Before setting out on our family travel sabbatical we researched the options for cell phone coverage during our journey around the world. Ultimately we decided on service with Google Fi (formerly Project Fi) since it is the best solution we’ve found for international nomads looking to stay connected.
After five months of usage in 20 European countries we’re very satisfied with Google Fi despite a few issues. In this post we’ll share some of the cell phone plan options available to travelers as well as our experience with Google Fi.
Note: links to Google Fi in this post include our referral code. If you use this link and sign up with Fi you’ll get an additional $20 in Fi credit (and we’ll get $20 in credit also, so thanks!).
Comparing the Options
Travelers have two primary options for cell coverage overseas:
- Purchase local SIM cards in each country visited
- Use a single cellular provider with international coverage
Using Local SIM Cards
Picking up a local SIM Card can be a cost-effective option but it does have several drawbacks. Here are a few of the pros and cons for this option.
- In most countries cellular service is cheaper than using a provider based in the USA.
- Requires an unlocked cell phone compatible with the local network protocol.
- Does not allow you to keep your home country cell phone number (unless combined with another service like Google Voice).
- A new SIM card is usually required in each country visited.
- Need to figure out where and how to purchase the SIM upon arrival (which could be a problem if you can’t use your phone to search).
We decided against using local SIM cards mainly because we’re traveling from country to country and it would be impractical to have to get a new SIM card every few days or weeks. Also, we wanted to keep our home numbers so that we could easily stay in touch with family and friends back home. For travelers staying in a single country for a longer time this is likely a good option.
International Cell Phone Plans
The second main option is to use a single provider (e.g. AT&T, T-Mobile, Google Fi) that offers global coverage.
- No need to buy new SIM cards when traveling to a new country.
- Uninterrupted access to calls and data when crossing borders.
- Ability to keep your cell phone number instead changing numbers with each new SIM.
- Could be less cost effective than a local SIM, depending on the length of the trip.
The main US based cellular operators that we compared were T-Mobile and Google Fi. Other providers tend to be much more expensive overseas. For example, AT&T offers unlimited international coverage at $10 per day. This might make sense for a short trip but not if spending a month or more abroad.
For most T-Mobile plans, data can be used in 210+ countries, but only at 2G speeds. Accessing high speed data (up to LTE speeds) costs an additional $5 per day internationally. International calls are billed at $0.25 per minute and texts are free. The Unlimited plan costs $70/month for one line, $120/month for two.
Google Fi covers 170+ countries (full list here). Within those countries, high speed data costs the same as it does domestically. Calling internationally is free if done over WiFi, otherwise it costs $0.20 per minute in most countries. Texts are free. Pricing for one line is $20/month for texts and calls and $10 per GB of cellular data (data charges capped at 6GB). For two lines the cost is $35/month for texts and calls and $10 per GB (data charges capped at 10GB).
Google Fi does not have it’s own network; instead, it uses networks owned by other operators including Three, Sprint, US Cellular, and T-Mobile. Ironically Google Fi customers can use T-Mobile’s high speed networks overseas as part of their base plan, which is something that T-Mobile customers can’t do without paying extra.
Remember trying to load web pages at 2G speeds? We do, and we don’t want to re-live that experience. Having seamless cross-border access to high-speed cellular networks without having to pay an additional $5, $10 (or more) per day was the main factor that pushed us towards Google Fi.
Google Fi Reviewed
After five months of usage across 20 European countries, Google Fi has mostly met our expectations. During our road trip across the continent we’ve clocked 16,000+ miles both in major cities and in the middle of nowhere (like rural Bulgaria and Montenegro) and there have been very few times that we’ve lost coverage.
Staying connected to data as we cross borders is very important to us because we rely on Waze for navigation. Waze is a life saver, especially when in counties with poorly labeled roads or where signage is in Cyrillic or Greek.
Whenever we cross the border we quickly get a reassuring notification from Fi that we’re covered in the new country.
Our experience with Google Fi internationally has been overwhelmingly positive. However, the service has not been 100% perfect. Here are a few of the issues we’ve encountered:
- In a couple of cities texting was delayed, as was the case when we were in Paris and for some reason it took several minutes for our texts to be transmitted.
- 2-factor authentication texts from companies (e.g. banks) in the US often don’t go through. Fortunately 2-factor authentication can usually be done over email instead.
- Calls often use cellular networks even when we’re connected to WiFi, which results in us paying $0.20 per minute instead of calling for free. Google Fi determines whether the WiFi connection is suitable for calling and if not reverts to cellular networks. This is not that big of a deal for us since we typically don’t use voice calling that often, and for long calls we use an internet calling/video calling app like Google Hangouts.
- LTE data did not work for us at all in Montenegro (we had to switch our network preference to 3G to get data coverage).
- In some locations data did not work on networks other than T-Mobile on one or both of our handsets (Moto X4 and Pixel 2). We first encountered this problem in Budapest with the Pixel 2. Fortunately data was working on our Moto X4 and we were able to quickly get on a chat with a Fi support tech who told us how to switch between networks. We switched the Pixel network from Three to T-Mobile and this fixed the problem. For reference, a handy list of dialer codes can be found here.
For frequent or long-term travelers visiting numerous countries, Google Fi is a no-brainer since Fi is the only cellular provider that offers access to high speed cellular data in 170+ countries without extra charges. Additionally, the cost of Fi plans are very competitive with traditional providers.
We hope this post is useful to fellow travelers. If you’ve found a better solution for international cell phone coverage please let us know in the comments section below. If you’ve decided to switch to Google Fi please use our referral link for an additional $20 credit on Fi (this usually stacks with other promotions). We’ll also get $20 in credit, so thanks!
January 2019 Update – We made it to Belize and Google Fi is working great here too! We’ll be testing it out in Central and South America over the coming months!