When T-Mobile announced their new international roaming program a few years ago, my family switched immediately. Data rates with other companies are so high, using an unlocked local phone has its own complications. Competitors offer better domestic service but either little-to-no coverage abroad, or way too expensive to be useful. But is it worth it to suffer through bad T-Mobile service most of the year just to make my time abroad easier?
T-Mobile Is Not Great
Let me qualify my headline by stating that I am based in Pittsburgh and often travel to rural areas for work. In my experience T-Mobile just doesn’t have great coverage, and I am not only talking about in the “boonies” – I have had calls dropped in major US cities too.
I understand that in some cities, their coverage is every bit as good as any other carrier but for my day-to-day use (and others I know elsewhere in the country), the service falls short. It’s not just areas of blackout, there are other areas where T-Mobile will switch to AT&T because of their lack of coverage which limits free data to just 50MB… to last the entire month.
When buying an iPhone outright from Apple there are also some hurdles to get around. While we purchased an unlocked phone direct from Apple, we had to wait for a T-Mobile iPhone to arrive at our local Apple shop before we could buy and activate. Other carriers don’t have this challenge.
Their Prices Are Awesome
While Sprint is sometimes cheaper, AT&T and Verizon are wildly expensive when compared to the same service levels from T-Mo. We have unlimited data, phone calls and texts for two lines for 30% cheaper than the big two.
What’s more is that it doesn’t feel like the carrier is cheating us. They have charged a fair price for fair service (though not the premium level they suggest they do) and really that is all we can ask for. Verizon in particular has traditionally led the market for costs, and AT&T gouged me for years. I remember paying more than $2/minute in London more than a decade ago to call home. In addition to that there were data, text and call charges (though I was on an international plan) that took my bill from a normal $100ish/month to more than $400.
T-Mobile introduced their Unlimited Global Roaming in late 2013 with service in 70 countries included within the rate. That has since expanded to more than twice that number and still offers service (though not included) to even more countries. One of the excluded countries I visited, Brunei, had high rates ($2.99/minute for calls) but I was pleased to have coverage availability (even if it was sky high.) Our international return flights had been cancelled accidentally we needed to call the airline regardless of expense. Vietnam was another country excluded from the program at $5.99/minute but at least I had an option if I needed it.
The included 2G data package is enough to get answers when we are out and about and run some basic Google Maps. If I am going to be in a city for more than a week, I will grab a local sim card, but for the most part the 2G is good enough when I am away from wifi. Free text messages helps keep me connected and reduces the need for phone calls priced at $.20/minute.
The biggest advantage for me is that my number stays the same. I used to use Google Voice which forwarded calls to me abroad, but the system was less elegant than I had hoped when it was introduced. My co-workers, family, friends, and customers can contact me without the need to call a different number. I also don’t have to worry about calls only ringing once (after all of the forwarding taking place with Google Voice) and then missing the calls.
There are other solutions, but they take some amount of effort. For example, Google Fi requires an Android phone at least for activation, I have outlined Google Voice concerns, local sims make forwarding complex or difficult for callers.
T-Mo is easy, I do nothing but turn my phone on when I land. And I am inherently lazy.
T-Mobile Tuesday is an app and offer system that gives you freebies every Tuesday just for being a customer. The deals aren’t great, but it’s something for nothing and that’s always welcome with me. This week we received a free Redbox rental, in the past there have been free pizzas from Papa John’s, a small Frosty from Wendy’s, etc. I don’t really add any value to my plan as a result of these, but they are nice to have.
I also get an hour of free Gogo Inflight Wifi once daily (though not every flight on that day of travel). This is worth about $6/month to me that I would otherwise spend. Some airlines have phone-only wifi for $2-3/flight, and I would pay for it a couple of times every month so there is real value there for me.
International is Easy for T-Mo, Hard for Others
T-Mobile has an advantage that the other US carriers do not. Formerly Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile has decades of international tie-ins with their European and subsequently global partners. It makes sense that T-Mobile would be the best for roaming on other networks in other countries because they have such a substantial footprint and operate on the GSM network.
Verizon sold a significant stake to Vodafone, a British telco with a huge presence; they later bought that portion back. Sprint received a very large investment from Japan’s Softbank which has helped the company to expand their international offerings, but it’s not perfect.
Both Verizon and Sprint are CDMA networks which work in just 17 countries of which the US and Canada are included. All of the 192 countries in the world have GSM but just 17 have both. While LTE networks narrow the gap, and Verizon phones are not locked to their network (you can switch a sim card out any time you like) – that means you cannot use your normal US number.
The network issue has made it hard for Verizon and Sprint to expand without trying to find work-arounds, even though their US network (at least in the case of Verizon) is far superior to T-Mobile.
I constantly find myself apologizing after I drop calls saying,
“Sorry, I have T-Mobile.”
It’s a bad sign that seemingly everyone understands. I have trouble justifying the pain and suffering I go through on a weekly basis vs the benefit of the ease of use when I am abroad. The constant pain point is lack of coverage or dropped calls (trust me, I have the latest software, the latest carrier settings, everything is good there). It blows my mind that I get better coverage at sea in Borneo than I do leaving my office in southwest Pittsburgh.
Lately I have been asking myself why I suffer through the inferior service and if there is a better alternative. Should I switch to a better US carrier and find a workable international option, or leave it as it is?
Would you suffer through bad service 300 days every year to make the 65 other days easier? Am I crazy?