How to Sabbatical: Cell Phone Edition

How to Sabbatical: Cell Phone Edition

posted in: Moving, Ordinary | 0

Before moving abroad, we needed to select a new cell phone plan that would work in France. Our requirements were simple: the ability to place calls, send texts, and use data as needed without too much concern for cost. We preferred to keep our same phone numbers as well. Unreasonable? Maybe, but we have been called worse.   

The Options

At the most basic level, we had roughly two options: stick with a US-based carrier, or switch to a local carrier in whichever country we happened to be.

If we switched to a foreign carrier, we would need to order new SIM cards, and we would lose our US numbers. Because of that, we first explored our US-based options. They were fairly limited:

  • The big US carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc),
  • T-Mobile, and
  • Project Fi.

Most of the big name US carriers just were not an option due to cost. For example, we previously had contracts with Verizon. When traveling abroad, we had to call Verizon and “activate” the international plan. This plan costs $25 per 100mb of data. That’s barely any data. You just read the first third of this article, right? Oops, you have just used 100mb of data. Please hand over another $25. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s pretty easy to rack up a sizeable bill at that price. And that $25 is in addition to what we would play for our normal plans. Conclusion: too expensive.   

T-Mobile was actually a fairly reasonable option. It has good international coverage included with its base plans. There is one large caveat though. The majority of one’s usage needs to be on T-Mobile’s US network. That doesn’t work for us since our usage will be nearly 100% outside of the US. So close, T-Mobile, but conclusion: usage too limited.

That left Project Fi.

Project Fi

Project Fi is Google’s wireless service. Google doesn’t own a cellular network so the service piggybacks off of the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular domestically and another one or two networks internationally. But the user of the service has no idea which network he is using since behind the scenes, Project Fi switches the user to the cell network with the strongest signal. Additionally, the user is able to make calls, send texts, and of course use data over Wifi as available. In fact, the Project Fi service defaults to Wifi (if the signal is reasonable), which is a cost saver.

The service costs $20 per month for Fi Basics, which includes:

  • Unlimited domestic talk and text, and
  • Unlimited international texting.

Data costs an additional $10 per gb. Here is the kicker though. That’s the price of data in over 135 countries. The price of data does not depend upon which country one is in. The price is the same in India, or in France, as it is in the US. That’s what really caught our attention, since we really didn’t know where our travels would take us and wanted to keep our options open.

Some other positives:

  • Only pay for the data you use. If you use less (more) data than expected, you get a refund (pay for the additional data) the following month. There are no overage penalties; you just pay for what you use.
  • International calls cost at most $0.20 per minute, and that is if they are made on a cell network. If the call is made over Wifi, the price per minute is more in line with Skype prices.
  • No need to switch the international portion of the service on/off when travelling abroad. The phone/service automatically recognizes when you cross into a new country, and you receive a friendly notification that says, for example, “Welcome to France!” and here are the data and cell usage costs. No effort required on your part.
  • No contract. You can stop and start the service as desired. For example, if you want to sign up but only use the service when travelling internationally, that’s an option.
  • Very simple bill. It’s about 10 lines and very easy to understand. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I interpreted it as a sign that Google was attempting to provide a simple service without hidden costs. During 7 years of service, I am not sure that I was able to ever fully comprehend my Verizon bill.

A few items worth mentioning:

  • The service only works with a handful of phones, specifically, the Google Nexus 5x, 6, 6p, and Pixel phones. If you are an iOS lover, then you are out of luck.
  • The service must be associated with a US address. This address is used for calculating taxes on your monthly bill and to direct emergency calls. We use our Traveling Mailbox address (see post here).

Issues

I have had Project Fi service since November 2015, and M has had the service since September 2016. Though our experience has largely been positive, the service is not without its shortcomings. Here are two that we have run across.

  • The first relates to customer service. When using Project Fi in Chennai, India last December, I was not able to use data. Talk and text worked fine, but I had no data, despite supposedly having coverage. I emailed and spoke with Project Fi several times. I was told the usual, restart phone, switch some setting off/on, etc. None of it worked, and my issue was never resolved. I also never received an explanation as to why my data service did not work. My major complaint here is that, though the customer service was very responsive and pleasant, they were not actually helpful in resolving my issue. Maybe my issue was exceptional in its difficulty. Nonetheless, I was hoping for a bit more substance from Google customer service.
  • The second, and much more important, relates to the service not working at critical times. Several times, when either of us has attempted to place a call, our phone has refused to dial the number and given us an “invalid number” error. At these times, we have tried dialing the number both with and without the country, and still we receive the “invalid number” error. What’s strange is that if we repeatedly attempt to dial the number, the call usually eventually goes through. One time, in particular, M and I were taking the train to Lyon, and we decided to divide and conquer. She would take the luggage, and I would run ahead and secure us seats. This was our first time taking a French train, but we thought, no big deal, we have our phones so we will be able to stay in touch. Well, we were struggling to find each other, and when we attempted to call or text, neither would go through. And with trains stopping for just a few minutes before departing again, we were in a stressful situation and really needed our phones to work.

Conclusion

Since Project Fi largely satisfied our requirements and researching foreign cell carriers is a big turn-off for us, we didn’t look into Europe-based carriers very much. From the little research we did do, Project Fi’s service and costs seemed to be fairly competitive with foreign-based carriers. The quirky behavior is frustrating at times, but we want to stick with Google in the hopes that it will improve over time and can be a long-term cell phone solution for us that supports a more transient lifestyle.

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