Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. 🙂