Project Fi in The Netherlands: Seamless, Inexpensive Connectivity

Posted on November 20, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, Mobile with 20 Comments

Project Fi in The Netherlands: Seamless, Inexpensive Connectivity

I was able to experience the magic of Project Fi cellular access in Europe for a second time this past week. And yes, it held up nicely.

As you may recall, I finally experienced the magic of Google’s Project Fi service internationally over the summer when we did a shorter-than-usual home swap in Paris. I already knew Project Fi was amazing domestically, but that trip showed me that one can now achieve seamless voice, text, and data access internationally, just as we do here at home. This service really has transformed international travel.

Elsas, a favorite cafe in Amsterdam.

Elsas, a favorite cafe in Amsterdam.

So when the opportunity to travel to The Netherlands in November came, I knew that Project Fi would be the way to go. But having recently decided to return the Google Pixel XL because it simply doesn’t measure up to either the iPhone 7 Plus or its Nexus 6P predecessor, I knew I’d have to make that change first: I’d been using the Project Fi network here at home with the Pixel.

On that note, my trip didn’t get off to a good start.


Cloudy day in Amsterdam.

Not that it was Google’s or Project Fi’s fault: As part of my pre-trip packing ritual the night before my trip, I swapped the Project Fi SIM card from the Pixel XL to last year’s Nexus 6P. And in the middle of this delicate operation, the tiny card popped out of the Nexus 6P’s tray, hung in the air for a moment, and then fell between the cushion and arm of the couch.

No problem, I thought. But as I fumble-fingered the SIM card, which was just visible in the gap next to the cushion, and then watched it fall into the couch after I removed that cushion, panic set in. And that panic only intensified as I realized that the SIM card had made its way into the structure of the couch’s arm somehow, an area surrounded by 3/4-inch thick wood with only the tiniest of slot-like openings. Openings through which I couldn’t fit my hands let alone see inside.

But it had to be in there. So try to imagine the scene when my wife returned home from picking up our daughter at whatever activity she was at, only to discover our couch flipped upside down in the middle of the living room floor with its fabric under-cover slashed open in three places because I was looking for a way inside. And then it got worse—for her, at least—because the first thing I said to her was, “we have a jigsaw, right?”

My handiwork. No one is proud of this.

My handiwork. No one is proud of this.

The thing is, I knew we had the saw. But I wanted to make her a partner is this coming destruction of property. I showed her the roughly 6-inch by 4-inch area on the couch arm that I wanted to cut open, explaining that even though I couldn’t see the SIM card, or hear it as I shook the couch, I knew it had to be in there. I promised to staple/screw it back on when we got back from Europe. And I would need her smaller hand to get in there and find the SIM.

Which we did: After cutting the hole in the couch’s wooden structure, I peered inside with a flashlight and saw the tiny white SIM card sitting in there, exactly where I knew it had to be. So mission accomplished. Or something.

Amsterdam at dusk.

Amsterdam at dusk.

Heading to Europe the following night, I continued to use my iPhone as usual here in the States, and then again on the flight (in airplane mode) for music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Because the iPhone is using my primary cell phone number, I actually left the cellular access on while we were away just in case, but turned off data roaming. So I’ll see a small bill from the several text messages and (unanswered) phone calls I received while in Europe over the past week.

But the Nexus 6P with its Project Fi SIM came to life as we were touching down at Amsterdam’s ginormous Schipol airport. And it stayed on and activated the entire time we were away. I used it as my only phone. I used it to take some fairly incredible photos, which was no surprise. And I shared the connection again with my daughter, as I had in Paris back in August, because her Verizon-based iPhone, for some reason, couldn’t connect to the cellular networks there. (We’re still trying to figure that one out.)

Our hotel in Haarlem.

Our hotel in Haarlem.

The experience was much like it was this past summer in Paris: Seamless data connectivity, phone calling and text messaging just like back at home. And, best of all, for basically the same price I pay back at home.

Let’s break it down.

I subscribe to the basic Project Fi plan, which is $30 per month/ That gives me unlimited domestic phone calling and texting and 1 GB of data. Thanks to Fi’s reasonable pricing, I then pay $10 per additional GB, but not in $10 chunks. That is, if I were to use an additional 600 MB of data, I’d pay $6, not $10.

Dam square in Amsterdam.

Dam square in Amsterdam.

I disabled Airplane mode on the morning of Friday, November 11, and then re-enabled it as I was leaving Amsterdam early afternoon on Saturday, November 19, about 8 days later. During that time, I used a total of 2.58 GB of data. So my total cost of data was $25.82, though I only actually paid an additional $15.82 because $10/1 GB of that is built into my plan.

I also racked up $2.33 in additional charges related to international calls. Most phone calls via Project Fi are 20 cents per minute, and I see a few of those. But I also have one call that was charged at $1.53 per minute, apparently because it went out over Wi-Fi. I’m going to look into that one.

Haarlem. The Nexus 6P's panorama capabilities are slow and ponderous.

Haarlem. The Nexus 6P’s panorama capabilities are slow and ponderous.

(Not yet on the bill are the couple of phone calls I had with my wife once she returned home to Boston. Fi does a better job than, say, AT&T in keeping the bill up-to-date, but some things will still lag by a few days. So I could have another $5 or so in phone charges to deal with. Whatever it is, it’s reasonable.)

A couple of other notes.

Amsterdam by boat.

Amsterdam by boat.

I wasn’t sure how Project Fi would handle me moving the account and SIM card between the two phones (from the Pixel XL to the Nexus 6P). But it did so seamlessly and without issue. In the Fi app, you can see that two phones had used the card during this billing period, but there’s no additional charge. No problems there at all.

I never did see a 4G or LTE connection in the Netherlands: The signal shifted between H (for HSPA, a sort of “3G+” network that some carriers market as 4G) and 3G. But these speeds were good enough for everything I needed to do. Including, by the way, tethering my laptop: Twice on this trip, I was unable to uploaded photos for over the Wi-Fi network at the hotel for some reason, and it both cases I easily did so when tethered to my phone’s Project Fi coverage. Problem solved.

Beautiful Haarlem.

Beautiful Haarlem.

Put simply, I’ll pay somewhere between $18.15 and about $25, depending on where the as-yet uncharged phone calls fall, for the privilege of using my own phone like a phone while traveling for 8 days in Europe. I never had to micromanage the connection because I was worried about hitting data limits, and I never had to worry about phone calls or texts. It is so wonderfully freeing not to have to worry about such things, to be able to just use your phone like you would at home.

I know that Project Fi isn’t the only inexpensive way to bring your own phone number to Europe. But Fi has some other issues that make it less enticing to some. Key among them is that you must use a modern Google handset—a Nexus 6, 6P, 5X, Pixel, or Pixel XL—with the service. That means that I couldn’t use my AT&T-based iPhone 7 Plus in Europe. At least without paying astronomical fees.

Amsterdam by boat.

Amsterdam by boat.

That worked out, in a way, as the Nexus 6P takes better photos than the iPhone, period. (It takes better photos than the Pixel XL as well.) And as was the case with our earlier Paris trip, I continue to be amazed by the quality of the vacation photos I can take with this device. And that’s true both on bright, sunny days, where virtually any modern smartphone can perform well, or on the dank, wet, and dark days and nights that typify The Netherlands at this time of year.

Cute Haarlem neighborhood.

Cute Haarlem neighborhood.

Still, I missed the iPhone for its superior performance, reliability, simplicity, and battery life. And looking forward, I’d like to figure out a way I can get any device online inexpensively while traveling internationally, and not be limited to whatever small list of devices works with Project Fi.

But that’s for the future. As of today, I just saved myself a ton of money and—my couch incident notwithstanding—a ton of stress by using Google Project Fi in Europe. And I couldn’t be happier about that.


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Comments (20)

20 responses to “Project Fi in The Netherlands: Seamless, Inexpensive Connectivity”

  1. 4829

    I guess that this is easy as you make it out Paul. I have a 950XL that I use in the US and whenever I travel I simply buy a local SIM with Data from the airport I arrive and I get data at a fraction of the prices you are talking about and the phone routes data and calls through the appropriate SIMs as required. Those data rates you are quoting just seem expensive for what you were getting.

    For example on my last trip through Malaysia I purchased a Maxis Hotlink card (4G/LTE) where you would get a free 4GB with your initial 15 Ringgit purchase (About $3).

    All in all I found that I could spend less than $20 US at any airport or 7-11 and have connectivity for the week I was there. The only real way to eat through the data was tethering which always worked but was not always at full LTE speeds.

    • 2

      In reply to pwaggs:

      I've purchased data SIMs in Europe as specified in my previous article about this. They're more expensive (at least from tier-one carriers like Orange) and you don't get to keep your own number. This is using your real phone in another country and not having to change a thing. It just works and it's cheap.

      Ulitmately, this is just the perfect combination of usability and simplicity. Assuming you have a compatible phone. (And are from the US, as I think Fi is still US only.)

  2. 8549

    The little known secret to Fi is that once you have activated a SIM card using one of the eligible phones, you can then swap that card into any phone of your choosing and be able to use the GSM (T-Mobile) network. Granted you lose Sprint access but not a big loss really. 

  3. Harrymyhre

    this would make a great cartoon.

  4. 1775

    >...I’d have to make that change
    Michael Jackson would agree.?

    > couch incident
    I read this part to some co-workers, and they got a big kick out of it. A couple of them even had similar incidents. Minus the furniture massacre.

  5. 784

    A few years ago i put my micro sd card in my phone while sitting on the sofa -  the micro sd card is still somewhere in my sofa structure.  I never considered a jig saw ... perhaps if I needed it for my trip to Europe.

  6. 7063

    I think this is one of the main reasons Google (Fiber) is looking into city wide Wifi coverage as a last mile technology. If they can cover a city with a form of Wifi to provide home internet, and also provide generic internet to customers as they pass by, then it will put an even bigger dent into standard wireless carriers with their 2-5GB limits.

    If they could get a Project Fi router in every home that offered 300 Mbps symmetrical internet, and also expanded the Project Fi coverage for other customers it could be pretty appealing for Google.

  7. 8553

    I thought wifi calls were free?  

  8. 5539

    Those are gorgeous pictures. What a pretty place. Well, except for that shot of the couch.

  9. 774

    I generally do work like SIM changing over the open center drawer of my desk. That has been a good thing more than once since I am capable of dropping almost any small or mid-sized item.

  10. 8548

    American mobile contracts continue to amuse me...  I pay less than $25 a month which gives me 12GB of data per month, available in 42 countries world-wide.  For $30 a month I can have unlimited data.

  11. 8547

    I just used Project Fi on a 32-day trip to France and Italy and had a TERRIBLE experience.  I was using a Nexus 5X phone and Nexus 7 (2013) tablet (with a data-only SIM).

    Both devices worked well in Paris, but as soon as we went to Lyon and Provence cellular connectivity became intermittent.  Things became even worse in Tuscany.  I worked for almost two weeks with Project Fi tech support to no avail.  They tried to be helpful, but were moderately clueless.  ("Call us if we can be of further assistance."  But I CAN'T call you.)  Their return calls went straight to voice mail, even when I was on Wi-Fi.

    Connectivity literally seemed to vary from cell tower to cell tower.  (I could connect at one end of Volterra, a little Tuscan hilltop town, but not the other end.)  Tech support's suggestions ended up being to try connecting at 3G or 2G, go in and out of airplane mode or reboot.  As we walked and drove around, life became an endless series of airplane mode resets and reboots, with mixed success.  Ironically the elderly Nexus 7 worked better than the Nexus 5X.

    On one of the few calls where I was able to talk with a Project Fi support tech I complained about Google promoting a product that clearly had been released before it was ready.  Her response literally was "But we're not done yet."

    In a further irony, my Verizon Galaxy S6 and my wife's Galaxy S7, both with Wi-Fi Calling enabled, worked as well or better (voice and text) than the Nexus 5X when on Wi-Fi.  These Verizon calls and texts were free, with no need to sign up for an international plan, so any advantage from the Project Fi device was marginal.

    My wife's father died during our trip.  This was not unexpected, and we continued our trip, but the inability to communicate with family other than via Wi-Fi compounded our aggravation.

    Project Fi gave me a $50 credit because of all the problems we had.

    Project Fi may work well in larger foreign cities (Paris, Amsterdam) but I would suggest significantly lowered expectations outside of those metropolitan areas.

  12. 8121

    In reply to Paul Thurrott:

    With the trend in the US of public WiFi requiring a logon I found that Project Fi could never connect so I was always on cell data. This was quite a change from when I was on the beta, and made it to expensive.  

  13. 4347

    Maybe you could have sucked it out of the couch with a vacuum cleaner? Sticky tape on the end of a stick? Must have been bad if you resorted to the jigsaw option LOL.. Anyway, Fi worked perfectly for me this summer in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. All were LTE (in the cities at least) except Copenhagen which was HSPA+ for whatever reason. Fantastic service.

  14. 5093

    Project fi data only sim in an unlocked iphone works great. Make and receive calls with google hangouts a little clunky but works. 

  15. 4982

    I see a new couch in your future.

  16. 127

    It seems like an ideal solution. Especially as you keep your own number, right?

    Good to hear the service is working in The Netherlands, yet its not available for us Dutch. Hopefully, it soon will be.

  17. wosully

    Hi Paul,

    I assume you got charged for a wifi call because it wasn't a Pixel phone? I ask because I have made many wifi calls on my pixel xl out of the country and even received wifi calls without any charge. I just keep my Pixel XL in Airplane mode while out of the US and I can make and received calls and text messages. I am on Verizon now, switching to Project Fi with the Pixel 2 XL. Thanks much for the coverage, you really helped me decide on Fi.

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