Taking a smartphone out of the country and then out of airplane mode no longer ensures an airfare-sized roaming bill. But while international roaming has gotten cheaper and simpler at the big three carriers, they continue to offer it in strikingly different ways.
At T-Mobile, the free-but-slow international roaming that replaced steep metered-data surcharges back in 2013 got a little less pokey in late June when the roaming speed limit went from 128 kbps to 256 kbps. As before, this requires at least its standard Magenta plan ($70 on a single line) and includes free texting and 25 cents/minute calling.
That speed won’t support binge-watching TikTok but can suffice for such everyday tasks as navigation, e-mail, and checking a flight’s status. Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst at Creative Strategies, calls it “peace of mind” connectivity.
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T-Mobile’s upgrade also added full-speed connectivity in parts of Europe where its corporate parent Deutsche Telekom operates: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Romania.
And subscribers to its Magenta Max plan ($85 for one line) now get 5 GB of full-speed roaming a month around most of the world – although Google’s Project Fi, which resells T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular’s coverage in the U.S., beats that with its Unlimited Plus plan, which runs $65 per line.
Infrequent travelers who need faster speeds may prefer T-Mobile’s high-speed data passes, all of which include unlimited calling: $5 for 24 hours of up to 512 MB data, $35 for 10 days of up to 5 GB data, or $50 for 30 days of 15 GB data.
T-Mobile vs. AT&T, Verizon day passes
At AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, international roaming usually requires $10/line day passes.
AT&T’s International Day Pass lets you use your plan’s data allocation and activates automatically if you use your phone overseas.
Verizon’s TravelPass only covers 500 MB of fast data a day (after which you slow to 2G speeds) and requires a one-time opt-in, but subscribers to that carrier’s 5G Do More ($80 for one line) and 5G Get More ($90 for one line) get one free TravelPass per month that can be used anytime in the next 12 months.
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Milanesi, noting how day-pass costs can escalate for a family, said AT&T and Verizon’s roaming seems geared towards maximizing revenue from business travelers. She suggested they nod to personal use by providing slow roaming for free and charging for faster access: “You want quality of service, you should pay for it.”
Analyst Jeffrey Moore, principal at Wave7 Research, noted another obstacle for AT&T and Verizon. “The lack of European coverage relative to Deutsche Telekom puts them at a disadvantage,” he emailed.
If you have an unlocked phone – by paying full price for it upfront, having no carrier installment-payment-plan balance left, or having bought it from Verizon at least 60 days prior – you can also buy a prepaid SIM card when you arrive. But picking the right SIM can be tricky, especially if another language is involved, and in some countries it can require registration with an ID.
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Closer to the United States, however, all three carriers have coalesced around providing free roaming in Canada and Mexico in all but their cheapest unlimited-data plans. Even many prepaid services, such as AT&T’s Cricket Wireless and Verizon’s unlimited-data prepaid offerings, include roaming in Canada and Mexico. At T-Mobile prepaid and its Metro by T-Mobile prepaid offshoot, however, that costs $5 extra.
Wrote Moore: “Is roaming in Mexico and Canada table stakes? Yes, it is.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: T-Mobile international roaming plan tops AT&T, Verizon. Here’s why.