Charles de Gaulle Airport

The 'uncarrier' serves up free 2G data overseas, but it's worth splurging on a full data pass for proper roaming

Every year before heading to Spain for Mobile World Congress you can find journalists asking each other "what are you doing for data this year?" Finding a local SIM card is always an option, of course, provided you've got a SIM-unlocked device. But I've usually found that to be a waste of time versus the money you save, at least in Spain.

And the hassle of tracking down a local SIM card (not every country sells them out of airport vending machines and kiosks) became even less attractive in the fall of 2013 when T-Mobile introduced free roaming data along with its Simple Choice plans.

But, as always, there's a catch. 

We keep a pretty good eye on the best options for international roaming if you're on a U.S. carrier. I took T-Mobile for a spin through an airport in France, and later in Barcelona. What follows are a few anecdotal thoughts.

Using T-Mobile free roaming data

It's free, but it's slow. Very slow. As in, Dark Ages slow. Your time likely is worth more than this.

I just missed out on giving this a whirl on my last international trip of 2013, a few days in London a week or so before T-Mobile rolled out its new plans. So Barcelona in February 2014 was my first chance to try things out. 

First stop: Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris.

Back to that catch, though. T-Mobile serves up free roaming (read: international) data if you're on a Simple Choice plan. But you're limited to 2G speeds — something most of us, especially in my line of work, haven't had to deal with in years, even when traveling abroad. So things were going to be slow, and I knew it.

How slow? This slow.

T-Mobile 2G roaming data

That's one test, of course, but it's pretty representative of what I saw in the airport. Your mileage my vary, of course, but I was pegging out at what T-Mobile says to expect — around 128 Kbps.

What's that good for? It's sort of tough to say. You can send and receive e-mail, of course, but the overall smartphone experience isn't anything like what you expect in 2014. Don't bother opening an app that does anything with images or video, basically. Even with e-mail, I'd suggest just letting your phone do its thing, and don't worry about how long it takes.

Hey, free is free. It's just slow. Very slow.

For $50, however, life gets back to normal

Along with the free international data, T-Mobile last year introduced new international data "passes." Here's how they break down (with the high-speed flow slowed once you hit the cap):

  • Single-day pass: $15 for 100MB
  • 7 day-pass: $25 for 200MB
  • 14-day pass: $50 for 500MB
This is more like it. Pay $50 and get a pretty normal high-speed experience.

For my money, that's a no-brainer. International trips aren't cheap, or all that easy, given the rigors of travel. I'll gladly pay $50 to be able to step off the plane and enjoy roughly the same experience as I would at home. Not LTE speeds, mind you, but 4 or 5 Mbps keeps me plenty happy — and, more important, keeps me working.

I did manage to burn through at least 400 megabytes in about four days, but figure that I'm a bit of an outlier, given this job and all. Still, you'll need to keep track of your use while on the plan.

How T-Mobile compares to the rest

So, assuming you go for the $50/500MB plan (which I would), here's how it compares to the other carriers:

The bottom line

El Pratt in Barcelona

I'm old enough now that I don't mind paying for convenience. I need to be able to step off the plane and get to work — not worry about finding a local SIM card. So for me, there are two options. AT&T's plans — and the 800MB deal isn't cheap, but usually means I don't have to worry about usage at all — or T-Mobile's $50/500MB data pass, which turned out to be a pretty good deal.

International travel isn't cheap. Or easy. But T-Mobile's $50 data pass makes it much more manageable. You can get all the details at T-Mobile's site.