Google Fi: The best phone service for international travel

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Most years, I rack up about 100,000 miles of business travel on airlines. Well, not the last two. I went from tens of thousands of miles to, at most, hundreds. But, now that COVID-19 is slowly retreating, business travel is coming back, so I’m on the road again. That means I once more need to deal with the problem of international phone and data bills. 

For me, the best solution to this is Google Fi. But, before I dive into that, you need to know why using a US-based smartphone is such a pain outside the country.  

You see, most American carriers charge high rates if you use their services outside the U.S. For example, I use Verizon in the States. It does an excellent job of covering where I live — and drive. Verizon’s 5G-speed Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) isn’t everything they claim it is, but its other 4G and 5G work well. At $45 a line per month for my 5G Play More unlimited data plan, I’m also happy with the price. 

But, once I’m outside the States, it’s a different story. Like all cellular companies, Verizon offers a variety of international plans. But, regardless of the company or the plan, they all have one thing in common: They’re all expensive. 

  • AT&T: AT&T offers customers a day pass for $10, which includes coverage in over 210 destinations and mobile internet access. However, if you’re making calls to countries outside of the scheme’s scope, you will still be charged per minute at a long-distance rate.  

  • T-Mobile: Magenta, ONE Plan, and Simple Choice contracts include free 2G (yes, 2G) roaming and texts in over 210 countries. Keep in mind that 2G has been phased out in many places, so it’s even worse than it sounds. Calls are $0.25 per minute. Alternatively, you can pick up an international pass ahead of time for high-speed internet access and unlimited calls. 

  • Verizon: Verizon offers monthly plans for frequent fliers and passes for shorter trips at $5 – $10 per day. Travel passes cover over 210 countries, and you can also use Verizon’s international trip planner to decide what service is best for you. 

  • Comcast Xfinity: Xfinity supports international roaming for over 200 countries. Customers have the choice of pay-as-you-go while abroad, where charges vary depending on the country, or a global travel pass, which is $10/day per line in over 170 countries (or $5/day in Mexico and Canada). Make sure you contact the company to enable international roaming in either case.

During my two-week business trip to Spain, I needed unlimited data, voice, and text for my purposes. The best deal I could find on Verizon charged me $10 a day. 

That adds up. Fast.

Also: The 5 best international travel credit cards

Still, that’s better than paying roaming charges. International roaming charges are obscenely high. AT&T, for example, will hit you up for $2 a minute for voice calls in Europe and $2.05 per Megabyte (Yes, Megabyte!) of data. 

Now, there are other things you can do. Many business travelers get an unlocked phone and plug in a local SIM card as needed. With this, you can top off your phone as needed and pay cheaper local rates rather than international rates or nightmarish roaming charges. 

But switching out SIM cards can be a pain if you’re a butter finger like me. So, I take a different approach: Google Fi.

Google Fi is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). That means Google doesn’t own any wireless network. Instead, it uses T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and public Wi-Fi networks in the States. In other countries, Fi uses local carriers. 

In the U.S., you can expect to see 5G services and speeds. Outside our borders, it’s usually 4G, but they’re ramping up their 5G service. In any case, 4G is plenty fast enough for most purposes — including watching Netflix and Amazon Prime videos using a Google Chromecast on local T.V.s.

Google Fi has two plans: In Canada, the US, and Mexico, Google Fi has two worthwhile plans. The cheapest is its Flexible plan with its low price of $20 a month. It gives you unlimited calls and texts and 5G data at $10 a Gigabyte, but only in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. 

  •  The Simply Unlimited Planstarts at $50/month for a single user. It includes unlimited texting and unlimited calling in the States. It also comes with 35GBs of high-speed data per month. Speeds slow down, however, after you use 35GBs. It comes with 5GBs of hotspot tethered data. It also includes free international calling from the U.S. to 50 countries; other calls for 20 cents per minute; free Wi-Fi calling worldwide; and unlimited data in the US, Canada, and Mexico.
  • The Unlimited Plus Plan starts at $65/month for a single user. It includes unlimited texting, unlimited calling in the States, and 50GBs of high-speed data per month when traveling internationally. Speeds slow down after 50GBs. It comes with unlimited hotspot tethered data. It also includes free international calling from the U.S. to 50 countries; other calls for 20 cents per minute; free Wi-Fi calling worldwide; and unlimited data in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

With either plan, that’s a lot of data. Besides the generous hotspot service, Google Fi also lets you put a Fi SIM card into your tablet, laptop, or any other gadget, even an old smartphone, for no additional fees. Google Fi lets you claim up to four data-only SIMs for your account. 

Also: How to save money when traveling abroad

The only thing you can’t use these data SIMs for is tethering. Darn it! Still, you can order the Google Fi data SIMs for free from the Fi app or website. In other words, you won’t need to tether your other gadgets because you can easily give them a SIM of their own. If you use a lot of connected devices, as I do, this is really handy.

Another nice feature is that your Fi connection from your smartphone, or any other device, is protected by a built-in Virtual Private Network (VPN). When you’re far away from home, and you’re not at all sure if you can trust the local Wi-Fi, it’s nice to have a virtual security blanket.

Also: The 4 best VPN services for Android

But, the real killer feature of Google Fi is you only pay for it when you need it. Instead of paying for both Verizon and Google Fi 12 months of the year, I only pay for Fi when I use it. 

Google enables you to pause your Fi service for up to three months at a time. And, you can do that over and over again until you’re heading out of the country and need it on again. If I need it back earlier for an unexpected trip, I just log back in via the website or the smartphone app (and flash), it’s back on, and all’s well. 

So, in my just-completed trip, instead of paying $150 for Verizon for its international service, I paid $65 and never ran out of data on my phone, tablet, or Chromebook. If your work or play is going to take you out of the country soon, be sure to check out Google Fi. It may be exactly what you need for affordable international calling, texting, and data.

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