T-Mobile is your friend traveling abroad; in the US, not so much

Two years ago I switch from AT&T to T-Mobile and in that time I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the US and abroad. If you travel abroad and aren’t on T-Mobile, you might want to reconsider.

Traveling abroad

If you’re traveling abroad, particularly to anywhere in Europe, T-Mobile is awesome. If you’re on a T-Mobile US plan, you likely get free unlimited data roaming out of the country. It’s limited to 3G speeds, but it’s vastly better than no data whatsoever. In the past 18 months I’ve traveled to Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria and in every country I’ve had unlimited data access and excellent coverage.

As someone who has traveled internationally a decent amount in the past 15 years, let me tell you that traveling with data access drastically changes how you travel for the better. Instead of researching and printing out maps before you get there, you can bring up Google Maps and get directions in situ. Prior, I would have never gotten on a bus in a foreign city for fear of not knowing where to get off. With data, however, you can bring up Google Maps1 and catch a bus (or trolley or tram or U-bahn) without pre-planning. Wanting food recommendations? Yelp away. Can’t wait to share that photo with friends? Post it right after you take it.

With data readily available on your mobile device2, you aren’t locked into staying places that have WiFi. Or hanging out at coffee shops with free WiFi just to get that email out to a loved one or look up dinner options. Other providers offer data plans overseas, but they aren’t unlimited and have to be set up ahead of time — and you have to pay extra for them. Then, when you’re using them, you’re rationing your data usage like you were living a decade ago. With T-Mobile it’s all automatic and included in your usual T-Mobile monthly charge. I’ve found this to significantly reduce travel friction.

In addition to unlimited data, you also have unlimited texting with T-Mobile overseas. Need to text a travelling companion to coordinate when and where to meet? Text away without worrying about getting charged for each one.

Keep in mind that you still have to pay for voice calls when travelling, so if you expect to do a lot of phone calls that aren’t over WiFi, unlimited data won’t help you much. Still, the per-minute rates are reasonable for the one-off calls to your hotel to confirm or change a reservation.

With T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans, as long as you have a supported phone, you can enroll in one of their plans on a month-to-month basis with no long-term commitments. Depending on when and where you’re traveling it may be cost effective (in dollars and/or stress) to get a T-Mobile SIM card just for the duration of your travel.

Travel in the US

Unlike traveling abroad, traveling in the US with T-Mobile is a mixed bag. T-Mobile’s headquarters are in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle, so their coverage in and around the Seattle metro area is excellent. They have a strong presence elsewhere in the US, primarily centered in large metro areas. If your US travel has you most often in big cities you’re likely good to go with high-speed data.

In some states in the US heartland (also known as the fly-over states) there is no T-Mobile service whatsoever and you’re roaming. This was particularly apparent when driving from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington last year.

T-Mobile provides data roaming in their plans, but it isn’t unlimited. In fact, the amount of data you have varies depending on your plan and after you hit it, you’re cut off, not throttled — something we found out the hard way in the aforementioned cross-country drive. This was quite a shock after having traveled abroad prior with unlimited data. So while we almost always had voice coverage on the trip, we had either no or rationed data. If you are on T-Mobile, I recommend calling them and asking how much US roaming data is included in your plan before heading out for that cross-country road trip.

If you expect to do a lot of traveling across the US, other providers like AT&T or Verizon might have better coverage. With AT&T’s contract-less plans, it might even be cost effective to get an AT&T SIM card depending on your needs.

1 While Google Maps is great, it isn’t necessarily the best for public transit in every city. We used Google Maps to take busses and trains in Sydney without a problem, but it didn’t know anything about Melbourne’s public transit. There was, however, an app from a local transit authority which got us everywhere we needed to go on the trams. For trains in Europe, the Deutche Bahn mobile app is better than Google Maps even outside Germany.

2 Overseas data does not include tethering. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t allow port 80 access over tethering in Australia. I set up an SSH SOCKS proxy over a different port and got web traffic to work for me over a tether.

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I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

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