a while back when T-Mobile introduced their unlimited international roaming benefit to customers on their Simple Choice plans, it seemed like a godsend for us frequent travelers who don’t have a plan through work that gives us unlimited data. or, in my case, a plan through work where we no longer have that benefit (thanks, Verizon!). over 120 countries with unlimited texting, unlimited (albeit throttled) data, and 20 cents/min voice. it’s the data part that got me interested. while i’m so used to getting a local SIM, it has become tiresome — and i couldn’t say no to at least trying this out. unfortunately my SIM card arrived too late (my fault) for my last trip to Russia and Rome, so it’s been sitting quietly consuming US data like a good little chip until my trip this past week to Ireland.
because i use my work phone as my personal phone (nice benefit), i didn’t want to switch from the work plan and start paying for full cell phone service out of my own pocket. thanks to reader Reeder’s comment on an earlier post, though, i found out that you can get a data-only SIM. the lowest plan that gets you the unlimited international roaming is 500 MB (may be doubled to 1GB now) of domestic data (at full speed, then throttled to slow) for $20 + tax a month, or $22 iirc. you do need to have primary usage within the United States (and you must activate your SIM domestically before going abroad) so i left it in an old unlocked smartphone for the past month, just updating apps and doing random stuff on 4G. by the way, it’s easiest to just order the SIM online. no meatspace hassles.
for the record, i use the SIM card in my unlocked Verizon iPhone 5s. all late-model Verizon iPhones come unlocked out of the box, but note that an unlocked, unactivated Verizon 4s is unable to activate via a T-Mobile SIM. i was going to use my old 4s as my domestic phone but i ended up getting a cheap unlocked Windows Phone from Amazon since it wouldn’t go. let this be a warning!
UPDATE: forgot to mention, to order a SIM only, go to the Bring Your Own Device page on their website.
yes, you can get 120 MB on AT&T for $30 or 100 MB on Verizon for $25, but in a week i use at a minimum 350-400 MB of data, so that definitely adds up.
how well does it work?
in terms of the phone and networks themselves? seamlessly. any problems i had were likely due to reception issues (like when i unsuccessfully tried to tweet a picture for 30 minutes at the Giant’s Causeway). yes, you are significantly throttled. if you’re used to 3G or 4G speeds (and really, who isn’t), you’ll be in for a shock having to go back to ye olden dayes. your phone will say 3G but don’t be fooled. some people have reported not being throttled though, so your mileage my vary.
i found that you don’t preferentially roam on T-Mobile networks — in Ireland and the UK i roamed on EE (T-Mobile’s new UK brand after merging with Orange UK), Vodafone, and O2. i didn’t do speed tests on any of them but download speeds were definitely adequate even for a social media addict like myself. there were times when it seemed like upload speeds were not throttled at all; i was able to tweet out a panorama and a Vine in no time flat, but there were times when tweeting a picture would take forever and time out, requiring you to reattempt once or twice (or more).
note that i don’t use voice while abroad (ha, and hardly ever at home) so i cannot comment on that aspect. (i also don’t know if voice would work for me since i have only data on my plan?)
i might have to hang up my Local SIM Card Maven hat! if i’m going to the more than 120 countries that are included in the roaming plan, i will rely on the throttled plan first, only resorting to a local card if things don’t work out well or i need better speeds. (yes, you can buy a temporary speed boost but if i’m doing that i’ll just get a local SIM card where the pricing will probably work out to be better anyways if i’m really needing it.) worse comes to worst there’s always wifi.
what worked well enough at these speeds: airline phone apps, mobile-optimized websites, Google Maps, email, Foursquare, Instagram, i’d assume Facebook (i’m not a heavy Facebook user, but the little bit i did was fine), Yelp, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. note that i help Twitter out a bit by using the magic wand tool when i send pictures — i think it makes the picture smaller? don’t quote me on that but i think it might be true. basically anything that was not a full-on website or video worked adequately.
there are some countries on the list where i’ll definitely use this, since getting a local SIM is slow (ahem France), difficult/impossible/expensive (Japan, South Korea, and Brazil come to mind), and random places where you just can’t be bothered (Turkmenistan? Democratic Republic of Congo? Zambia? Madagascar? — while i’ve never been to any of these, i would imagine getting a SIM card may not be a cakewalk). also, it’s great for when you’re day tripping to another country and don’t have time to get a SIM card, or just passing through a foreign airport and HAVE to check in and can’t be bothered with paying for wifi.
off the top of my head, i can’t think of any reason why this would not be my first plan of attack in covered countries. i managed just fine this week in Ireland (+ day in Northern Ireland). sure, it could have been faster, but once your expectations are adjusted, $22 a month for “it just works” is worth it for me. granted, you have to be traveling quite a bit to make it worthwhile; i’m not sure if i went somewhere, say, every three months if it would be günstig since at that rate you’re paying $66 for your roaming. i have no international trips planned next month but the rest of the year is pretty packed, so i’m going to keep with it for now.
i just hope they don’t kill my account this summer because of too much international usage! according to an AP article reader Reeder mentioned, “There will be some limits for frequent travelers. Any trip abroad needs to be six weeks or less, and customers need to spend at least half their time in the U.S. in any three-month period. The program is not for students spending a year abroad, for instance.” — i’m not *that* frequent of an international traveler, so i should be safe. even at my heaviest travel i don’t think i’ll be out of the country for more than 1/3 of the time.
sidebar: protip i’ve found that when you don’t have high speed data, you end up leaving the phone (screen) on for longer to make sure things go through properly, which eats up your battery. (i’ve been having battery trouble with my 5s ever since the new iOS, but that’s another story.) be sure to carry a spare or external battery with you. i carry two and ended up using both during my day trip yesterday, although i started out at 53% because of those UK-style outlets that have a switch on the outlet itself — my adapter was so big it accidentally turned the switch off. sigh.
sidebar: another protip if you’re traveling through Europe, don’t forget that roaming with a European SIM card is pretty cheap, so if you get a local SIM in one country, say the UK, roaming in other countries should be a cheap add-on. definitely something to investigate — you’ll benefit from not having your speeds throttled, too.