We would make an awesome commercial for T-Mobile

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As a nomad, sometimes you find yourself frantically calling local taxi services to figure out if someone- ANYONE- will know how to get scans of your passport filed with the tourism bureau in time so that you can make it to Luxor for your next night’s reservation. (Ask me how many times I spelled “bureau” before I got it close enough for spell-check to recognize what I was going for and recommend the correct spelling.)

And at least a dozen times a week you find yourself needing to use Uber to avoid the local taxi scams. Or needing to check your email in the Uber on the way to your AirBnB to ask the hosts why the address shows up as somewhere completely different once plugged into GPS.

True stories.

We love being able to use the modern conveniences of smart-phones even while we travel internationally.

But listen…we used to travel without a phone plan what-so-ever. Before T-mobile, our lives were so much more haphazard.

Before T-mobile, we could only call an Uber from places with free wifi. And even then, we had to figure out where the wifi router was, because that’s where Uber would mark our location.  One night we snagged wifi from a hotel we were standing outside of, but had to awkwardly circle the building, trying to figure out where the Uber would think we were. It took multiple tries, if I remember correctly. That same trip, we had to walk a long way from the bus stop towards our hotel before we ever found a place with wifi from which we could call Uber.

Or, there was the issue of “text for wifi password.” We ran into this issue all the time in Europe. You see, before we had T-mobile, we had an old unlocked iPhone that had no phone plan, but had lots of wifi-usable apps. We used one such app for texting (TextMe, TextPlus, etc.).  I forget why we needed wifi so badly on this particular evening- I think in order to check the bus schedule so we could get back to the hotel in Edinburgh. We were grateful to see a McDonalds, which always has wifi. But… you had to text a number for the wifi password. We could not for the life of us find a way around this, and none of the staff knew the password off hand.

 

Ever since leaving those phone-less days behind, Drew and I are constantly marveling at how much we love T-mobile, and how much easier our lives are now that we have a phone plan. And one that works in most of the countries we’re in. Because for nomads, having a phone plan that only works in the US is like not having a phone plan.

 

Much as I love T-mobile, using it abroad comes with a tiny bit of a learning curve. Let me help you with that learning curve.

 

T-Mobile Simple Choice Basics

First I’ll give you the basic run-down of this phone plan, in case you’re unfamiliar.

Let’s think of it like this: a plan that has three different modes of operating when using it from three different location types.

1. Using it in the States

In the States, you get unlimited calls, unlimited texting, and  kind of unlimited data.

I say “kind of” because the data limits your high-speed use, but prevents you from ever getting overage charges by allowing any amount of super slow data access once you run out of high speed access. Right now that number is set at 2G of high-speed data, and it will just get slower and slower if you run past that amount. But it won’t collect overage charges.

2. Using it in Simple Choice included foreign countries

There are over 140 countries included in T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan. There are more and more countries being added to the “included” list all the time. Bosnia and Slovenia were not included back in the summer for instance, and now they are.

In any case, when you are in a foreign country included in the plan, you get unlimited texts, calls to the US for $0.20/minute, calls to the US for free when powered by wifi, and unlimited 2G data. (A fairly slow speed, but still beats not having any data at all.)

3. Using it in non included countries

In countries not yet included on the Simple Choice list, you must do all texting, calling, and surfing the web using wifi.

 

Now, let’s get into some more specific details.

Things you must know about using T-mobile abroad

 

1. You may need to activate the wifi calling feature

The T-Mobile Simple Choice plan allows you to text and call from wifi. This ability works in ANY country, not just the countries listed in T-Mobile’s included countries list.

HOWEVER… you will need to activate this feature before you can use it.

I don’t just mean that you need to enable this on your phone, though that’s true too. (Each phone is slightly different, but with the iPhone, you follow this path: Settings> Phone> Wifi Calling> Allow Wifi Calling).

wifi calling 1    wifi calling 2     wifi calling 3

 

You will also be prompted to enter an  “emergency location”. (I guess so that 911 calls made from wifi will still have some sort of location reference for you?)

But in addition to needing to set up wifi calling on my phone, I also had to call T-mobile to activate the wifi calling feature on my plan. This didn’t require any sort of price adjustments or anything since it’s already part of my plan- it just needed activation.

Oddly enough, when I spoke with a different T-Mobile agent, he didn’t know what I was talking about in referencing that I’d needed to “activate” the wifi-calling. In any case, my wifi calling did not work until I called to “activate” it.  (Has anyone else had this experience?)

After “activating” it, I noticed a label in the top left corner of the phone.

Take a look at the Screenshots above. You’ll see that the top left corner of the phone says “T-Mobile Wifi,” next to a series of dots. This means that it is using the wifi to power its activities. The dots however, mean that it is also accessing a tower.  So…how can we be sure the phone is USING the wifi and not the tower?

 

2. Use airplane mode to force the phone onto the wifi calling feature

I was really uneasy about using the wifi calling feature at first, even when I was in one of the >100 countries included in T-Mobiles’ Simple Choice plan. And even when the phone said “T-mobile wifi” in the top left corner.

And low and behold, after examining one of my first bills, I could see that some of the calls I had made from Ukraine to the US were being charged at the $0.20/minute rate, instead of being free. Calls that I KNEW had been made from my room, with wifi signed on.

A T-mobile agent had a great suggestion. He said that if the wifi signal was weak, it was possible that the call was defaulting to a carrier instead of the wifi. So, he said, if I turned the phone onto airplane mode, and then turned the wifi on, it would force the phone to power the call with wifi.

Now when I’m abroad, I do almost all of my calls that way. I take a moment to switch the phone into airplane mode first, and then if the wifi is too weak for a good call, I can decide how important the call is before I default to paying $0.20/minute for it. In this scenario, you’ll see the same “T-Mobile Wifi” with the wifi symbol in the top left corner of the phone, but there won’t be any dots.

 

3. Why won’t it sign me onto “T-mobile wifi?”

Occasionally when I try to do this airplane-mode strategy for forcing the phone onto T-mobile Wifi, I find that it takes a long time for the phone to allow a call or to show the T-mobile Wifi in the top left corner. Or sometimes it just won’t at all.

I basically try two different things in this case.

The first thing I’ll do is the web browsing version of “jiggle the lever.” Basically I’ll just hop onto a website and surf the web for a second to see if that will “wake up” the phone’s T-Mobile setting.

When that doesn’t work, you guessed it, I restart the phone.

Works pretty much every time.

 

4. International Calling 

Update:Corrections have been made to this section

At some point, I realized that there were quite a few occasions where we needed to make calls to the country we were in. Take Egypt for example. Now, if I wanted to call the States from Egypt, off of wifi, my rate was $0.20/minute. However, if I needed to call someone with a local Egyptian phone number, I mistakenly thought that I would need to have the “international calling” add-on feature. (This is a $10-$15 add-on that allows you to call >140 foreign countries for $0.20/minute, when calling from the US.)

While the add on sounds like a great idea for anyone with relatives in foreign countries, you do NOT need this feature when calling locals within a Simple-Choice-included country, while you’re there. As long as you’re in a country on that list, calls to the US OR locally are just $0.20/minute.

However, the wifi free-calling benefit is only usable for calls to the US. If you are in Egypt and sign onto wifi, your call to a local Egyptian will still be $0.20/minute.

So, I definitely unnecessarily paid for that add-on for a few months. But I’m not even annoyed- I’m just super impressed that T-mobile has such a flexible plan!

 

5. Avoiding the accidental use of data in a country NOT included in the T-Mobile included countries list

In French Polynesia, (a country not included in the Simple Choice plan at the time of writing this,) texts are $0.50/text and calls are $4.19/minute. Not absolutely horrendous I guess.  But wait…the HORRENDOUS part is that data use is $15/MB + tax. So if you accidentally use a gig of data…that’s $15,000.  No cat video is worth $15,000.

In some countries, we were satisfied to just turn off “Data Roaming,” and generally just kept the phone on airplane mode.

But then I realized that apps can sometimes run background tasks, even if you do not have them open. Luckily, I had this setting turned off for most apps, and decided to turn it off entirely, but I was still so freaked out by the idea of accidentally downloading a $15,000 tweet or vine or snapchat that we came up with a new plan all together.

In countries not covered by our Simple Choice plan, we just take out the SIM card. Amazingly enough, we can still use iMessage without the SIM card in the phone.

An interesting note though: the welcome text you get in countries not included in Simple Choice says “To enable roaming dial #766#.” Does that mean that using data outside of Simple Choice countries is actually disabled unless you text or dial that code? I am not going to risk testing that out. But I am curious…has anyone tested this out? Or can anyone confirm or deny that you cannot accidentally use data in these non-Simple-Choice countries without first dialing that code?

 

 

Anyway. That should help you through the learning curve of using your T-Mobile Simple Choice plan internationally. Once you get through that learning curve, you will absolutely love it. At least try it. It’s contract free. 🙂

 

 

33 Comments on “We would make an awesome commercial for T-Mobile

  1. I read this part of your post –

    “However, if I needed to call someone with a local Egyptian phone number, there was a much higher rate. $1.99/ minute or something like that.

    This was easily solved with a simple “add-on” to my plan. For $10 a month, I could get an “international calls” add-on that let me call local numbers (for the >140 included countries) at the same $0.20/minute rate of calling the States. I wouldn’t have predicted we’d need this add-on, but we actually found it really helpful. Especially since you can take it right off again at the end of the billing month. In my case, I kept it on our plan until the holidays, when I knew we’d be spending more time in the States than abroad.”

    I called T-Mobile and talked to two different reps. They told me that calls within the foreign country are twenty cents per minute (wifi or not) and that the plan you mention isn’t necessary. They told me that the $10 plan only applies to calls from the US to a foreign country.

    This page on the T-mobile site (http://www.t-mobile.com/cell-phone-plans/simple-choice-international-plan-countries.html) says “Calls over Wi-Fi are $.20/min (no charge for Wi-Fi calls to U.S.)” which seems to support the idea that calls within the country are charged at the $.20/min whether on Wi-Fi or not. I haven’t found language on the site that expressly addresses the issue but you’ll note that on this page (http://www.t-mobile.com/optional-services/roaming.html) they don’t indicate any distinction between US and international when they reference “Talk” in the chart.

    Bottom line – I don’t think the extra $10 per month gets you anything you’re not already getting while in a foreign country.

    If you have references that support your thoughts I’d appreciate the links.

    Great post. Very comprehensive. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.

    • Wow, Lee you are so right!
      I also called to confirm, and you’re right- I would NOT have needed to get that “international calling” add-on, so I will update that in the post now.
      Thanks so much for that important correction!

  2. I can confirm the 0.20c calling anywhere, not just US – just got back from Colombia and my friend used my phone to call his relatives in Colombia few times. I also used it to call my parents in the US. All of these calls were charged at 0.20 a minute rate.

    Also, I didn’t need to “activate” wifi calling – I had it turned on in the settings and that’s it. The bill is showing some calls to my parents in the US were made on wifi at 0.00 rate.

    • Thanks for your comment.
      Just out of curiosity, what kind of phone do you have?
      (Still trying to crack to mystery of why my wifi calling didn’t seem to work until I “activated” it.)

  3. Glad to see someone who appreciates T-Mobile International service as much as I do. I really do feel fortunate to have access to a great plan like this, compared to our other options in the US. I know most of my European friends also have a major problem with international roaming on their side of the pond too. Most are amazed when I tell them about my T-Mobile plan.

    I haven’t tried the WiFi calling feature myself so I will definitely give that a try. But I would also like to throw out Skype as an option when you are outside of WiFi range. I have had great success with Skype calls on the limited 256kbps international data roaming rate. Call quality is great and for me reliability has been, at times, better than using WiFi for Skype calls. I think the rate to the US is 2.3 cents/min. You can attach your mobile number to your Skype account too so outgoing Skype calls look just like regular calls to the recipient.

    Maldives is another country outside the TMobile international plan with similar rates to French Polynesia. I didn’t realize until I landed in Male! Settings->Cellular->Data Roaming Off. Luckily, local SIM cards are reasonable.

    • Definitely agree regarding Skype. In fact, even with T-mobile there have been times that we still use the remaining Skype credits we have. (we used to pay for a phone number via Skype, since we didn’t have a real phone number, but now we just use the load-as-needed type of service.) You’re totally right though- sometimes I feel like the wifi is too terrible for any kind of call and then SOMEHOW Skype works fine!

  4. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes wi-fi calls work without a hitch, other times they won’t, or you have to wait and wait, turn on and off; it’s beyond annoying. I had wi-fi calling feature work with a poor connection and not work with an excellent connection. Still, a 20-cent loss is bearable. I gotta say I never tried to call T-Mobile and register wi-fi calling, it just worked (or didn’t).

    • Thanks for your comment- yes I wonder if maybe my need to “activate” wifi calling had more to do with the “ermergency address” not registering correctly or something. I seem to remember needing to confirm that when I “activated” it? Still a mystery…

  5. Google hangouts is an easy alternative that would give you most of the benefits without risk of a unexpected charges

    • Ah see I tried setting up Google hangouts loads of times (before I had a phone plan) and so many people assured me it would work. But they have changed the way they do google hangouts. People who got in on it with certain benefits, still get those benefits, but I tried to have a google hangouts pro set it up for me before we went to T-mobile, and he soon realized that I couldn’t access the same benefits he could.

      Then again, we were trying to use it with a Google-provided phone number, and also tried it with our Skype-purchaed phone number since we didn’t have a phone number of any other kind.

      So in my experience, a person starting out on the Google Hangouts road today would still need a phone plan with someone to start off with. And for us, we decided, why not T-mobile?

      • I recently set my Dad up with a new Google Nexus 6 phone overseas, with GMail, Hangouts etc. He’s a mechanical engineer, not savvy with electronics. The phone has no SIM but somehow, he was able to call my US phone number via Hangouts on Wifi. The caller id shows as “Unknown Caller” on my phone when he calls. His was a new account.I had no idea this was possible.

        So in summary, just like imessage working without SIM, Hangouts does too, even for phone calls.

        Sorry about the incomplete post earlier. Please delete it.

        • Hmmmm I’m sure there’s a way it works and it just stumps me as to why I couldn’t set mine up. I had two different Google Hangouts users try to set it up for me and neither of them could figure it out. :-/ I was using an old iPhone 3! Maybe that has something to do with it?

  6. Went to sign up for the T Mobile for my son who will be in France for 5 months. Discovered that the plan is only good for a maximum of 30 days. After that, it is worthless as the cost is prohibitive…

    • Well…they say that…
      But they don’t really check up on this. For instance, we spent 7 months straight internationally and we never had an issue. Technically if they decided we were overusing the plan, they could have closed down our account or contacted us and put it on hold or something, but they never did.

    • We also used TMobile abroad for multiple months straight without any issue. The rep I spoke to on the phone even confirmed that would be ok. I think he implied that it would only be noticed as an issue if the billing address was an abroad one. We were sharing a family plan with our family back in the US, so that might have also helped.

  7. Google Project Fi beats TMobile in many aspects. Speed limit is doubled (256 kbps vs 128 kbps). Calling local number via data (wifi or cellular) while abroad costs starting 1c/min, instead of flat 20c/min. Best part is it can be paused and everything will be prorated. You pay what you use, which is perfect as an international only plan.

    • interesting, i’ve not heard of this yet.
      Are wifi calls to the States free?

    • Where do you see 1c/min?! On their website it says 20c/min, just like T-Mobile. https://fi.google.com/about/faq/#international-usage-3

      The advantage of Google Project Fi over T-mobile is that it also uses the Sprint network, has double international data speed, and provides refunds on unused data. The con is that they take your phone number forever I believe.

      • (Sprint eh? ya I had a nightmare of a time trying unsuccessfully to move a Sprint iPhone over to T-mobile…I’ll probably not touch Sprint again)

        • A lot of what Julien said was correct, but some of it was wrong. Google Fi actually blends Sprint+T-Mobile networks together when in the States. It will connect to whichever tower has the best connection where you are at any given time. They also leverage the same roaming agreements T-Mobile has in place, so you get almost the same coverage (the list of countries seems to be different by just a few) when traveling internationally. The data is twice as fast (256kbps vs 128kbps for T-Mobile) internationally. Pricing is $20/month for unlimited calls and international texts and $1/100MB. Wifi and data calling, texting, etc. is supported out of the box. The one big caveat is that it currently only supports Nexus 5X, Nexus 6, and Nexus 6P devices.

  8. Just a note about alternative Wifi calling options. I see Skype and Google mentioned, but also remember that all iPhones have Facetime already baked in. You can make a Facetime AUDIO call over Wifi and it works really well. The big con is that it can only really be used to call other people with iPhones or Facetime compatible devices, but it is at least an option.

    • I think Facetime only works for iPhones that are attached to some kind of phone number though, right? At least, when we had an unlocked iPhone that didn’t have any plan, I couldn’t seem to get Facetime to work.

      • My sis uses her iPhone 4s without SIM for FaceTime calls. No phone number necessary.

        • I love that feature. I was so surprised that even when I took out the SIM card from my phone, I could still receive texts through iMessage.

  9. From your blog, it sounds like you are outside the US most of the time. Have you run into T-Mobile’s requirement that most of your usage must be in the US?

    Quoting from http://www.t-mobile.com/optional-services/roaming.html:

    “If the plan includes unlimited data and text, is there any limit?”
    “As long as the majority of your usage is on T-Mobile’s U.S. network, you will experience unlimited data and text. Service may be terminated for excessive roaming, misuse, or abnormal use.”

    • We were pretty worried about that, and kind of expected T-mobile to confront us about it, but they never brought it up. Possibly because most of our phone use was done via wifi, and didn’t require TOO much international tower use. Maybe that helped us stay in good favor? I wonder what would have happened if we would have made lots and lots of off-wifi calls and lots of data use and such. Maybe it still wouldn’t have ever come up. But it never came up.

  10. I know this is an old post, but I also am a huge fan of Tmobile internationally, the difference between the chicken/egg problem of getting directions to pick up a local sim is all solved, this is the stuff I dreamed about for years. On a side note, I recently went to China, and was so pleasantly surprised with the coverage and speeds roaming with Tmobile. On supposedly 3G speeds (showed LTE, but probably throttled), I was able to do an almost flawless video facetime call while on a bullet train between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, amazing! Also amazing, is that Tmobile acts like its own VPN within China, even though you are roaming on Chinese networks (If you have any experience with the great firewall, you know how incredible this is… all data must be routed back to the US encrypted or something). Anyways, I too advertise for Tmobile with any fellow traveller I meet!

    • Agree whole-heartedly! If only for the ability to act as its own VPN in China!

  11. FYI, in a country where you have the free unlimited data and text, and you want to avoid the $0.20/min calling, get a skype subscription for unlimited land and mobile calling. They have country/region and global subscriptions, then you can just use skype on free data or wi-fi to make your calls. If you also want to also receive calls free from people in that country, you can purchase a local skype number and then they can just call it and the skyp app will let you talk on your phones data or wi-fi.

    For example – I am traveling to the UK. I did 3 Things;

    1. I purchased a UK Unlimited Land & Mobile subscription for the month for $12.99. Note: If you travel alot you may want a longer subscription. there are discount break points, so check the different plan rates. Also, if you are traveling to multiple countries you may want to purchase a regional or global subscription. I chose the UK Unlimited Land and Mobile subscription because the Europe or Global plans do not include unlimited call to mobile numbers in the UK and that plan does.

    2. To allow me to receive incoming calls from people, and make it easier for UK people to call me, I then purchased a UK Skype #. A Skype Number costs $18.00 for 3 months or $60.00 for 12 months. You will receive a 50% discount if you are subscribed to a Call Plan and purchase the Skype Number for 12 months or 33% discount if you choose the 3 month option. Make sure you purchase the Call Plan (Subscription) BEFORE you purchase the Skype Number. The discount will be applied at check out. Since I will primarily be in Edinburgh, I purchased an Edinburgh Skype # for 3 months for the discount rate of $9.00.

    3. The last thing i did was more for convience. to avoid the hassel of finding a good wi-fi signal for the free wi-fi calling to the US, and avvoid the inconvience of it dropping calls off wi-fi back to the roaming network and getting charged the $0.20/min rate, I purchased a US land/mobile subscription at $1.49/month (50% discount of the full $2.99/month rate). I could also have purchased another Skype # for US based people to call me on while I am overseas, and set my normal cell phone # to call forward to it, but I just chose to screen incoming calls, and not answer them, and after I determine if they were important enough, id call the back from Skype.

    Another important note; I was told by T-Mobile before i left that if someone calls you while your overseas using the free roaming and dont answer the call and it forwards to voicemail and they leave a message, you will be charged the $0.20/min rate for the length of the message. So… It is important to save your voice-mails that you want to keep, then suspend you voicemail while you are abroad, and reactivate it when you return. It’s a hassle, but if you want to avoid the $0.20/min charges….. be forewarned.

    • Thanks for sharing all these thorough details!

      The Skype phone number is how we used to have a phone system, but we never used it in conjunction with other phone plans of any kind, only on its own as an alternative to a phone plan.

      Interesting idea combining it with T-mobile and/or a local phone plan.

  12. Re: Ray’s Comment “I was told by T-Mobile before i left that if someone calls you while your overseas using the free roaming and don’t answer the call and it forwards to voicemail and they leave a message, you will be charged the $0.20/min rate for the length of the message.” If you use Hangouts Dialer with a Google Voice Number you should be able to set the default to use their voicemail instead of T-mobiles. You can set your phone to forward your T-Mobile number to your Google Voice Number.
    Thanks Carrie for your blog, I searched several times and yours was by far the best at explaining T-Mobile for travel!

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