Sunday, 1 June 2014

T-Mobile USA international roaming prices

I’ve leaving tonight for two months in at least six countries in Europe. I’m taking my smartphone, and I plan to use it the same way I do in the USA, maybe more.

That’s a big change.

Most cellphone and wireless data prices for international roaming have been, and still are, prohibitive.

What I’ve said in my books and my more recent series in 2012 on smartphones and digital maps for international travel (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) is still true: If you have a suitable (unlocked, multiband, GSM) cellphone, you can get a local SIM card in most countries with reasonable rates for voice calls, and in some cases for wireless data, while you are in that one country. You can even get some SIM cards optimized for global roaming, with much higher but not terrible rates for voice calls in many countries.

But until recently, international roaming data charges have been prohibitive. Travelling from country to country to country with a smartphone has been a recipe for extreme sticker shock. I’ve heard from people who’ve gotten bills of thousands of U.S. dollars a week for using a Blackberry while abroad the way they do at home.

It’s common to find that smartphone apps running in the background, or that you thought were “on the phone”, are running up data charges without your knowing it. Voice translation apps, for example, typically send audio clips to a central server, rather than translating them on the phone. How much use is a translation app you can’t afford to use while abroad?

Here’s a survey of how much data your phone might send and receive if you use it abroad the way you do at home, and how much that might cost with the largest US wireless voice and data carriers.

The European Union has begun to legislate caps on wireless roaming charges, but these EU rules only apply to subscribers travelling and making calls between EU member countries.

Recently T-Mobile USA has introduced some dramatically different “Simple Choice International” subscription plans that allow (a) unmetered moderate-speed wireless data (you get a limited amount of data transmission at the highest speed, after which it is somewhat reduced) and (b) US$0.20 per minute voice roaming in more than 100 countries for a flat monthly price of about US$50 plus taxes for a single line or somewhat less for multiple lines on a family account.

I was skeptical that there would be some hidden fee (besides the usual taxes) or additional cost. But I’ve gotten the T-Mobile bills from my trip to Switzerland, Belgium, and the UK with my smartphone in March, and there no charges for international data roaming, including tethering my laptop to my phone to access the Internet when the wi-fi at the City Hostel in Geneva wasn’t working. Incoming and outgoing voice calls to and from numbers in the countries I was visiting, other EU countries, and the USA were billed at only US$0.20 per minute plus the expected additional charges for calls to European cellphone numbers. (In most of the world, unlike the USA, the caller, not the recipient, pays the extra fee for calls to mobile phones.)

If there was any surprise, it’s that I wasn’t charged more than had been advertised.

Most people in the USA don’t have passports and never travel abroad, so international roaming is a niche market in the USA. It remains to be seen whether other companies will try to compete with T-Mobile USA in this niche.

For now, however, I know of no wireless international roaming data plan offered by any carrier in the world that is remotely competitive with T-Mobile USA’s current “Simple Choice International” plans. These are the first, and so far the only, plans that let you use wireless data services in many — not all — foreign countries, the same way you do at home. If you know of other such plans, please leave a comment.

T-Mobile’s tariff contains vague terms that allow the company to cut off your service if you use it disproportionately abroad, and not in the USA. I had no problem travelling abroad for two weeks, after being a T-Mobile USA customer for years. I don’t know what T-Mobile USA would do if you opened a new account on one of these plans for a trip around the world, left the USA, and used your T-Mobile USA SIM exclusively abroad for months as a time. If you’ve tried it, leave a comment about how long you were abroad and how it worked out.

T-Mobile USA was founded and is still owned primarily by the German national phone company Deutsche Telekom. Deutsche Telekom has been trying for years to sell its share of T-Mobile USA, and it’s unclear how a sale or merger might affect T-Mobile USA’s pricing for international roaming.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 1 June 2014, 07:46 ( 7:46 AM)
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