The Best Cell Carrier for International Travelers



By Robert McGarvey


Stop the debate. There really shouldn’t be any.  When it comes to picking a cellular carrier for frequent international travelers the best by far is Project Fi from Google.

Second best is TMobile – but it’s a distant second.  Subscribe to T-Mobile’s “Simple Choice” and what you get is calls at 20 cents a minute, unlimited texting, and unlimited data. But the hitch with the data is that the first 2GB are high speed. Then it slows to 2G.  If you want higher speed, T-Mo upsells you into a week pass with 200MB of data for $25.

The problem: 200 MB of data is almost nothing.  It’s fine for email, checking social sites, posting a handful of pix but don’t go crazy. Photos can really eat through data.  Be very careful with mapping. Be very careful with everything in fact.

Right now, many pundits are busily crowning T-Mo as the best carrier for international travelers. But they are mistaken.

Enter Project Fi.  It offers high speed data access in 135 countries (just about any place you want to go) at a flat $10 per GB – which is the same rate you pay in the US. With Project Fi you pay for what you use, in 1 GB tranches.  Sign up for a 3GB per month plan, only use 1, and you pay $10, not $30.

The Fi Basic plan is $20 per month for unlimited domestic talk and text.

Internationally, calls are 20 cents per minute.  Texting is free. Data is the same price in 135+ countries.

The Project Fi goal is simple but bold. It wants to make the whole world safe for one phone, from one carrier.  No horrifying high roaming charges.  No need to swap SIM cards.  The single Project Fi phone will do you.

What’s the hitch?  The only hitch is that Fi works only on a couple of phones.  The 6P is $349.  The 5X is $199.  Google sells both.

As for the network, domestically, Google uses T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular and it hops among them and latches onto the strongest signal.

In Europe it uses Three and probably other carriers.  

Elsewhere, Google is not especially transparent about who is carrying its calls and data but why should it be? It probably swaps carrier partners as business needs dictate and certainly as they change.

Where it can, Project Fi seeks to use WiFi – it almost certainly will in your home and office – for calling. How good is that? In my tests – I have had Project Fi for about a year – WiFi calling has erratic quality. Sometimes it is good, sometimes no and my home WiFi has a generally strong signal.  So I’m not sure why it sometimes is poor quality. (Note: you can turn off WiFi calling as an option. I don’t advise it. But if you wish, you may.)

Use WiFi when abroad to make international calls and rates tumble to far below 20 cents per minute. A call from the UK to India is 1 cent per minute. Most calls to the US are free. Those low rates are not atypical.  All WiFi calls are processed via Google’s Hangout app.

Walking around downtown Phoenix and using cellular networks, Project Fi on average is a stronger signal, less likely to drop than the T-Mo signal I have on an iPhone.  I have experienced similar in Las Vegas.  

I detected no differences between them in New York and that’s true in much of the country.

How can Google make money on international calling and data? Probably it does not.  Google is reticent about divulging data on particular lines of business, and does not breakout Project Fi’s financials, but the general belief is that Google runs Fi as a kind of cudgel to goad cellular carriers into offering technologically better and more consumer friendly plans.

Back to T-Mo which apparently is not willing to surrender.  Through August T-Mobile now promises unlimited 4G LTE data in much of Europe and, honestly, that puts it ahead of Fi – assuming it extends that deal beyond this summer.  Right now there is no indication T-Mo will, or won’t.  We just don’t know.

Until we know, I’d go with Fi,

Oh, there is no contract with Project Fi.  Sign up for it and if you don’t like it, quit. The phone – unlocked – will happily accommodate a T-Mobile SIM, probably also AT&T.  
Once you needed an invitation to sign up for Project Fi. No more. Just visit the website.  

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