Google Project Fi | The Best International Cell Phone & Data Plan for World Travel
There are an incredible number of voice and data carriers and subsequent plans to choose from. As smart phone have become an integral part of daily life, having a reliable plan with voice, text, and data that can take you nationwide as well as internationally at a reasonable price is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As we travel not only around the United States, but worldwide, having a phone that’s affordable, has good coverage, is simple, and ‘just works’ is critical!
We considered the major U.S. providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) and an assortment of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), as well as purchasing a SIM upon arriving at new international destinations. But in the end, Google Fi (formerly Google Project Fi) was hands down the best for our needs and travel style!
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Because we were going to be traveling outside of the U.S. for at least a year, using our current cell phone carrier would’ve been exorbitantly expensive and we most certainly would’ve run into limitations.
So, we started shopping around for the best international voice and data plan/option. We had a list of things to consider (and after two-plus years traveling they still hold true!).
1. Making Local and International Calls While Traveling Internationally
While traveling and living abroad, we need the ability to make both local and international calls.
To elaborate, when we’re in a foreign country we’re making calls back to the United States to speak with friends, family, and clients. On the other hand, we’re also making local calls, whether it be to homeowners for house sitting, local businesses, Ubers/Lyfts, or friends we’ve made in the area.
Tip: One way we make calling easier is by having Google Voice number that we route through Google Hangouts. This allows us to make free, or nearly free, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) calls over WiFi and cellular data. Also, using our Google Voice number allows anyone to call that phone number and reach us at whatever phone number we have it linked to, even if we’re overseas.
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2. Cellular Data While Traveling Internationally
We didn’t really realize exactly how reliant we are on cellular data until we went without it. We’ve learned that if needed we can do without cellular data and use only WiFi, as we did in Canada for two months, but it was a challenge at times!
Honestly, having data is more important to us when we’re traveling because we almost never know our surroundings, how to get from point A to point B, and sometimes we can’t speak the language.
Here are the many ways we use our data, some strictly because we’re traveling and others just for day to day needs.
Google Maps driving and walking directions
Looking up business locations, hours of operation, and phone numbers.
Looking up products, services, or other pertinent information that relates to our activities.
Pulling up sightseeing maps and itineraries that we’ve created.
Pulling up boarding passes, train tickets, and attraction entry passes.
Translating services: live voice translation, real-time text translation, translation dictionary, and simple browser image searches (for quick and dirty communication through images).
Many other random day to day things that arise.
3. Reliable Network While Traveling Internationally
For us (and most people) a reliable network is having good coverage wherever we go, not dropping calls, and having high speed data connections (LTE connections make us smile!).
4. Data Throttling While Traveling Internationally
We don’t want there to be a cap on our data that once reached reduces our data connectivity to snail like speeds. We also don’t want our overall data to be artificially slowed (throttled) because of our location (like being outside of the United States).
5. Plan Pricing When Traveling Internationally
The cost of calls and data shouldn’t be a huge financial burden. There’s no reason for it to be. More and more, cell phone service and data connectivity are seen as a necessity, not a commodity.
Cell Phone Voice and Data Options While Traveling Internationally
US Cell Phone Carriers
Most US cell phone carriers and plans are sufficient for nationwide travel. Plus, if you’re traveling internationally for short periods of times, albeit expensive, adding an international option for a couple of weeks or a month is simple and do-able.
On the other hand, adding an international option for long-term and continual travel results in several obstacles, depending on the service in question. For example:
Most carriers are prohibitively expensive.
Many carries offer limited data.
Many carriers throttle their data (even the ones who advertise they don’t, read the fine print!).
Service areas vary by carrier and are dependent on what international carriers they’ve contracted with.
If you spend to much time outside of the US (roaming) most (maybe even all?) carriers reserve the right to close your account.
International SIM Cards
The go-to option of many digital nomads and long-term travelers is purchasing a local SIM card within the country they’re visiting.
Generally speaking, you may be able to purchase a SIM card with voice, text, and data at inexpensive rates, often times cheaper than Google Fi (formerly Google Project Fi). For example, we purchased a SIM in Mexico that included 1.5GBs of data and unlimited calls and text for 28 days for only $8 USD.
On the other hand, sometimes it can be much more expensive. Like in Canada, where the least expensive option we could find that included data was $40 for a month!
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The Upsides of Purchasing a SIM in Country
The upside of purchasing a SIM card at your destination is that overall they’re inexpensive and easy to find. SIM cards are sold at the airport (during business hours and at a premium), in vending machines (depending on the country), corner stores, markets, malls, and cell phone stores.
The Downsides of Purchasing a SIM in Country
The downside is that you can’t use your phone until you’ve purchased a local SIM card. In other words, you can’t call an Uber or Lyft when you land, you can’t look up public transportation directions, and you can’t call, text, or email anyone. You can mitigate this a bit by connecting to the airport’s WiFi or finding a nearby hotspot of course, but there’s nothing like the efficiency of simply turning off airplane mode on your phone and having service!
If your plan is to purchase a local SIM card right away, you’ll want to be sure you’re not landing or arriving in a new country outside of business hours. Finding a business open to sell you a SIM card at 2 am is a challenge you may not be up to, especially when you don’t have the data connectivity to look up local businesses that are still open!
Another downside, especially for those who find it important to safeguard their privacy, is that some sellers of SIM cards require proof of identity, like a passport. And depending on the country and/or the person behind the counter, it’s not unheard of for a seller to outright refuse to sell a SIM card to a foreigner.
We personally cringe at the idea of handing over such vital information to someone we don’t know, nor can we trust they’ll safeguard and/or dispose of our information properly. Frankly, handling of personal information isn’t just a concern in other countries, it’s a huge concern in the US as well. We do everything we can to protect our information and wish that those who gathered our information would treat it with the same safeguards and concerns as if it where their own.
Google Fi (formerly Google Project Fi) Was and Still is the Best National and International Carrier for Us
It takes innovation and new ideas to set an industry on its head, and competition is the cherry on top that lowers prices.
T-Mobile disrupted the cell phone industry years ago with its innovative plans (no contracts), low prices, and continual addition of new features and included services. They’re not perfect though! While on the surface having certain services not count towards your monthly data allotment is nice, they and others are picking the winners and losers in net neutrality.
Google Fi (formerly Google Project Fi) entered the scene a few years ago and disrupted the industry yet again!
We chose Google Fi and have been extremely happy with the service!
We used Google Fi abroad for a year but when we returned to the United States we paused our account for a few months. In an experiment, we left it paused when we traveled to Mexico and Canada. We went through the process of purchasing a local SIM card when we arrived in each country, and in all honesty, it was an experience that affirmed why we prefer Google Fi! While we knew the language in both countries and a local SIM card was less expensive in Mexico, the inconvenience of needing to procure a local SIM wasn’t worth the trade-offs.
With that said, we can see instances where we’ll pause and supplement our Google Fi service with local SIM cards. For example, if we need an extensive amount of data or if we’re going to be living in a country for an extended period of time.
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All the Reasons We Love Google Fi and Why You May Too!
Google Fi uses three US carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular) with seamless transition between them and between them and WiFi (this feature isn’t yet available on iPhones).
Works seamlessly with our Google Voice phone number.
Works internationally in over 200+ locations.
Reliable service in just about every city (70) and country (26) we’ve visited so far.
We have service as soon as our plane touches down, saving time, stress, and effort to navigate purchasing of a local SIM card.
We pay for the data we actually use. What we don’t use rolls over to the next month (down to the tenths of a GB). If we need more we simply pay standard pricing for it as needed and it’s all calculated automatically.
Google Fi is reasonably priced. In some countries we pay more for the convenience and in others we save money.
We’ve been using it on our iPhones since 2016 (before it was officially supported)!
You can pause your account for three months at a time, with a maximum of six moths per year.
Additional data SIMs are free.
Data is free after 6GB (with Google’s ‘Bill Protection’)!
Google Fi’s Pricing
Google Fi pricing is incredibly straight forward!
$20 a month for unlimited voice and text.
$10 per GB of data used (which is shared between all lines).
$15 per each additional unlimited voice and text line.
$0 per each additional data only SIM (data is still billed at $0.01 per MB/$10 per GB)
Examples of Google Fi Pricing
1 GB of data used in a month = $30 total ($20 service + $10 of data)
2 GB of data used in a month = $40 total ($20 service + $20 of data)
2.5 GB of data used in a month = $45 total ($20 service + $25 of data)
6 GB of data used in a month = $80 total ($20 service + $60 of data)
10 GB of data used in a month = $80 total ($20 service + $100 of data that’s capped at $60!) *with ‘Bill Protection enabled
15 GB of data used in a month = $80 total ($20 service + $100 of data that’s capped at $60!) *with ‘Bill Protection enabled
A Note on Google Fi’s Bill Protection and Data Throttling
Contrary to what you may have heard, Google Fi does indeed throttle data under certain circumstances...
Not too long ago, Google Fi rolled out a new feature that caps the maximum you can be billed each month at $80. This feature is called ‘Bill Protection’ and it kicks in at 6GBs for one user and 10GBs for two users. Bill protection however comes with a downside. At 15GBs data is throttled to 256KBs, meaning you’ll get much slower speeds.
The good news is that all data after 6GBs is free, and between 6GB (or 10GB for two users) and 15GBs is not only free, but also not throttled!
The bad news is that heavy data users may not find the free data to be worth the slower speeds once they go over 15GB in a month.
Not to worry though! You can disable the ‘Bill Protection’ feature and continue to pay $10 per GB and not be throttled.
Some argue that Google Fi is more expensive than purchasing a local SIM card, and we don’t disagree. There are scenarios where it’s certainly cheaper, but overall we’re content to pay a small surcharge for the pure simplicity of just having our phone work just about anywhere we are in the world! In the off chance that our usage habits change, we can pause our Google Fi service on demand and purchase a local SIM card.
Then, others argue that it’s easier to add an international add-on to your current plan than use Google Fi. And yes, it may be easier, but the exorbitant costs and/or throttled data just isn’t worth it for us.
So, Google Fi is the best value for us and our travel style. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks!