If you're an Android enthusiast, you likely know about Google Fi (formerly Project Fi). But that doesn't mean you necessarily know everything about it. And now that the service has opened up to everyone with an unlocked phone, there's a lot to get caught up on. So we're here to give you the high-level view at the carrier option that comes directly from Google. Namely, just what the heck it is, how it works compared to other carriers and maybe a few reasons why you'd want to try it.
The latest Google Fi news
November 28, 2018 — get a travel gift card for the full amount of any phone purchase
To celebrate the launch of Google Fi, there's an amazing promotion going on when you buy one of Fi's own compatible phones. Until 11:59 p.m. PT on November 28, when you buy a phone from Google Fi you'll get a travel gift card for the full purchase price, less taxes, in return. All you have to do is buy a phone and activate it on Google Fi, and you'll get a travel gift card for the full amount paid for the phone.
If you're already a Google Fi customer, it's easy to make the purchase through the Google Fi website. If you aren't yet a customer, you'll have to port your number to the service and start an account in order to qualify ... but maybe this is the nudge you need to finally make the jump.
November 13, 2018 — Google Fi now encrypts all data traffic
Google announced a change to Google Fi that will enable an always-on VPN (virtual private network) for data traffic over both cellular and third-party WiFi networks. A VPN can be seen as a tunnel that data goes through, and anything in that tunnel is encrypted to keep snoopers from seeing what you're doing on any given network. Google Fi previously used a VPN for all cellular traffic, but today's change keeps you protected during those times you duck in and out of WiFi coverage.
Speaking of which, Google introduced a new enhancement which will continuously monitor the connection quality on your phone and seamlessly swap between WiFi and cellular traffic when it needs to. Cellular-Wi-Fi handoffs are nothing new either, but the standard implementation usually waits until you're completely out of range of your WiFi network before it switches to mobile data, by which time you may already have issues using your apps despite technically being connected. This change should make it more proactive and aggressive to ensure you're always on a connection that's actually usable.
As the feature is considered in beta, you'll need to opt-in using the Google Fi mobile app. Your phone will need to be on Android Pie, and must be fully compatible with Google Fi in order for it to work. Google says it may take the whole part of a week for the feature to reach everyone, so sit tight if you're not seeing it right away.
What you need to know about Google Fi
What is Google Fi?
At the highest level, Google Fi is a phone carrier operated by Google. It works by giving you mobile data service on three mobile networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular), which your phone will intelligently switch between — it also uses Wi-Fi to make calls and send texts whenever available.
It's all about simplified billing with no hidden fees or overages.
Google Fi is focused on simplified billing. You pay $20 per month for unlimited talk and texting, and a flat rate of $10 per gigabyte of data used after that. At least, until you hit 6GB ($60) of usage for the month. Then you hit a level called "Bill Protection" — effectively an unlimited plan tier for Fi. Once you've used 6GB of data in a month, your data charge is capped at $60 for the rest of the month, but you continue to get data service. You can use as much data as you want for the month without paying over $80 total ($20 base + $60 data). The only caveat here is that once you hit 15GB of total data usage, your speeds are slowed to 256kbps — alternatively, at the 15GB point you can choose to start paying $10 per GB again for full-speed data if needed.
You don't have to pay for an 'unlimited' plan every month, but you get the protection of one.
The huge benefit here is that you don't have to pay for an "unlimited" plan every month — it's simply there if you use beyond 6GB of data in a month. All other months when you use less than 6GB of data your bill will be less than $80, dependent on your usage. Bill Protection applies to international data usage the same as home usage, which is a massive benefit for frequent travelers.
You can also set up a "Group Plan" on Google Fi for up to six people to share a single account and billing source. With a Group Plan, all of the same features of an individual plan apply, but you save $5 per person per month on the base plan charge. Billing is handled centrally by the account owner, along with data limitations for each user (if needed) — Bill Protection data usage limits are also handled on a per-person basis. Google Fi charges the group owner for everyone's bill collectively, but can also facilitate payments back to the account admin from each member to pay their share. Individuals can come and go from a Group Plan as they wish, without any contract.
How does Google Fi work?
Google Fi works with a special SIM card — and a little software on your phone — that can authenticate you on T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, and switch between them on the fly based on a variety of factors. On the Pixel 3, 3 XL, 2 and 2XL, an integrated eSIM lets you use Google Fi without a physical SIM card — it also frees up your SIM slot to be used for another carrier's network when you need it.
You get the power of three mobile networks, plus Wi-Fi, in a single SIM
In addition to the three traditional mobile networks, Google Fi also leans heavily on Wi-Fi whenever possible, whether you're around a known network or not. As you move around, your phone will use the "Wi-Fi assistant" to constantly search for and connect to open Wi-Fi networks, using a database of known good networks that can provide a solid connection. Whenever your phone connects to Wi-Fi, the connection is routed through a VPN for your safety — and you won't notice anything different in the phone experience, except you're no longer paying for mobile data.
Calls and texts work on Wi-Fi just as they do when you're on mobile data, and you can continue your phone call as your phone switches between networks.
When you use Google Fi, you also get some of the same features that have made Google Voice popular over the years. You can forward phone calls to your Fi number to any phone you want, as well as view voicemail, make calls and send texts with that number from any device using the Hangouts app and website.
What about international usage?
Google Fi works internationally in over 170 countries around the world with no additional cost for data use or texting, which is one of its biggest differentiators from other carriers. You can call at a flat rate of $0.20/min to any number while on the cellular networks abroad, or pay much lower rates when calling on Wi-Fi. You can also call back home to the U.S. on Wi-Fi for free. Data used internationally is charged the exact same as it is at home, going into the same $10 per gigabyte usage, and Bill Protection kicks in at the same 6GB limit.
The only catch is that speeds can vary depending on the country you're in, which is to be expected. In experience, we've found full LTE speeds in a variety of countries around Europe and Asia, with the occasional hiccup as the phone switches between roaming partners.
What phones can you use on Fi?
Project Fi, when it launched in 2015, was originally exclusive to a single phone, the Nexus 6. Eventually things opened up with about a dozen supported phones from Google, Motorola and LG. When it finally dropped the "Project" status, Google Fi opened up to any unlocked phone — with some caveats, of course.
Fi's own phones give the best experience, but this is still great with an unlocked phone.
You get a true first-class experience with Google Fi on Google's latest phones, the Pixel 3, 3 XL, 2 and 2 XL. These phones have an eSIM inside that's pre-programmed for Fi, and you can set up an account and connect to its network without putting in a SIM card. Then there are other phones "designed for Fi" you can buy to get the same experience, minus the eSIM: the Moto G6, Android One Moto X4, LG V35 and LG G7. All of these phones have full network switching capabilities, meaning they can seamlessly move between Fi's network partners T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, plus make smooth transitions between Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile networks using a Google VPN service.
But starting in late November 2018, Google Fi now works with any unlocked phone, with some limitations. Unlocked phones won't be able to take advantage of Fi's network switching, so you'll be using the T-Mobile network primarily, and you don't get Fi's VPN. But you do get the same international roaming deal, plus all of the other Fi features like the great Fi app and simple billing. Yes, that unlocked support also includes iPhones, which is a massive step for Fi. Google Fi even supports iMessage using your Fi number.
Why do I want it?
Well, this is really a personal question of whether you actually want to try Google Fi. Chances are if you're reading Android Central you're at least one step closer to being the target audience for the Google-powered carrier, but there are a few other boxes to check that make it the right choice for you.
Simplicity in the service and billing are paramount to the experience.
If you're okay with the inherent hassle of switching carriers, and porting your phone number, you don't have many other hurdles to jump over now that Google Fi is open to just about any unlocked phone. You can sign up for Google Fi online in minutes, and you can either buy a phone at the same time (and cash in on some nice discounts and incentives) or Google will send you a SIM card to put in your existing phone. (Or if you already have a Pixel, you can get up and running in minutes with the eSIM.)
Google Fi is worth your consideration.
There are lots of cool features that make Google Fi a good choice, like dramatically simplified billing, Bill Protection to cap your charges every month, seamless international data and calling, and improved network coverage through the use of three carriers and Wi-Fi networks. Each one will have a different amount of draw for different people, but that's a pretty compelling package.
Google Fi's pricing isn't dramatically lower than other carriers out there, and whether it makes a good choice financially for you depends on your data usage and which features you want. We encourage you to do your pricing research before choosing which carrier is the best.
And whether you're still on the fence or just curious about it, be sure to follow all of our Google Fi coverage here at Android Central!
Updated November 2018: "Project" no more! Google Fi is official and there are big changes.