If you wish to always stay connected while abroad (not just rely on wifi when it’s available), you have 2 options. The first is to buy SIM cards at the locations you visit. The second is to have some sort of international phone plan that will work in other countries. I did not want to deal with the hassle of finding local SIM cards whenever I reached a new destination, so I began researching the second option. The vast majority of the information on the internet talks about how great T-Mobile is for traveling. A few blogs are beginning to mention Project Fi, a new phone service from Google. Both have some advantages and disadvantages.
For T-Mobile, you need to be on one of their postpaid plans to have access to data while abroad. Their plan will work with any phone, which is the biggest selling point in my opinion. If Brittany and I were to do this, the cheapest option would be to pay $80 a month. This would get us each 2 GB of data a month.
Project Fi is the more interesting and new option. It is the option that we decided to go with. The biggest catch is that the plan only “works” on 3 of their Nexus phones (at the time of this writing). It works with the Nexus 6, 5X, and 6P. There have been reports of the SIM card working in other devices, but to activate the SIM card to begin with, you must use one of these 3 phones. We decided to buy the 5X for around $300. It is the smallest of the 3, thus the most travel friendly. The plan we have offers unlimited voice, unlimited texting, and 1 GB of data in the United States for $30 a month. Data cost $10/Gb and you can choose how much you would like to pay for. We opted for just 1 GB, but if we go over we are simply charged at the same rate of $10/GB. Voice calls cost an extra $0.20 a minute while abroad. This is fine for us as we do not plan on using the calling feature often, if at all. We can use Skype or FaceTime Audio over wifi/data.
Google recently introduced data-only SIM cards that you can add on to your plan. These are officially supported in a few tablets listed on the Project Fi page here, but in reality, they work in many more devices. We ordered 2 data-only SIM cards (you are allowed up to 10). Brittany and I put these in our iPhones. We are iPhone people and this allows us to easily iMessage our family and friends back home pretty much wherever we are. These data only SIM cards do not add any extra fees and the data they use is just pulled out of the pool of data that your plan is allowed.
One important thing to note is that tethering does not work with the data-only SIM cards. This is one of the reasons you need to make sure to also bring the comparable Nexus phone with you when you travel abroad. To use tethering, you need one of the “real” SIM cards. We use our Nexus 5X when needed as a portable hotspot to connect our laptops. This also does not have any additional costs.
A unique feature of Project Fi is that if you do not use the full amount of data that you pre-bought, you get refunded the amount that you did not use at the end of the month! The data cost $10/GB. If at the end of your billing cycle you have only used 0.5 GB, you will get refunded $5. Pretty cool!
As far as I can tell, Google uses the same global network that T-mobile uses to provide cellular connection in various countries. Their coverage listings are identical. However, one huge benefit is that Google caps the speed at 256 Mbps compared to T-Mobile’s 128 Mbps. Double the speed! I have also found that in some countries my speeds appear to be even greater than the advertised 256 Mbps. Another plus!
How to Make the Decision
In the end, I think there are a few scenarios to go with T-Mobile when traveling outside of the country. It makes sense if you already have a postpaid T-Mobile plan (unfortunately I was using a prepaid T-Mobile plan before I left the country). It may also make sense if you do not want to buy another phone and you do not own one of the compatible Nexus phones. I believe Project Fi makes sense if you are traveling with more than 1 person. You can order multiple data only SIM cards and all use the same pool of data instead of each needing to have an individual plan or have multiple lines on the same account.
When I researched everything originally, it would have cost Brittany and I $80 a month to go with T-Mobile. Google costs us $30 a month (with the chance of getting some money refunded every month, and a chance of us going over our data allowance, but I don’t see that happening too often). We did have a higher up-front cost with Project Fi because we needed to buy a Nexus phone to get everything up and running. We knew in the long run we would still save money with Project Fi, even with the higher up-front cost. We also get to enjoy more speedy data connections at the same time!
What do you do when traveling internationally? Have you tried Project Fi?