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Trip Report T-Mobile International Roaming in Europe: a Trip Report

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I recently tried out T-Mobile's international roaming while using my Android phone while in Europe for two weeks. I have T-Mobile's "Simple Choice" plan (unlimited everything in the US) that adds cheap roaming in select countries outside the US: 20 cents a minute calls from Europe to the US or for calls received from the US plus 20 cents a minute in country. Plus you get unlimited free 2G data roaming and free WiFi calls to/from the US. (Assuming your phone has the ability to do WiFi calling, and assuming your SIM card is capable of WiFi calling; T-Mobile can convert an old SIM to a new one that does WiFi calling for free, at any T-Mobile store.)

Not all countries are included in T-Mobile's international roaming agreement. (Slovenia and Croatia aren't for example, and T-Mobile roaming there is crazy expensive.) I used my phone in France, Germany, and Switzerland, all of which are included. Check T-Mobile's website for the list of countries.

Note that not any GSM (T-Mobile) phone will work outside the US. Some older phones (flip phones) may not have the key "GSM-900" (900 MHZ) frequency required to work in most European countries. I know for sure one of my old flip-phones DOES NOT work in Europe even though it works fine on T-Mobile in the US. My current phone is an Android which is a true "world phone" - it has all the GSM frequencies needed to work both in the US and in Europe

In each new country I visited, it took a few minutes for the phone to register on the new local partner network the first time; afterward, I'd get a text message welcoming me to free roaming there. In France, I roamed on Orange (mobile company);. In Switzerland, on Swiss Telecom. In Germany, I roamed on T-Mobile Germany and occasionally other networks. Data performance on the T-Mobile network in Germany seemed the best.

I didn't make lots of actual phone calls while in Europe. I mostly used it for data. 2G data is free but also generally pretty slow. The speed varied; sometimes it was unbearably slow, other times it was very usable. I used the phone for data on trains and buses as well as at hotels that didn't have free WiFi. I even used the phone's built-in hot spot to put my laptop on the internet. T-Mobile's marketing angle seems to be to get you to buy 3G data passes once you get frustrated with the slow speed of 2G, but I stuck it out and did fine with the slow speed. For email and Facebook and basic web surfing it was fine, as long as I was patient. Uploading even a few pictures to Facebook could be frustrating, though. As I said earlier, 2G performance varied from very slow to slow but usable.

I made several WiFi calls with the phone. The quality of the WiFi call depends on the quality of the WiFi and internet connection you are using. My phone tried to sense whether the WiFi quality was acceptable and would inform me if not. The phone makes it clear whether you are using WiFi to call or the regular mobile network, so you won't make a non-WiFi call by mistake. (You can also just put the phone into "Airplane Mode" then enable WiFi, so you won't even be able to make a real mobile call by accident.) Even when the phone thought WiFi quality was good, the call quality, usually pretty good, became garbled sometimes. I called my mother several times, and I could almost always hear her perfectly but sometimes she could not hear me well. But it wasn't bad enough that we couldn't have a conversation.

I made only a few non-WiFi calls. Looks like I made only 9 minutes worth of calls, because my total roaming cost for two weeks was $1.80 USD. I called a hotel a few times to confirm a reservation. The phone was smart enough to figure out the country code etc. for me. If I googled for a phone number, I could just select that number to call - very easy.

In Germany, I found that making calls at Starbucks during the day (when the US finally woke up) was very convenient. Starbucks in Germany have free WiFi just like in the US. The McDonalds in Germany - at least the one in Berlin - will text you a passcode for free WiFi if you give them your phone number. I tried this once but I never received the passcode text message. (Free texting is included in T-Mobile's international roaming, too.) Maybe they don't text to US numbers? In other countries, you don't need a passcode for WiFi at McDonalds in my experience. Of course, you can always use the WiFi at your hotel or at any restaurant you patronize that offers WiFi.

Overall, the cheap/free international roaming in Europe was a huge benefit to me. I went to the trouble of unlocking this phone before I left the US, in anticipation of buying a local SIM (as I had in the past), but I didn't need to this time. I think the days of buying a local SIM card while in Europe may be over, at least for me. I think other mobile companies will eventually have to follow T-Mobile's lead and offer cheap roaming overseas, sooner or later.

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