Hello from Barcelona, where I am currently on the 3rd leg of my around-the-world trip [partially with Daniel]! ūüėÄ I was inspired to write this post based on a recent Doctor of Credit post on Google Fi (also known as Project Fi), and thought I’d throw in my two cents based on my experiences (and of course, my referral link too). I work remotely, which gives me the awesome flexibility to travel, as long as I have access to the internet during my shift. Therefore, in-flight wifi and international cellular data is key for my job.

I’ve been on a few trips now where I bring¬†two phones — my iPhone 6S Plus personal phone on T-Mobile, and my Nexus 6P work phone on Verizon.¬†Last year, there was a deal I saw on Slickdeals to get a discounted Nexus 6P phone with the activation of a Google Fi plan. I decided to jump on it even though I figured that I already had international data included with my T-Mobile plan. Having options is always nice when you’re traveling!

For the most part, T-Mobile is fine while traveling – for maps, directions, texts, and other tasks that are not too graphic-intensive.¬†But sometimes T-Mobile 2G feels SOOOOOO frustratingly slow, particularly when you’re trying to find a restaurant to go to or are wondering what you should order at a restaurant you’re already at, and the photos are loading at a snail’s pace. Not good when you and your companions are hungry. ūüėČ It’s particularly deceptive because your phone will still say “LTE” but it’s actually loading at 2G. When I get really frustrated,¬†I bust out my Google Fi sim card and unpause the service. ¬†I also give my husband the sim card whenever he travels, since he has an iPhone on AT&T, which does not include free international data.

Costs

My T-Mobile plan is a Simple Choice plan for $120/month for 4 lines, each with 6 GB LTE, which includes unlimited 2G data in 140+ countries (click here for the list). Remember that even though your phone may say “LTE” on it when you’re in Spain, it’s actually throttled to 2G (128 kbps). There is an option to upgrade your line¬†to 256 kbps speeds at $15/month (per line) for T-Mobile ONE Plus. This is a really great deal if you travel frequently, especially because it also includes free in-flight wi-fi on Gogo-enabled flights.

However, I don’t really travel internationally¬†THAT¬†often, so I wanted something I could easily turn on and off, and that’s why I jumped on that Nexus 6P Slickdeal. Here is the list of¬†Google Fi’s supported countries. Google Fi charges $20/month for the base service, then $10 per GB of unthrottled data on top of that. It’s important to note that these charges are PRORATED down to the hour of service and tenth of a MB of data used, so you only pay for exactly what you used. As an example, my husband used Google Fi for our trip to the Bahamas, and despite frequently reading on his phone (and even using remote desktop a few times), our total bill for January was $4.87, which even included a few short phone calls (charged at $0.20/min). Here’s the breakdown:

For maybe one short international trip per month (or not even), this makes more sense for me than paying $15/month for the ONE Plus (which requires a T-Mobile ONE subscription in the first place, which is also more expensive than my current plan).

How to Use Google Fi with an iPhone

Google Fi is only supported on one of the supported Google phones.  However, it can be used with other phones easily. Let me show you how on an iPhone!

This only works on an unlocked iPhone. If your phone has not been carrier-unlocked, you will need to google the instructions for how to unlock your phone. For AT&T, follow the instructions on this page. Some Verizon iPhones (depending on model) already come factory-unlocked.

  1. Activate your Google Fi sim card on a supported Google phone. Obviously, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t have one. I’d recommend asking around if any of your friends have one, especially with the popularity of the Nexus 6P and the Pixel these days. You only need a couple minutes of their time — pop out their sim card, insert yours, follow the instructions on the screen. They’ll need to log in to your account, and then remove your account from their phone¬†after everything is done. See here for more details.¬†
  2. Insert the activated sim card into your own phone.
  3. Go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Cellular Network.
  4. In the box next to APN, type in h2g2.
  5. Toggle your airplane mode on and off, and wait for the carrier name and data to show up (e.g. vodafone LTE).
  6. If it says “No Service” for a long time, you may need to manually select your carrier. Go to Settings > Carrier > toggle the Automatic switch off, and select a carrier from the list once it loads. You may also want to try restarting your phone and after selecting a carrier, wait a few minutes to see if the carrier loads .
Pro TIps

If you’re using it on an iPhone, test out the instructions above at home in¬†the US and change your APN before your travels, so you know it works.

Start the Google Fi service at the beginning of your trip before swapping¬†the sim card. If you have T-Mobile already, you can wait until you land, then activate the service via your phone’s web browser (using T-Mobile’s free 2G data), and swap the card. If you don’t have T-Mobile, you may want to activate the service from your phone before your plane starts taxiing.

Pause the Google Fi service at the end of your trip via¬†your phone’s web browser immediately before swapping¬†the sim cards again.

I always keep¬†my Google Fi sim card in a little baggie with a bent paperclip stashed in my travel wallet. If we’re going to be using¬†the Fi for the whole trip, I change the sim card on the plane before landing. Otherwise, I change it at night in the hotel or at a restaurant when I’m fed up with slow-loading photos.

Little bag for SIM card and ejector tool (paperclip)

If you are having any issues with the connection, I would recommend looking into getting a data-only SIM for your iPhone instead of using the main SIM, which Google does officially give instructions for. Read this blog post for more information on the reasons. Be sure to test the data-only SIM in the US first before using it abroad as well.

Another reason you should order extra data-only SIMs anyways is so that you can share your plan with¬†up to 4 other devices (i.e. your iPad, or your traveling companions’ devices) simultaneously without having to swap SIM cards in and out. Obviously, they won’t be able to make calls from a phone number, but they can still do data-only calls on Google Hangouts, Facetime Audio, Wechat, and the like. If they really need to have a phone number to make calls from, you can add them to your Google Fi family plan for another $15 per month. My husband does not need to make “real calls” so we just share my plan and are able to use our phones simultaneously and only pay for extra data,¬†without an extra $15 per month.

Activating a data-only SIM

Summary
T-Mobile Google Fi
Pros:

  • “It just works.”
  • Don’t need to change SIM cards; ready to go from takeoff to landing
  • Free with supported plan
  • Free in-flight wifi on Gogo flights
Pros:

  • High speed data, unthrottled
  • Inexpensive; easy to understand price structure ($20/month and $10/GB, PRORATED!!)
Cons:

  • Automatically throttled¬†to 2G data (128 kbps), which may not be enough for your needs (there is an option to upgrade to high-speed data at $15-25/line/month)
Cons:

  • Need to change SIM cards
  • If using an iPhone, need to change APN and do some fiddling with the settings
Caveats

Thanks to Jacob for pointing these out to me.¬†It seems that I accidentally set up my Google Fi in a way that I wouldn’t be affected by these, so allow me to explain how to get around these apparent inconveniences.

  1. You can only pause your Google Fi for up to 3 months at a time. However, you can just unpause it, then pause it again immediately, and it seems to reset the timer, in my experience at least.
  2. When you pause your Google Fi, you can’t use Google Voice or Hangouts. I rely on Google Hangouts for my daily work and I use Google Voice to make international calls regularly. I would recommend that you use a different Gmail¬†address other than the one you use for Google Voice to sign up for Fi. Apparently I did this unintentionally — I ordered my Google Fi under my spam Gmail address and set it up there with a new Google Voice number, etc. In other words, I did NOT port my real¬†Google Voice number and my Google Voice and Hangouts are still active and can be used while my Fi is paused.

Let me know if you have any questions or anything else you want to add!

And of course, if you found this post helpful and are interested in signing up, I’d really appreciate if you use my referral link¬†(use this link or enter code R6C2X6 when signing up)! We would each get $20 of Fi credit applied to our accounts. ūüôā