Relying on T-Mobile…up to a Point
Typically, when I travel, I travel with 2 phones, my T-Mobile phone with a US plan and a European phone. I also travel with a MiFi hotspot, mostly so I can use my MacBook but also just in case someone else that I am traveling with needs Wi Fi. The main reason for this hardware is that for me, being connected while I travel internationally is extremely important as I need to attend to business. In fact, without a phone and a computer, I would be forced to take very brief trips or at the very least, head back to the hotel or apartment to get on my laptop. Hence, having a secondary back up phone is vital. I have been in a situation once before that my phone went kaput and to purchase an exact replacement of that phone cost in excess of $1000 (cell phones tend to cost more internationally than in the US).
Another reason is that many of my friends and family in Europe have my international number. If I reached out to them with a different number, most of them would ignore the call as they wouldn’t recognize the number.
Up until this trip, I have been very satisfied with roaming with T-Mobile. In fact, even though T-Mobile has advertised unlimited data (but only 2G when you read the fine print), I have found that I have almost always gotten at least 3G speeds. If you are not familiar with 2G speeds, 2G is ok for emails but can be extremely frustrating when browsing websites due to the length of time it takes the pages to load and nearly impossible to do tasks such as use Google Maps. This trip however, I was getting 2G which is (sort of) OK for emails but definitely not enough for what I need to do. I knew about T-Mobile’s offer of adding 1GB for $20 (up to 10 days) and, even though I had my MiFi hotspot, I decided to try out this offer…so that I could then write about it. This is my experience.
The first few days that I arrived in Italy, besides the slow speeds, everything worked including phone calls (although I forward my calls to voice message to avoid the fees, as T-Mobile charges for calls) and text messaging. Then all of a sudden, I could only receive text but could not send them. Although I typically use Skype to make calls from my cell, I just wanted to see if the T-Mobile service worked. It didn’t. So, I called customer service, told them what was happening and had them add the 1GB of 3G data. They had me turn off the phone and told me to wait a few minutes and they would not only fix the issues that I was having but would also add the faster data speeds. When I turned on the phone, nothing worked – not even the data which up until that point, had been working at the 2G speeds. So I called again. They had me turn off the phone while they were doing some provisioning in the system. That happened about 4-5 times in the span of 3 days. Since I was (supposedly) on vacation and decided to use my back up phone, I was not as proactive as I would have been if I did not have a back up plan. Quite honestly, answering the same security questions over and over again being assured that if I turned off the phone while they changed a setting was just not worth the pain since I did have a plan B. However, since my T-Mobile phone is better than my plan B phone, I decided to slightly alter my tactic and speak to a US based technician, and not just the regular customer service, during regular business hours. I informed him of the problem, of my past conversations and after a few minutes, he assured me that he would be able to resolve the issue. I asked him to tell me what he thought the issue was for future reference and he stated that instead of turning roaming on, the previous reps kept turning it off and turned international calling on (which is the feature used to make calls to international numbers from the US).
The bottom line is that this snafu can happen to anyone (and indeed, the same thing happened to me 2 years ago as well) and is, perhaps with a certain degree of frustration, resolvable. What is not resolvable is that now T-Mobile has learned to throttle their data speeds internationally (meaning, they can control if the speeds are 2G or faster). This of course is big business for them because while the “free international data” offering hooks people, a large percentage of people opt for a more usable solution…for a price.
I bought my phone directly from the manufacturer when it first came out, paid cash, up front. Most T-Mobile customers do not do that. That means that their phones are locked. With my phone, since it’s unlocked, I can just put in a Cellular Abroad International Data SIM. This SIM offers 9GB of high speed data and also the ability to make calls.
If your phone is not unlocked or you are traveling with another person and/or you have multiple devices like I have, such as a laptop or a tablet, a Wi Fi mobile hotspot is really a great, affordable and easy to use solution. If you are not aware of what a mobile hotspot is, I encourage you to find out as this is fast becoming the product of choice for the international traveler who needs to stay connected overseas.