Data Doctors: Tips for international cellular connection

Q: I’m going to be traveling in Europe this summer and have T-Mobile which includes some basic international coverage in my package, but is that good enough?

A: There was a time in the past that traveling abroad required a good bit of research to determine the best local cellular option for each destination. If your phone was unlocked, you could purchase a SIM card for the local provider you found and prepay for the data that you wanted to use.

I can also remember opting to purchase a simple international phone for basic texting and voice, while using my U.S.-based phone on Wi-Fi only.

All that has changed and making use of your existing phone and service plan with all three of the major providers is much less complicated.

Of the big three cellular providers, T-Mobile includes the most coverage with usage in over 210 countries for the plans that include international service.

If you have an older phone, make sure to check with your provider to verify that it can connect outside the U.S.

Unlimited But Limited

T-Mobile includes unlimited basic data and texting, but the data speeds are capped at 256Kbps, so it’s not going to be the high-speed data you are used to at home.

If your hope is to use your free usage for things like streaming video, you’re going to be disappointed.

In general, standard definition video works well at 3Gbps while HD video requires more like 5Gbps. You might be able to watch short videos with some buffering at 1.5Gbps, but that’s still 3 times the speed you’ll have in Europe.

Roaming Without Charges

In order to connect to the cellular network abroad, you’ll be in what is known as ‘roaming’ mode because you are no longer on your primary carrier’s network.

If you don’t have a plan that covers your international connections, these data roaming charges can get very expensive, very quickly.

Your T-Mobile plan eliminates those roaming charges, but once again, you’re capped with what are essentially 2G speeds.

Voice Charges

What’s not covered in your international plan is voice calls, which can cost 20-25 cents per minute, depending upon your plan.

If you’re going to need to spend a lot of time making or receiving voice calls while abroad, it may make sense to add their ‘International Pass’ for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it provides unlimited voice calling, so you won’t have to limit the time you spend on the calls with clients or family members. The other benefit to this package is that it includes 15Gbs of high-speed data.

If you think you’ll use more than 200-250 voice minutes on calls during your stay, the $50 for 30 days may be worth the peace of mind.

Google’s Alternative

If you aren’t committed to a T-Mobile contract and plan on doing a lot of international travel, you may want to look into Google Fi which uses T-Mobile’s network domestically and has its own agreements internationally.

Depending upon the countries that you will travel in, Google Fi may provide more bang for the buck than T-Mobile.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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