A long time ago in a state far, far away (Massachusetts), I used AT&T as my cellphone service provider. I had been using them since I was 19. When the iPhone first came out, I bought it because I could remove the original AT&T SIM card, insert a local SIM from the country I was in, and still have a handy-dandy smartphone to tweet from. So I unlocked my phone (hacked it so I could use it overseas) and off around the world I happily went.
Flash forward to the end of 2012, when Verizon announced taht their phones would come automatically unlocked for international travel. I needed a new iPhone at this point, AT&T had awful customer service and high fees, and since the new phone would already be unlocked, it would save me some hassle. It was the excuse I needed to leave AT&T.
Flash forward again to the end of 2013, when T-Mobile announced it was giving all their users free international data and text messaging in over 100 countries — plus all calls while in those countries were 20 cents a minute. This was a pretty enticing offer since I pay a lot of money a year in phone coverage.
Here’s a table of international fees I pulled together from each carrier’s website so you can compare:
|Data||$0||$30-120 per month||$25 per 100MB|
|Texting||$0||Starts at 10 cents each||50 cents to send, 5 cents to receive|
|Roaming||20 cents a minute||$30-120 per month||$4.99 per month|
That chart pretty lays the numbers out there. T-Mobile is the clear winner here.
Now, historically, T-Mobile had a reputation of being a really bad service provider. And for a number of years, they were — but thanks to money they received after the failed merger with AT&T, they heavily invested in their network and began offering 4G and LTE speeds. Now, their coverage map is almost as good as the other carriers (it still doesn’t have Verizon-level coverage but they cover 96% of the country).
With their plans starting at $50 USD per month, it was hard to make the case to stay with Verizon. I found Verizon had awful customer service and high roaming fees (one quick phone call in Canada cost me over $10!), and with my basic service plan costing $110 a month, it became a financial no-brainer.
So I made the switch. I broke my contract with Verizon, ordered a new iPhone 5S, signed-up for T-Mobile, and hoped I made the right choice. My phone plan is now $70 per month (with taxes) — that’s a savings of $40 per month right away, but the big question remained: would I have good service both at home and abroad?
Service at home in New York City has been fine. I have 4G or LTE wherever I go, and I haven’t had any dropped calls. At the recent SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, I had some spotty service, but with 20,000 people there, that might have been the reason. After using the phone for close to three months now, I haven’t had any dropped calls and only a few instances of “no service” when I was in a few rural areas, but that usually only lasts a few seconds. However, that used to happen with Verizon too, so I’m not concerned about it. (According to a new study, T-Mobile has the fastest Internet coverage, too.)
And how does it do internationally? Well, I flew to Hong Kong in February, and the second we landed I turned on my phone and waited for service. “Searching” my phone shouted back at me. Searching… searching… no service.
I slunk in my seat, deflated. I kept turning the phone on and off in hopes of finding a connection. The plane came to the gate. Still nothing.
I hopped on the airport Wi-Fi and tweeted at T-Mobile. My plan was the right plan. It was all set to go. But nothing.
Deflated even more, I walked through the terminal when it happened — service. 3G service. On my phone.
I had overreacted.
When I touched down later that day in Bangkok, my phone buzzed alive with updates as I connected to the local phone operator, AIS with 3G service.
I was set to go. But service doesn’t mean good service.
So how did it work out?
I didn’t have any dropped calls, all my texts went through, and for the most part I had a 3G connection. A number of times while in the slightly rural areas, I only got the “E” network and had to deal with slightly slow Internet, but I always had it. (The only 4G network in Thailand is through True Move, and T-Mobile doesn’t partner with them.)
When I came home in early March, I found my bill wasn’t $10,000 but still the same old $70 I was promised. There were no hidden fees! It was all as promised.
The following week I was in Berlin and London. My phone worked perfectly there. There was still no 4G/LTE service but I always had fast 3G service and was able to upload and share information quickly. No dropped calls, missed text messages, or bad service.
I am thrilled by this, and T-Mobile — with its contract-free (and cheaper) plans, free international data, and better customer service model — now has me as a customer for a long, long time. I never again have to worry about buying foreign SIM cards and coverage again. There are no more additional costs in my travels. I know what my phone bill is going to be every month, and I get to keep the same number worldwide.
If you are a traveler and live in the US, you should 100% get T-Mobile. Your life will be a lot easier, you’ll be able to keep the same number, and you’ll stay connected around the world. (And your bill will be a lot cheaper.)
If you already have T-Mobile and don’t think you have this plan, you should. It’s available to all users, so make sure you call and get this service attached to your old plan if it isn’t already.
I’m really excited about T-Mobile, the land of no contracts, no cancellation fees, and free international data and texting.
They really are the “uncarrier,” and anything that breaks the Verizon/AT&T hold in the US is something I completely support.
So, to all the travelers out there (or people who are just fed up with the fees and services of the other carriers), make the switch to T-Mobile and simplify your life and lower your overseas phone costs.
Update 3/15/15: Using T-Mobile phones in China gets you around the Great Firewall. I was able to use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram without a problem.
Update 3/10/17: You can send/receive unlimited texts and picture messages from the air using T-Mobile phones on GoGo WiFi-enabled flights. You also get one hour of free GoGo In-Flight WiFi on each flight!
Note: I know people will wonder, so I want to say that no, T-Mobile didn’t sponsor me or ask me to write this post. I pay my own monthly bill, switched when I heard about this amazing offer, and have been very happy with the service since. I’m just here preaching about something I believe will help other travelers.
For more tips on saving money on phones and data when you travel, read three related posts below.