Comparing Cell Phone Plans for Travelers: Is Google Fi Worth It?

Cell phone companies are stepping up to accommodate travelers more and more these days, with international cell phone plans and features built-in, or available for extra fees, which makes it important to ask the right questions when determining which carrier is right for us.

Most recently, after Google’s big push to get the new Pixel phone and its Google Fi into the hands of consumers, people are wondering whether or not it’s a good choice.

My goal is to clarify which cellular carrier would benefit you the most, depending on your lifestyle and where you live.

We’ll do this by comparing the major features of the popular US cell phone companies and then addressing for whom each company works best, and I’ll point you to some extra resources for further information.

This post contains affiliate links. 

First, Let’s Compare Cell Phone Companies

Verizon and AT&T

  • Best coverage in the US
  • Expensive plans
  • Charges for overages of data
  • International travel not included in regular plans
  • Some pre-paid AT&T plans include Mexico and Canada
  • Global data packages available for fee
  • Contracts

T-Mobile

  • Unlimited data
  • Fixed rate, no overage charges ($70/mo for one line)
  • Limited coverage in US
  • International service in 140+ countries (including unlimited data)
  • Restricts time allowed outside of US network
  • No contracts

Google Fi

  • $20/mo plus $10/GB of your choice of data
  • Limited coverage in US
  • International service in 135+ countries (faster data speeds than T-Mobile, but not unlimited data)
  • Now works on Google Nexus and Pixel phones as well as other models
  • No contracts

Other (Sprint, etc.)

  • Limited coverage in US
  • Less expensive plans
  • Some have contracts, some don’t
  • Sprint offers free international data and texts (see below)

Compare Cell Phone Plans
I switched to T-Mobile in 2015 so I could have unlimited international data, calling, and texts.

Choosing Between Cell Phone Plans

Choose Verizon or AT&T IF:

  • You want the most dependable national cell coverage within the US.
  • You are a traveler (national or international), but you stay within the US for MOST of the year. Don’t think that just because another carrier might be cheaper, it will provide you with the same service and coverage you currently receive on Verizon or AT&T. Their customer service may be a pain, but the coverage is simply the best in the US. Do not switch to T-Mobile if you will be spending most of your time within the US, as the T-Mobile service itself (where you get unlimited data) is often non-existent in rural areas. When you leave T-Mobile coverage in the US and pick up a borrowed carrier (like AT&T), you can still make calls and texts, but you are limited to only a few MB of data (more about that here). In the same way, do not switch to Google Fi if you plan to frequently leave your metropolitan area, because coverage on those carriers is not dependable nationwide.

Choose T-Mobile IF:

  • You are based in the US but travel frequently outside the US. When I made the switch, my cellular problems (switching SIMs, finding dependable service, etc.) almost completely disappeared.
  • You are certain that T-Mobile has good coverage in your home base in the US.
  • You are a digital nomad and need the internet connection when WiFi isn’t available. With T-Mobile’s unlimited data, you can connect your laptop to your hotspot even in the jungle of Thailand and work all day, worry-free (as long as your signal is strong enough!).
Cell phone plans for travelers

Choose Google Fi IF:

  • Your home in the US is a metropolitan area, where there is good T-Mobile, Sprint, or US Cellular coverage, as well as plenty of “Open WiFi” – check coverage using their map function, but don’t necessarily trust it, read reviews and ask around first! This one is a must for Google Fi users.
  • You want the fastest data possible when you travel internationally.
  • You use less than 4GB of data per month, OR, you don’t care how much data costs, you just want the best speeds possible worldwide (not nationwide, mind you).
  • You’re up for trying the Google Pixel or if your current phone is compatible.

Choose Other (Sprint, etc.) IF:

  • It serves the area you live well enough, and you don’t leave this area enough for it to matter. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).
  • Choose or stick with Sprint if it works well for you in the US and you travel to countries in Latin America, Europe, or others where Sprint includes free international roaming (2G speeds similar to T-Mobile), unlimited data, texts, and just .20/min for phone calls. This is a gem of a plan for current or potential Sprint customers.

T-Mobile or Google Fi: The Kicker is Data Usage and Speeds

Google Fi offers faster speeds than T-Mobile, and if combined with WiFi and just the right locations around the globe, it could be a smart choice. T-Mobile includes unlimited data for free. If you choose Google Fi and use more than 4GB of data per month, you are no longer saving money compared to T-Mobile, but it might make sense for you to pay more for faster data speeds.

There are other features included with each plan, and it may be only a matter of time before T-Mobile ups their game and increases speeds, but for now the bottom line is, for the same price as 5GB of data on Google Fi, you could have unlimited data on T-Mobile.

iphone abroad

Conclusions

As a digital nomad, it is tempting to think about the faster speeds of Google Fi, but I use way too much data to be able to afford it. As romantic as it sounds, “open WiFi” just doesn’t exist in a lot of places across the globe, so that benefit is rendered useless much of the time. I choose to stick with unlimited data (and my iPhone) for now.

While I appreciate that Google Fi and T-Mobile are opening up options to the nearly monopolized cellular carrier industry in the US, I do think they each only fit a specific niche of people. Think hard before you make the switch.

International Digital Nomads: Consider switching to either T-Mobile or Google Fi, depending on your data usage, budget, and home base.
US Urban Dwellers: Consider Google Fi if it makes sense in your area (and your phone is compatible), or stick to what you have.
US Rural Dwellers: Stick with Verizon or AT&T.

How to Use Your Phone Internationally if you have Verizon, AT&T, or Other

Deciding to Switch to T-Mobile?

Do you have something helpful to add or an experience to share? Please tell us in the comments!


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7 replies on “Comparing Cell Phone Plans for Travelers: Is Google Fi Worth It?”

I have Project Fi and was pleasantly surprised with it on my trip to Australia. Worked wonderfully! And I didn’t use anymore data than I typically do at home (I never stream on data). I already had a Nexus phone before I switched to Project Fi so the transition was super easy. But yes, if you use a ton of data, it could get costly for you. When I tried it in Peru last year it was really spotty. All in all, highly recommend.

I went to my local T-Mobile shop to talk about switching before my upcoming move to New Zealand, and decided against it. Turns out if you spend too much time (6+ months was the number I was given) in only one country without moving around to other included countries and/or you if you don’t spend at least 1-2 months in the USA, T-Mobile will cancel your account. Anyone have any insight on this?

That is really interesting, I have not heard that. But if you are going to be spending a long time in one country, you are WAY better off getting a local SIM anyway, as T-Mobile speeds are not awesome, so they serve best for skipping around a lot.

This is true, T-Mobile international roaming is for travelers not for people moving permanently abroad, they will know if you’re outside of your US service area. “Not for extended international use; you must reside in the U.S. and primary usage must occur on our U.S. network.”
You’re better off with an NZ local prepaid SIM card with data, besides, you’ll be living there full time, you’re going to need a local number to be reached at anyways and its not fair to other locals to pay extra to call or text you on a T-Mobile US number and it would cost you as well to make local calls.
http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/New_Zealand
Keeping your US number. https://www.thebudgetmindedtraveler.com/international-phone-number/

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