Free International Data Plans? No Thanks!

As good as it sounds and as cheap as it is, the old adage, “you get what you pay for” rings perfectly true.

Some cellular providers, notably T-Mobile and Sprint, lure you in by touting free international data for your smartphone when you travel abroad. While there are SOME instances where these free data plans are fine, chances are that for you, your free plan will be nothing but a big headache. Here’s why.

While the carriers do a great job of promoting the “free” aspect, they do the opposite of mentioning the “slow” part. In fact, the free data that they are referring to is 2G. Think back to your very first experience of using your phone for internet, possibly about 15 years ago. That is what kind of data that we are talking about. 

This is the Catch

You go overseas, you turn on the phone, try to download a website and…nothing happens. Oh wait, something IS happening. Just wait a bit more and eventually the page will open – or it may just time out. So what everyone inevitably does is to call the cellular provider and THEN, almost miraculously, they seem to know everything there is to know about the free but slow 2G service you are getting and fast 3G or 4G service you should be getting…for a fee.

Carriers pay to borrow other carriers networks for their customers so if you stick with free/slow, they are losing money. Not a ton because at 2G, you really cannot do too much damage after all. Websites don’t open with ease and you can forget about Google Maps or video streaming. Even so, they carriers calculate that a very large percentage of their users will sign up and pay for faster speeds.

Not Everyone Needs Fast

While most travelers use apps that require fast connections such as Google Maps or Waze and many travelers like to go to websites to checkin to their flights, use Facebook or just browse the internet, some people only care about checking their emails or sending text messages through iMessage or WhatsApp. Based on Cellular Abroad’s personal experience with 2G speeds, it is sufficient for emails (as long as your images do not automatically load) and is also fine for messaging. Nearly every other task (streaming videos or music, browsing the internet and maps) is at best, frustrating and usually not possible.

What’s My Alternative?

You do have options. Here are your options. Pay for your carrier’s higher speeds, get an alternative solution as mentioned below, wait until you find, if you find, a Wi Fi hotspot or forget about data all together. What we recommend is to get an International SIM Card for your phone (more information here) or, if your phone is locked and/or you need service for a PC or Tablet, get an International Hotspot.

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About Sebastian Harrison

Founder and President of Cellular Abroad and travel writer.
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