The best mobile phone carrier for travelers!

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On the heals of the last post, and before getting into anything else, I wanted to write this to help anyone who was planning on traveling soon to not get ripped off on mobile phone charges. This article is specifically for my American friends. If you’re unhappy with your phone, provider, or just looking to get a new phone read this first.

As I’m traveling on the other side of the world I’m able to check my email, be connected, and even post to Instagram, all without having to connect to WiFi or pay any extra money.

I’ve been a long time customer of AT&T, grandfathered in to their unlimited data plan. And before that I used to be a Verizon Wireless subscriber. The problem with these two carriers is that although they have excellent coverage they are super expensive in terms of data costs, especially if you’re a power user or data hog like er, cough, myself. Even if you’re on one of their older “unlimited” plans they still throttle data heavy users to slower speeds, usually after using 3-5GB/month.

I was looking to get a new or used phone for my month-long travel, specially one that was unlocked and that I could buy a local SIM card so I wouldn’t have to pay exorbitant rates from my phone provider to just use my phone overseas.

The problem with unlocking my current phone was that it was still mid-way in a 2 year contract and I would have to either pay an early termination fee or prove that I was getting deployed for the military, neither of which I wanted to do.

The Un-Carrier

T-mobile is branding itself as the new Un-Carrier.  They offer a truly unlimited talk, text, and data plan for $80 a month. No contract to sign and you also get 5GB hotspot/month to connect your laptop or anything else you want.

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If you don’t use much data they have plans starting at $50/month for 1GB LTE data with unlimited talk and text. PLUS if you go over there are no overage charges, they just throttle your speed down to 3G. If you need more LTE data there’s a 3GB plan and 5GB plan for less than the $80 for unlimited. (If you want unlimited LTE free for a year scroll on down to the end to find out how!)

If you’re a music streamer, rejoice!!

Another perk is that you can stream all the music you want for free. It doesn’t count towards your data cap. So if you mostly stream music with the occasional data use you might be well off on the 1GB plan. It supports all the major players including Pandora, Spotify, Songza, Apple Radio, iHeartRadio, and a number more. Check their website for the up to date list.

So switching out from my current carrier to a new one would cost me over $200 in early termination fees (ETF) from AT&T. T-mobile takes care of that by paying any ETF up to $350 as a bill credit after you submit your final bill. Sweet!

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Not only that but they bought my old phone, which was only a year old but they still gave me $353 for it, which they guarantee will be more than any of the other providers pay out. There’s no contract or phone subsidy so you have to pay the whole phone price yourself but they offer a down payment of $0-$200 with reasonable monthly device charges, up to $31.25 a month (depending on the device) for a 2 year installment. So all in all the new iPhone 6 Plus cost me $200 outright, less than the $353 I received from my old phone. I was left with some extra cash which I could apply towards my upcoming bills. (This might be a limited time thing so if you’re interested check their site to make sure.)

The nice thing is I always know what my monthly balance will be. No fluctuations and no tricks. If you ever think you’ll use more or less data you can swap plans without hassle and without getting locked into a contract.

What about data coverage?

So this is where I was iffy about switching to the Un-Carrier. Sure it’s great that they’re doing all these things in attempts to gain customers but it’s useless if you can’t actually use your phone.
Three years ago my parents had service with T-mobile and it was terrible. I was never able to reach them and when I could their phones would die always looking for a signal. That all changed when a proposed merger with AT&T fell through in 2011 and AT&T paid them $3 billion. T-mobile then invested that money in building a better network.

So I ordered the new phone and used it for a week alongside my AT&T one. They’ll also provide a test phone to check coverage all for free for 7 days, no charges, no obligation, in case you’re interested or worried.

I tested coverage in the places I usually frequent. My home, work, families’ houses, and places I hang around. In the NY metropolitan area coverage is good with fast LTE speeds. There were some locations I wouldn’t get coverage or it would be very spotty. In particular, my sister’s house is in a dead zone but my AT&T phone would work normally. Checking the map on T-Mobile’s site reaffirmed that and showed that it was just her house and another 5 houses by her that had terrible coverage. As with anything, your results will vary. The good thing is you can plug in any address or city into T-Mobile’s website and it will show a pretty good coverage map.

So all in all, the places I frequented had good coverage and fast speeds. This will vary for everyone and I can’t recommend it to all but you should check the map online and can try them without hesitation. They also have spotty service in many buildings because they don’t have a low band frequency yet but in the meantime they are the only US carrier to provide WiFi-calling. Any time you can connect to WiFi your phone will work as if it were on the T-mobile network. Even in dead zones or a log cabin in the middle of the mountains, provided you have WiFi.

Alright, finally… THE perk for travelers.

Another Un-Carrier branding initiative was to stop charging customers exorbitant international talk or data rates. Unlike the other carriers who will allow you to use your contract locked phone overseas you usually have to buy an “international travel plan” or pay crazy expensive rates to make a call, send a text, or use any data.

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T-mobile will let you send and receive texts and MMS absolutely free in over 120 countries. They also give you free unlimited data in those countries. It is limited to 2G/3G speeds but was plenty to use Google Maps to find out where I was going and to post the occasional picture on Instagram.

I traveled from JFK to San Francisco to Japan to China and finally through New Zealand and Australia all without having to buy different SIM cards or another phone or having to pay ridiculous charges for doing so. I also get to make calls back home for $0.20 a minute which is still a whole lot cheaper than the other carriers.  Even better is I can make those calls for free when I’m connected to WiFi and don’t have to open any other apps. It just uses my regular phone number.

With all of this T-mobile has definitely been a carrier I’ve actually liked. They even provide an excellent router for free that you can use at home for fast 802.11ac speeds in case your current router doesn’t do the job. It’s a rebranded ASUS router that normally sells for $200 and has gotten excellent reviews. All T-mobile requires is a $25 deposit.  This allows you to use WiFi calling all over your house (or anywhere else) even if you are in a dead zone, like my sister.

Do any of you have T-mobile? Love it? Hate it? Interested in switching over and have questions? Let me know below!

For a limited time T-mobile has an excellent referral program that offers everyone who signs from with me to get unlimited LTE free for a year! That means you can sign up for their cheapest $50/month plan and get all the LTE you want, saving you $30 every month for a year.  You have to sign up through my link and in return I get the same discount from the first person that signs up. So all you have to pay is $50 and whatever charges your device costs (possibly none if you transfer your device over). The link is here.

About Mike TingTang

Born 15 minutes outside of Manhattan, Mike has been lucky to be within reach of one of the top destinations in the world. He's been going to different places every year since he could crawl. To further indulge in local lifestyles, Mike is beginning to live in areas for six to twelve months to gain full immersion. His goal is to break the cost limitations and help everyone travel affordably as well as shining light on areas people normally wouldn't have considered.


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