International Cell Phone Plans for When T-Mobile Sucks

Shawn Forno

T-Mobile’s Simple Choice International phone plan is amazing. For $50 you get unlimited texting, unlimited data, and 20 cent/minute calls in 140+ countries. What’s even cooler is that you don’t have to sign up for anything or update your account—it just works.

When you land, your phone pings the local provider, authenticates your plan, and you hit the ground running. No buying confusing (expensive) preloaded SIM cards with unfamiliar country codes, restrictive plans, and a new number for each destination. No shocking triple digit overage charges. Just unlimited, if a little sluggish, data and texting.

But things at T-Mobile are changing. Gone is the Simple Choice International plan (unless you’re grandfathered into the plan). Instead, they’ve added a new, more expensive, option that covers everything. But does it really? T-Mobile is the digital nomad’s cell provider of choice, but it’s not always awesome, and it might not be the best in town for long.

Let’s take a look at what to expect from T-Mobile’s new three-tiered international roaming plan, and a few alternatives for when things go wrong, the data is too slow, your country isn’t covered, or you’re just looking for a better way.

Disclaimer: This is not a paid endorsement of T-Mobile, Sprint, or any cell phone company listed below. Any positive—or negative—review is my own opinion.

T-Mobile One Plan: The New International Roaming Plan

Single line plans under the new T-Mobile One plan start at $70—taxes included. Bundling all the fees, surcharges, and taxes into a flat price is pretty cool, but there is a noticeable price increase over the previous basic international plan.

If you’re traveling with the whole family, you get a discount on multiple lines, down to $40/line for four phone plans but, for the solo traveler, it’s still a price increase, so we’ll stick with the $70/month single plan for this review.

Here’s what you get with T-Mobile One ($70/month):

Upgrades to the T-Mobile One Plan

Business travelers or digital nomads might want to consider upgrading to the T-Mobile One+ plan and the International One+ plan (there’s always a “+”).

Here’s what you get with T-Mobile One+ ($85/month):

Here’s what you get with T-Mobile One+ International ($95/month):

The Verdict:

T-Mobile is good but might not be the cheapest (or fastest) anymore.

T-mobile’s international plans aren’t quite as “simple” as they used to be, but they’re still one of the most reliable international cell phone plans around. The new price of $70/month is a significant jump up from the original $50/month Simple Choice International Plan that users have known (and loved!) for years, but it comes with increased service and speeds.

You won’t always have 3G data speeds but,  when you do, it’s almost like what you’re used to. Allow for extra time to do the little things you take for granted—10 seconds to load Instagram, 5 seconds to refresh a page—but you shouldn’t want to be checking all that stuff on your phone anyway. You’re traveling! Get back out there and do something cool in real life.

T-Mobile also provides “data kickback” that refunds you $10/month if you use less than 2GB of data, so that’s something. It’s kind of like rollover minutes (remember those?!), but let’s be honest—you’re never going to be under 2GB of data in a month. Still, it’s a nice thought.

T-Mobile is usually great, but what happens when it isn’t?

International Cell Phone Alternatives

T-Mobile isn’t the only game in town any more for travelers who expect their international cell phone plans to keep up. Read on for a breakdown of the competition.

Sprint Global Roaming International Plan ($45/month)

The days of T-Mobile dominating the market with the only common sense international plan are over. Sprint has unveiled the most competitive international roaming plan to date. In fact, it might even be better—or at least cheaper—than T-Mobile.

The basic international roaming plan from Sprint is only $45. To be clear, that’s a regular domestic phone plan that includes roaming, not $45 in addition to your existing plan. The roaming plan is simple, but includes:

The Sprint plan doesn’t have the same streaming frills (HBO, Pandora) as T-Mobile, but the coverage is actually better—150+ countries, compared to 140+. The biggest differentiator between the top two international roaming plans is speed.

international phone plan

International Roaming Plans: Data Speed Comparison:
T-Mobile international roaming data boasts 4G speed, but typically operates at 2G speed, which is around 128kps. Don’t let the “G” fool you into thinking that your data moves at “gig” speeds. Best case scenario—your phone is going to be half as slow as you’re used to, but it usually won’t get much slower than that.

Sprint on the other hand starts at 2G speed (subject to availability, of course) but offers packages to boost the speed. These add ons are expensive, but if you really need to work, the ability to bump the speed for a few days is worth the extra cost.

$50 is a lot to pay for guaranteed data speed, but two full weeks of high speed data is hopefully worth the cost. After you exceed the allotted data, they bump you back down to 2G speeds.

Verizon and AT&T International Roaming Plans

I’ll list Verizon and AT&T international roaming plans, just to be thorough, but they are identical, and they’re both bad.

AT&T International Day Pass

You can pay $10 a day for an international roaming “day pass.” That’s a lot. This plan is full of restrictions, overages, and fine print (you’re not allowed to use more than 50% of your typical data usage). Here’s a direct quote from their site:

“If you have apps running in the background that use data, you’ll be charged the daily fee.”

You only get charged for the days you use it, but you’re going to forget and accidentally open one link, and boom—$10 charge. Avoid this plan like the plague.

AT&T Passport International Plan

This is an interesting option, but only if you really don’t plan on actually using it. For $40 (in addition to your monthly bill), you get unlimited text, $1 calls (woof), and 200MB of data. But overages apply—$0.25 per MB. No one thinks about the amount of data they use, so you will go over this plan quickly. Seriously, if you accidentally watch a YouTube video, you’re screwed.

You can pay more for more data ($60 = 300MB / $120 = 800MB) but even on the $120 plan you still have overage fees ($0.15 per MB). That’s insanity. Avoid AT&T abroad.

Verizon International Travel Pass

Verizon is basically the same as AT&T—$10/day (on top of your plan) for international roaming—but it’s even worse when it comes to overage fees and charges—they charge $25 for going over 100MB. Nope.

Monthly plans are available as well, at two options:

Did you read that carefully? You have to pay to receive texts.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Welcome to 1996.

If none of these international roaming plans are doing it for you, it might be time to consider going rogue and getting your own SIM card in country. Here’s how you do that.

Get Your Own SIM Card

The first step in getting a compatible SIM card is unlocking your phone. Relax, it’s not what it used to be. In fact, unlocking your phone is completely legal and most providers will actually do it for you if you qualify.

Sidenote: Unlocking a phone is not the same thing as “jailbreaking” your phone. That means running apps, programs or unapproved OS on the phone. Jailbreaking your phone also won’t let you switch carriers. Two, totally different things.

I’ve written about unlocked phones before, but here’s a quick primer:

Compatibility: Unlocked Phones, GSM, & SIM Cards

Every cell phone company uses either a GSM or CDMA network. T-Mobile and AT&T for example use GSM. Sprint and Verizon operate on CDMA. Find out which network the country you’re traveling to uses, and plan accordingly. Even unlocked phones won’t work on the wrong network, and you can’t just swap in a new SIM card either. The issue is the frequency the phone uses.

Quad-Band Phones

To further complicate things, even if you’re GSM compatible, your phone still might not work. US and Canadian phones operate on the 850/1900 GSM band, while most other GSM countries use the 900/1800 band. That means you need a quad-band GSM phone.

The new Google Pixel is a sweet unlocked phone with access to Google’s Project Fi network. This phone is a little fringe right now, but worth investigating if you’re a little more tech savvy than most.

All of this sounds more technical than it is. Old school burner phones are often quad-band GSM compatible. Just double check your make and model to be sure. For Europe however, you don’t need to do anything; you’re fine.

International SIM Cards

A new FCC ruling in 2015 means that cell phone companies have to unlock phones when a contract runs out or you pay off your phone. It’s the law (at least for now). That rule is why phone companies got smart and launched those new “free upgrade every year plans”— which keeps unlocked phones off the market, and makes sure you stay loyal with a new leased phone every year.

So, it’s less likely every year that you actually own your phone, or that you can get it easily unlocked. And, unlocking your phone is really important for using any SIM card or network in Southeast Asia.

If you have an unlocked, GSM-compatible, phone you’re good to go. Research local cell phone plans, buy a SIM card, and never worry about data overages and roaming fees. Although… you will have to cancel your US plan or pay double while you’re traveling, which is always a bummer.

Wifi Calling Apps

Sometimes the best international phone plan is absolutely no plan at all. Slap that baby into airplane mode, enjoy the benefits of spectacular battery life, and get used to riding the wifi train if (and when) you can connect.

Obviously tethering your usage to wifi is a hassle, especially if you’re a working digital nomad, but here are a few essentials that every traveler should have on their phone.

WhatsApp

international phone plan
WhatsApp is the granddaddy of wifi calling and texting, and there’s a reason it’s still around. A great app that’s free, easy to use, and just plain works. Enjoy free calling to friends and family from anywhere (almost), free document sharing, group messages, voice messages, video chat, and even a “Moments” feature like Snapchat and Instagram.

Download this if you’re leaving the country. Actually, download this even if you’re not; it’s a great way to stay in touch with your international friends.

Viber

Personally, I’ve never been much for redundancy—if WhatsApp works, why get another app?—but many travelers swear by Viber. The interface is exactly what you’d expect from a messaging app, but Viber also integrates with your desktop to make it feel like you still use AOL Instant Messenger.

All jokes aside, it’s nice to see all your messages on your desktop, like a mobile international inbox. I’ll give it a go on my next trip.

Skype Mobile App

Yes, Skype is still a thing, and yes, the Skype mobile app is good. They even have group video chat now, which sounds like a nightmare, but maybe you’re into screaming over your friends as they lag seconds behind your crappy connection.

However, the real game changer for international travelers is Skype’s new group messaging app, GroupMe.

GroupMe from Skype

international phone plan
This app lets you “text” with as many contacts as you like for free in a virtual private chat room. Add photos, stickers, and all that other crap, and do it all for free.

GroupMe syncs across all your devices, so you’re always up to date, but more importantly, you can message people that aren’t on Skype. I know.

GroupMe allows SMS texts to become part of the conversation. Currently, that feature is only available in the U.S., which is kind of a bummer, but that means you can text with multiple people—including your mom—without teaching her how to download and use a new app. And that’s just awesome.

Google Voice

Google Voice lets you message and call people from a Google assigned number in your phone. It’s not that flashy, but you’re already using Google for a ton of stuff, so incorporating Voice into your international phone strategy is a cinch.

Just download the app and enjoy, transcribed voicemails, group messages, and international calling. All you need is a wifi signal and you’re in business.

TL;DR

International roaming plans can be complicated (AT&T and Verizon especially), but they don’t have to be. Find a domestic carrier with rates and roaming data you can stomach, then never second guess staying in touch while abroad.

Digital nomads have extra options when it comes to speed, but hopefully the trend for cheap, easy to use international roaming plans keep going the way they’re headed. T-Mobile is still the best plan out there as far as speed, use, and price, but Sprint and other competitors, apps, and global wifi coverage are coming, and hopefully coming soon.