When I told Verizon I was going to Southeast Asia for my honeymoon, I bit the bullet and decided to pay for their international data coverage. $25 a month — paid two months in advance — got me 100 MB of data and a discounted rate on calls. Despite the assurances of the employee over the phone that it would hop from country to country, I was only ever able to use it successfully in the Seoul-Incheon airport where, ironically, I had access to free WiFi. The Verizon agent never told me Indonesia was excluded from their data agreement, nor did I receive a satisfactory explanation for the poor coverage in Thailand and Hong Kong.

Cellular Carrier international fees comparison

Source: T-Mobile USA

Part of the reason I’m writing this post now is that T-Mobile gave me some figures from a recent survey showing 88% of surveyed Americans reported similar frustrations. Roughly 20% leave their phones at home, 40% turn off their data roaming, and another 20% would turn off their roaming if they knew how.

I do carry my phone with me in case of emergencies, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a call using it overseas because the potential cost is so worrisome. I had a $70+ surcharge on my Verizon bill waiting for me when I got back from my honeymoon, which was like salt in the wound after such a horrible experience trying to use what I paid for.

I’m not sure I’m ready to make the switch to T-Mobile just yet. I use Verizon now partly because my former AT&T coverage was so bad when I moved to Seattle from Orange County. It’s not worth it to me to lose coverage during the 11 months I’m at home just so I can save money during a few vacations. Megan would argue it’s probably a good thing if I’m not using my phone.

But T-Mobile knows this is an issue and has, I think, wisely been using the proceeds from its $3 billion breakup fee following its failed merger with AT&T to build its own 4G LTE network. Some company reps I spoke with suggested it is one of the fastest in the country. They aren’t exactly unbiased, but with a windfall like that it seems a good strategy to resolve past shortcomings.

Not only have they built a better network with this money, they will even pay you to move your business, covering the cost of your early termination fee if you have an existing contract with AT&T, Verizon Wireless, or Sprint ($300 device trade-in credit and up to $350 in reimbursement for early termination fees). And better yet, there are no contracts with T-Mobile. One justification for contracts is that the carrier pays for the device and seeks to earn back that money through inflated service fees. You can choose to buy an unlocked phone, or T-Mobile will add a separate monthly fee to your bill until you pay it off — and stop collecting the fee when you do. I’ve yet to see Verizon or AT&T lower my bill when I reach the end of a two-year contract.

One of the interesting things T-Mobile observed when it introduced these offers was that very few people took advantage of their included international service during the first few months. They were so used to turning off their phones or leaving them at home that they had to shrug off the habit. But since then the growth has been staggering. I was told monthly data and texting consumption by T-Mobile’s customers abroad has been doubling every month.

All-in-all there are several encouraging reasons to move to T-Mobile. I’m a cautious guy, and most of my travel is domestic. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to move. But I do like what I see, and I think offers like these may be some of the reason AT&T and Verizon are now including more services in their own plans. The old goliaths move slowly, and I think T-Mobile will probably remain the only reasonable alternative for some time to come.

Update: One reader commented that I should say something about data speeds internationally, as he thought it was slow due to relying on older 2G EDGE technology. My opinion is that slow is better than expensive or non-existing, which were both the case when I tried to pay Verizon to use my phone abroad. PC World has a review and calls it “not bad for free.” Also, because T-Mobile doesn’t lock you into a contract you still have the option to swap in a local SIM card on an unlocked device when you travel — something you can’t do with the subsidized phones from other carriers.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Platinum Traveller

    Good summary Scott, I switch from pre-paid $50 a month with t-mobile to the $50 a month post paid as soon as they introduced the free global roaming. It has been a real life changer for me, I travel a lot for work and back to Australia where I grew up and now I dont have to carry multiple sims or worry about excessive charges etc As soon as I land somewhere I turn on my phone and a text comes through welcoming me to that country and that I have free data. I will say the international data is a little slow – but in most cases its forgivable considering the cost and convenience. I finally had data in Japan recently which was always an issue and one of the more difficult places to get data from a disposable sim. So far I have used the free global roaming with no issues in Australia, UK, France, Finland, Japan, Thailand, Germany, Singapore.

  • Ryan

    We had a great experience with T-Mobile in Ireland, England, and France in March. Worked great all trip, with exception in London…..there were parts of city that had bad coverage. But no extra charges and no mistakes on the bill! I even received a friendly “welcome” text in each country after turning my phone on…..”Welcome to Ireland! With your T-Mobile phone you get free data and free text messages. Calls are 20 cents/min. Click this link if you would like to purchase faster LTE data”. I’m a big fan!

  • Jon

    I long ago switched to T-Mobile’s $30 prepaid plan since it offers 5GB of data for the cheapest price. I use quite a bit of data and very few voice minutes, so it was a great plan for me. However, I’ve got quite a few trips coming up that take me outside the country so I think I’ll switch to the Simple plans and take advantage of the free international calling. Plus, if I switch to an unlimited plan, I don’t need to worry about caps at all anymore… All in all, T-Mobile’s offering me a helluva lot more than the other 3 carriers can.

  • Evan

    Scott –

    If you’re concerned with the coverage in the area, I’d suggest trying out a $3 pay per day SIM card and doing a test drive. It’s $10 for the SIM card, and TMO has a ~20 day return policy if you need a device to test it out with. TMO was comparable to ATT at work and home here in SF, so it made the switch much easier.

    I switched shortly after FTU and haven’t looked back – the customer service so far has been great (even after a trade in snafu on our part), and they seem to genuinely want to earn our business.

  • AnotherAndroidKid

    I’m a very heavy data user regularly going north of 30gb a month. I had unlimited on VZ and now on tmobile. I have no major complaints about my switch. And it is the use overseas that was the final selling piece for me. Data is EDGE speed overseas. That’s 2G basically. So slow doesn’t begin to cover it. But it works, and it allows those quick i’m here contacts when you arrive or coordinating a pick up with friends or what not. I haven’t looked back.

  • Darth Chocolate

    My company uses T-mobile and I do a lot of international travel. Their coverage is better in some places than others, but I was able to use the service in Europe and China (however, China sometimes has spotty coverage).

  • CFFrost

    I’ve ben extremely happy with T-mobile for many years now. In fact, we switched to T-Mobile when they first entered the US market. I’ve never had trouble with their domestic coverage, and they’ve also been extremely good in terms of customer service. The new international deals are simply icing on the cake for us.

  • Cindy

    I had this plan with me when i was travelling around the world earlier this year (Los Angeles, Japan, Jakarta, Hongkong, Johannesburg, Kruger, Cape Town, JFK, Los Angeles).

    And I am happy to report suprisingly for the most part, it was enough to catch up on my emails, send text messages, update FB, upload pics at instagram, and even Google map for directions!

  • rick b

    It’s not too hard to buy local SIM cards in every country you go to, usually $10-20. I’m also using Verizon because I need 100% reliable coverage when I’m in the US, but once I’m abroad I pop in a local SIM and use it without problems. I forward all my US calls to google voice and use a VoIP app to take them.

  • Joseph May

    I have used T-Mobile in the US, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and South Africa. It is a life changing experience. No turning off data, no looking for hotspot to use skype. Phone works everywhere. I am able to use the GPS worldwide so no getting lost. I am a very happy customer.
    As for speed so far Solid 3g speed with the exception of Eastern Europe. More than enough for my purposes.

  • GUWonder

    The cheapest thing we do in my family is to get a worldsim.com sim and limit our use of it while roaming to just using the cell data for whatsapp while otherwise blocking all other phone apps from using the cell data. It’s worked very reliably for me across most of Europe and been very cheap. Since we use it as prepaid and don’t enable auto-reloads, there aren’t any nasty surprises.

  • CVG_Traveler

    My company standardized on T-Mobile and their coverage is horrible in the Midwest It is OK if you are outside or near a window, but walk into a grocery store, mall, etc. and forget having usable coverage. The much-touted Wi-Fi calling feature that is native to some of their phones did not always work well (and I had tried BB and Nokia 521 devices) – you would often get better results with Skype or similar VoIP apps. I ended up switching to Verizon – at least in my area, having 1 bar of LTE on Red is way more usable than the equivalent on Magenta. However, I will say that when I was on business trips overseas, the T-Mo SIM worked great in Europe and reasonably well with their roaming partners in Asia. Sometimes the data was a little slow but hard to say whether it was the device or a provision in their roaming agreement. If you are considering them for domestic use, I would recommend a test drive during a month when you will definitely visit some of your frequent destinations. For example, between Thanksgiving and New Years when you are likely to be visiting friends/family.

  • Jason

    What are the taxes/fees on the $80 plan? I’m trying to decide between my current 2 x $30 prepaid plans (no taxes) and this. Is $240/year + taxes worth the ~4-5 times in which I go searching for a local SIM card in another country? In some cases, maybe…like when I am trying to read that Italian text message telling me how to activate the data plan.

    • Alex

      In my 1+ year of experience, I’ve never had any taxes or fees, in California. I could imagine certain states adding mandatory small telecom fees, which would explain the legalese. But on my $60 plan, it’s always been exactly $60.
      How did you get $240? Do you really use more than 5GB for yourself every month?
      If you got the $80 plan, it’s $80 for one line, $100 for two lines total, $110 for three lines total, $120 for four lines total.

      • Jason

        I was referring to the $80 for 2 line plan pictured in the post. $80/mo – $60/mo (currently for 2 prepaid lines) = $20/mo x 12 mo = $240/year. Also, typically on postpaid plans in TX taxes/fees were on the order of 10-15%, and should also include the 911 fee which is required, unless CA allows that to be added to the advertised rate. Prepaid never has these, although they will try to charge taxes when you reload.

  • Lynn

    In Berlin and Prague 2g coverage and most of my apps would not work. In Munich 3g coverage, I also had to make 2 phone call to my bank from Berlin and I think they cost less than $4.50 which was great. I agree with Scott cost outways speed for me.

  • Darrin Earl

    Nice to see coverage of this – I really think T-Mobile is on to something with their new approach. I remember specifically the CEO explaining that they had very little to lose with the international data giveaway – since they didn’t have a lot of revenue from it prior, they didn’t have to stare at the giant profit item on their annual reporting that AT&T or Verizon would have to zero out…. which is a great reinforcement of how much the bigger providers are ripping off those of us who travel internationally.

    • Scottrick

      Good point, though it still costs something to provide the service. Hopefully it’s sustainable as more people use it.

  • Prabir

    I have had t mobile for years and used free international roaming in India and Germany a couple of months ago. It was an amazing and freeing experience! I didn’t have to switch SIM cards or turn off my phone. I could use text messaging and the internet without any issues. It was the perfect to have Google maps for navigation in strange cities. Speeds were not LTE but pretty fast. Awesome idea t mobile!

  • VBL

    Scott, I jumped to T-Mobile in October, just after this benefit was announced. I was going to Argentina and thought I’d rather spend $200 on a new phone than on data. Well, I spent six days in central Buenos Aires (Palermo) and although Argentina was on their list of counties, my service never turned on once. I called customer service, to make sure it wasn’t my phone, no dice. I finally got service on a short layover in Panama City. All I’m saying is, T-Mobile international data in my limited experience was not all it was cracked up to be. I went back to AT&T

  • http://www.rapidtravelchai.com Rapid Travel Chai

    2G is the minimum guaranteed but in reality, if the network has 3G you get 3G. I just used it on a 7-country trip as an example. 5 countries got 3G. 1 country, Pakistan, has no 3G. 1 country, Jordan, is not part of the T-Mobile free package and T-Mobile helpfully immediately texted me with the roaming costs and an activation code to use if I wanted to activate, a nice safeguard. It was side by side with my work AT&T Blackberry and on the same networks both gave the same speed, the main difference was in most countries AT&T can connect to several networks while T-Mobile can only typically connect to one, like AirTel for India. I have been incredibly impressed so far, and also getting as good service in NYC as AT&T, and much better than Sprint.

  • raju singh

    Cheap calls to France apps

    Smartgroschen is a apps which is providing cheap calls to France with high quality voice calls. You can also use this apps for chat with video clips, pictures and your current position on the map. Smartgroschen is an instant messenger that allows you to connect with any Smartgroschen-user worldwide for free.