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 Project 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
- 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 Project 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)
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 Project 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, that is, until I got back to the US, where I had very limited service in Montana. For a short time, I can deal with this, but for most of the year, no way José.
- 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!).
Choose Project 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 Project 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 Nexus OR 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 Project Fi: The Kicker is Data Usage and Speeds
Project 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 Project 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 Project Fi, you could have unlimited data on T-Mobile.
As a digital nomad, it is tempting to think about the faster speeds of Project 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 Project 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 Project Fi, depending on your data usage, budget, and home base.
US Urban Dwellers: Consider Project 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
- For short (under 3 months) trips, learn how to freeze your plan, get an international SIM card, or use WiFi and airplane mode in my Complete Guide to Using Your iPhone Abroad.
- You can make free phone calls overseas with a WiFi connection on your phone via Skype, Facebook Messenger calling, or WhatsApp calling – no data or cell service required.
- Going on a semi-longer trip, but still based in the US? Check out how you can keep your phone number while you travel.
- Read this for detailed comparisons on international roaming plans per carrier.
- Consider getting a Prepaid SIM Card before you travel if your phone is SIM-capable and you don’t want to deal with any of this international data crap.
Deciding to Switch to T-Mobile?
- Check out my tips in this Guide to Switching to T-Mobile
- Read more about hassle-free travel on T-Mobile
Do you have something helpful to add or an experience to share? Please tell us in the comments!