For the past decade, I’ve been paying exorbitant phone, text, and data fees when traveling internationally. And I’ve long dreamed of a day when I could simply use my smart phone outside the U.S. with no fear of these extra charges. Thanks to Project Fi, that day has arrived.
And, seriously, I never thought it would arrive, or that if it did, I’d be a tottering old man. Wireless carriers, especially in the U.S., love to soak any customers who dare to even power on their phones while traveling internationally. And other forms of getting online more cheaply—like buying a pay-as-you-go SIM, as I’ve done several times, most recently last year in Lyon, France—have their downsides. Not the least of which is that you aren’t able to keep using your own phone number.
Here’s what I’ve always wanted: To pay some wireless carrier in the U.S. for whatever calling, texting, and data usage I choose. My monthly bill is whatever it is. And when I travel internationally, nothing changes, and there are no additional charges. I just use the phone as I do when I’m home.
This has always seemed like a pipe dream, and I’ve tried every alternative imaginable. There are plans that have gotten close—I tried T-Mobile’s free 2G data access in Europe two years ago in Barcelona, but it was unusable—and there are plans that are simply expensive, like whatever Verizon and AT&T offer. (And to be fair, T-Mobile comes even closer these days, though their international usage is currently time-limited.)
Recently, I reviewed Google’s Project Fi service, which I’ve been using with my Google Nexus 6P handset. But just one day after I posted that review, Google upgraded Project Fi’s international capabilities. And my God, has that changed everything.
Two weeks ago, I was able to test this newly upgraded service in Toronto for a few days. But now that I’ve been in Paris for over a week, I can declare victory: Project Fi delivers exactly what I’ve been asking for, what I thought I would never get. I can simply use my phone normally in Europe and other international destinations. That means I just leave it on. Allow data roaming. Just use the phone.
Best of all, I don’t pay any big fees for this privilege. Texting is free. Phone calls are 20 percent per minute (vs. 35 cents per minute on AT&T when you’re also paying for an expensive international plan). And data is the same $10 per GB that you pay in the U.S., and you get full 4G/LTE speeds where they are available. Coverage has been great, all over Paris.
I keep pinching myself. This cannot be true. But it is.
The experience is amazing. When we arrived in France, Project Fi popped up a “Welcome to France” notification that led to a page in the Fi app that explains all the rates I mention above. Totally transparent.
Since then, I’ve simply left my phone on. I’ve shared my connection out in the world, so my wife and daughter can get online as well. And we’ve been out in the world, seeing sites, posting to Facebook and Instagram, and hunting Pokémons (well, my daughter has). We’ve been using the heck out of this connection, every day.
So let’s do the math.
My base monthly bill on Project Fi is $30, plus some taxes. That’s $20 for Fi Basics (unlimited calls and texts) and $10 for 1 GB of data. If I go over 1 GB of data, I simply pay for what I use at that same rate ($10/GB), and its pro-rated so I only pay for what I actually use. (That is, if I go over 1 GB, I don’t just pay another $10.) Likewise, if I use less than 1 GB, Google gives me a pro-rated refund. Amazing, right?
Here in France, I’ve racked up $33.73 of data charges in the first week. That’s for 3.373 GB of data, of course. Meaning, I’ve been going to town on data usage. Because it’s so cheap. So my monthly bill—assuming I had no other additional charges—would be $63.73; that’s the normal $30 plus $33.73 in additional (data usage-related) charges. In other words, a week of freewheeling data usage in Europe has set me back just under $34. Assuming week two looks like week one, with about 7 GB of data use, I’ll scoot out of Europe about $70 lighter, or what we could call the price of one decent lunch here for the family. (Again, 1 GB of that data usage is already factored into my normal bill; I’m looking at additional cost here.)
So how do we compare this pricing with what I might have paid otherwise? (With the understanding that I would havenever used this much data if I were paying the normal rates.)
Here in France, you can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM from Orange for €39.99, or about $44 at today’s exchange rate. For that money, you get 2 GB of data you can use almost anywhere in Europe, and 2000 text messages. But that doesn’t include phone calls. It’s only valid for two weeks. And you obviously don’t get to use your normal phone number, so unless you have a dual-SIM phone, people back home might be unable to reach you if needed.
You can’t really buy 7 GB of data this way, but extrapolating the pricing out, it would cost $154. Again, compared to $70 from Project Fi. About double.
I’m on AT&T, and I routinely buy a $120 package, good for one month, that provide 800 MB of data, plus 35 cent per minute calling, and unlimited messages sent. Additional data is 15 cents per MB, or $15 per 100 MB. So … 7 GB of data on AT&T would cost me $1050.
My wife is on Verizon. That firm offers a $10 per day “worry-free” option, where you can use use your phone internationally like you use it at home. That’s actually a really nice price, but two weeks of usage would cost $140. That assumes no data overages, and her 12 GB allotment is shared, so the actual cost would be higher. But it’s a number. That is double what I pay with Fi.
Verizon also offers an International Travel 100 talk/text/data plan for $40. It’s good for one month, and offers 100 minutes, 100 sent messages, unlimited incoming text messages, and just 100 MB of data. Overages are an astonishing $25 per 100 MB. 7 GB of data at that pricing is untenable: $1765. The price of a plane ticket to Paris.
Whatever the exact costs, the difference is clear. And amazing. And real.
And to be clear, I’m using the phone more than I would normally. I’m carrying much of my wife’s and my daughter’s data usage because it’s so cheap. If this was just me, my Project Fi costs would be a lot cheaper still.
I’m also not discussing phone and text costs too much, because we’ve had so little here so far. When I was in Canada, I did spend a total of about $5 calling my wife over the course of that trip, and those costs would be similar here in France. Which is to say, so small as to not be an issue.
Project Fi has transformed international travel, making it as affordable to use your phone out in the world as it is back at home. And that changes everything for those of us who do travel internationally. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought possible even just a few months ago.
Of course, you do need to use one of the few phones that is currently supported on the service. And that’s been another interesting change on this trip: I’ve stopped using the iPhone and just use the Nexus 6P every day, and it’s been great. And that’s bad news for Apple, because I don’t miss the iPhone at all.
What a stunning change, all around.