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.


Reader comments

Testing T-Mobile's free roaming data — and how $50 gets you so much more


It is unlimited data when abroad in one of the included countries and Spain is included. The speed was really good when I was in St Kitts and didn't find a need to upgrade the speed.

I'm in Israel right now, free, unlimited International roaming. The kicker, 3G! Roaming on Orange. The speeds are great! Here for two weeks and loving it! Thanks T-Mobile!

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Phil, from other comments, it looks like you got stuck on a network that takes the 2G part seriously. ;-)

We took a recent trip to Canada and were getting 3G speeds wherever we went. It was very nice, considering T-Mobile used to have THE worst data roaming at $15 a MB! In the past, if I even turned my data on in Canada, it was $50 minimum!

I hope that the rest of the countries are more like what others have experienced and less like your Spain experience. I mean, come on, really, how much could roaming T-Mobile customers impact a given international network? (Olympics? Your Spain conference?) And even if they had a noticeable impact, it would be negligible for the most part, with spikes here and there.

Kudos to T-Mobile for pushing the Data boundaries and pushing data rates downward. One day soon, maybe we can all stop worrying about being gouged to take a trip/vacation.

Now T-Mobile, you need to push your LTE rollout further into more remote areas. ;-)

I was waiting for someone to say this. And, you didn't disappoint, lol.

Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

I'm still waiting for a some one to come along and claim otherwise. The classic line "it's coming to you_____ soon" or "I get ____Spark speed's"

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Yeah, lol.

Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

That's awesome! I've yet to get more than 15MBPs down on T-Mobile, no matter my location.

Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

In RVA, the city. Yes its some kind of LTE by the airport but it nothing to brag about.

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Same here with my One in NY. It used to be horrible over here but last summer things really started picking up. T-Mobile has gotten better as well from what I've heard.

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and I would get slower speeds than the screenshot posted, and I live two blocks from the only tower in my town. YMMV has never been any more truthful when it comes to Sprint.

Idk must just be the difference of where we live I have a Nexus 5 if that's anything to you. But I just ran a test on 3G and I'm getting 2.5mb/s

I was about to switch months ago, but Sprint finally got 3g in my small town. 2400kbps bi-di. Sure enough, getting 3g in 2014 is nothing to be shouting about, but I'm happy. The bad news, about 4 miles north is lte with even fewer users...not sure the logic.

Yeah, I don't think there is a cap on the free 2G data. Anyway, I traveled to Paris and Iceland in late November and took advantage of the free data roaming using my HTC One. I was all prepared to spring for a faster data bucket but in the end I found that the free data served my purposes just fine and I didn't buy the faster data. Was able to navigate the twisty Paris streets great with Google Maps, use the Paris Metro app, and bring up nearby restaurant recommendations on the fly with Yelp and TripAdvisor. Also posted some photos on the go to my Facebook - while not near instantaneous like when I am on LTE here in NYC, it still usually took less than a minute for a photo to upload and post. In Reykjavik, Iceland and out at Keflavik the carrier defaulted to the Nova network, which was near useless, but after I manually selected the Vodafone network, the experience was much more useful, so it might help to manually select networks for the best experience.

I had the opportunity to try this out on a 10-day trip to Guatemala recently. It worked. I had mobile access to data throughout the trip.
As a result, I was able to stay in touch with people back home, continue my normal postings, and update people on the trip within the hour of events taking place.
I got 3g speeds in Guatemala City and a number of smaller places, only reverting to 2g in some of the mountain communities.
My daughter's going to Mexico this month and she's now carrying the same coverage.

Hey, thanks for this information.

Question: did you go to Lake Atitlán? If so, were you able to get 3g in most of the towns around the lake with T-Mobile?

It is not difficult to purchase a SIM cards for any country on eBay. You can also get SIM cards in some airports. Heathrow has $30 unlimited SIM card vending machines right at the terminal exit.

Why did it take so long? Were there a lot of people trying to get sims? Or did you have to go to multiple stores to get one?

Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

It's unlimited data, the 200 MB is for tablets. I used the free data for 10 days in Israel and the service was great. Slow, but fine for basic web browsing. Email was perfect, Google maps navigation was excellent. I used whatsapp and sms frequently, and made about $10 worth of voice calls at .20 a minute. I love T-Mobile!

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Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

I found International Roaming on Tmo pretty useful in Switzerland and France. Its slow but enough to use for emails, maps, some web browsing, and info searching...

For a recent trip to Israel, I bought an Orange nanoSIM on Ebay that I was able to fill online giving me 3 GB for 30 days for about $45. Speeds were great, and I had coverage everywhere, including the West Bank. For calls, I just used Skype to phone, and got world-class call quality even when at the Dead Sea. I've found that the local SIMs aren't hard to find online and you don't have to look for the airport kiosk when you buy them (and fill them) in advance. Then you get that "walk off the plane" experience, but at home-like speeds with enough data to be comfortable with everything you normally do at home.

I'm in Israel right now and have traveled most of the country North to South, East to West during my trip. Orange coverage is phenomenal. Full bars everywhere, even on the top of Masada. In the middle of the Sea of Galelli, around the Dead Sea. Amazing coverage, of course the large areas like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are great to. Free, 3G, unlimited, thanks tmobile. Excellent speeds, great for my Instagram and Hangouts with family back home. We even did a Video Hangout while on the top of Masada. Crazy.

We were close to the boarder of Jordan and my phone roamed there, got a text from tmobile letting me know. If I wanted to activate roaming there, I have to reply to the text, otherwise, no data. As it should be. Thanks tmobile!

So happy I left Verizon.

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Go SprinT Mobile

You really should see the crap I don't post. Sorry if honesty offends you

Link? I saw nothing new so far either way

You really should see the crap I don't post. Sorry if honesty offends you

From the looks of it, it's going to be an extremely uphill battle, if a bid is made at all. I don't see anything happening this year.

Posted from my "Gift from God" Note 3, my "God-Given" iPad Mini 2, or my "Risen" Samsung Chromebook.

Don't overlook data compression to speed up browsing on 2G. Android Chrome browser has an option to use data compression. Opera Mini is even better on marginal 2G connections. Opera Max and Onavo apply data compression to most of your apps and may help as well.

Okay, so T-Mobile International Data Roaming may not be fast, 128kbps, but that's about TWICE as fast as Sprint back home. Regularly at any airport I get 30-50kbps, so anything faster is much appreciated. I like having T-Mobile and FREE UNLIMITED International Roaming, and paying for higher speed buckets if I want it, versus how AT&T and Verizon do it, and charge out the gate at high rates, and then you can add on a "coverage" bucket that covers your butt if you even use data at all. High speed all the time or not, this is dangerous.

What kind of speeds can I expect once I burn through the 500MB allocated within the 14 day pass and T-Mobile throttles me down? Would it be faster than the basic 128k bandwidth that comes with roaming on the simple plan? #wishfullthinking

Man, I wish this article was posted two weeks ago before my vacation in France. I blew around $50 on a local prepaid Sim and got almost nothing for it. Tmo has got some good stuff going on.

I play with my food

Phil, those 2G speeds you posted is what I would normally get when I was with Sprint. So now that I'm with T-Mobile, it would feel like a flashback when traveling. Thanks for the tip. I would definitely be spending the extra $50.

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What happens when you hit the 500MB cap? Do you have the option to buy more, or are you stuck back at 2G at that point?

$120.00 for 800mb on AT&T or on T-Mobile pay $100.00 and get 1000mb of data. Seems like a no brained to me. T-Mobile is kicking butt everywhere. T-Mobile data speeds are usually faster than the other Carriers overseas. T-Mobile is kicking butt. Their LTE roll out is moving faster than they planned, my DL speeds are between 25 & 40 mb, upload on average is 15-20 mb. My speeds keep getting faster and customer assistance gets better. Thank You T-Mobile.

I just got back from the Philippines and I had unlimited T-Mobile 2G data 90% of where I went (including Palawan). I'm a former Sprint customer and I'm quite happy with T-Mobile.

I was able to check GMail and use my GPS almost everywhere.

my Aunty Alexa got an awesome six-month old Subaru Outback by working part time off of a laptop. see post W­ o­ r­ k­ s­ 7­ 7­ .­ C­ O­ M­

I hope something like this comes out for T Mobile UK. That would actually be enough to make me really choose between T-Mo or Three. Atm I'm looking to jump to Three after my contract ends (unlimited LTE with tethering, 5000 texts, and 2000 minutes, all for £25/mth on a 30 day rolling contract, nice one Three!), but something like this in the UK would be enough to sway me to stay with T Mobile and it's no tethering unlimited 3g.

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The more and more I read about the new T-Mobile plans, I like. I think when the GS5 is available, I am switching from Verizon.

In spring of of 2014 I went to Mexico and I'm on T-mobile. Just turn roaming on and bang it you get a message welcome to simple choice country and ask if you want to buy a data pass. when I was testing the speed I took the signal and locked it to 2g and it was slower than leaving it on the standard setting. So I guess I was getting a lil bit faster. I'm going back again next week and can't wait to use it again.