Give a digital nomad a genie and three wishes, and you know two of them will be free broadband internet everywhere, and unlimited long-distance roaming.
These days, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. After all, Facebook is working on global internet access, and we’ve been able to make free international calls using services like WhatsApp, Google Voice, and Skype for years now.
While global connectivity is inevitable, most of us are still at the mercy of our phone companies for now, especially when we travel. If you live in the US, though, you can now get a small taste of the future: unlimited call, text, and data in over 210 countries with the T-Mobile Magenta plan.
From Unlimited to Even More Unlimited
The “Magenta” plan actually comes in two varieties: Magenta and Magenta Plus, each with unique features and limits. There’s also a cheaper “Essentials” plan that’s less useful for most international travelers, but still has value for some.
- Unlimited calls, texts, and data in North America
– Call other countries for 25¢/minute. Data speeds limited to 2G in Canada and Mexico
- Unlimited texting in 210+ countries
- Unlimited 3G tethering in the US
- Unlimited SD video streaming in the US
- 1 line: $60/mo
- 2 lines: $45/line – $90/mo total
- 3 lines: $35/line – $105/mo total
- 4 lines: $30/line – $120/mo total
Everything in the Essentials plan, plus:
- 2G data in 210+ countries
- Up to 5GB of high-speed data elsewhere in North America instead of the basic 2G
- Unlimited texting and 1 hour of data on Gogo Wi-Fi-enabled flights
- 3GB of LTE-speed tethering in the US
- Netflix basic (1 screen, standard definition)
- 1 line: $70/mo
- 2 lines: $60/line – $120/mo total
- 3 lines: $40/line – $120/mo total
- 4 lines: $35/line – $140/mo total
Everything above and:
- Overseas data is twice as fast
- Unlimited use of Gogo inflight Wi-Fi
- 20GB of LTE-speed tethering in the US
- Netflix basic (2 screens, high definition)
- Unlimited HD video streaming in the US
- Voicemail-to-text and caller ID
- 1 line: $85/mo
- 2 lines: $70/line – $140/mo total
- 3 lines: $47/line – $140/mo total
- 4 lines: $43/line – $170/mo total
More plan details here.
I heard about T-Mobile’s international plan features in late 2016, and my wife and I made the switch. Being frequent travelers between the US and Mexico, the Magenta plan seemed like a godsend, with unlimited calls and texts, a useful amount of high-speed data and (unlimited 2G data,) to and from anywhere in North America.
That was a lot more than what any of the competition were offering. What could be the catch? We had to see if it lived up to the hype.
Test #1: Calling Mexico from the US
My wife is from Mexico, and is the only one in her family who has moved stateside. This plan sounded like a gift from the telecommunication gods to her. So, what happened when she called her mom in southwestern Mexico and talked for over an hour? Surely we’d have some sort of fee.
I pulled up my account with T-Mobile as soon she got off the phone, and … there was nothing out of the ordinary. No international charges, or any other costs, and the call was solid all the way through. We were impressed. Not bad, T-Mobile, not bad at all.
Test #2: Roaming in Mexico
Since we travel throughout Mexico a lot, I had high hopes of being able to use GPS navigation, hail an Uber, and make the occasional FaceTime call. So after a couple of months of roaming around Mexico, I was blown away at how well I could do all those things. We traveled to Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Playa del Carmen, and beyond.
Data worked like it did back home. My phone usually connected to Telcel, Mexico’s main provider. The connection was so good I could live stream via Facebook from some remote locations. Even calls and from the US were no problem, and texting worked fine too, all with no extra charges. I was thoroughly impressed.
Read the Fine Print
After two months of smooth sailing along the high-speed digital waters of the future, we got an unwelcome text from T-Mobile. Apparently this plan is not meant to be used for more than two months outside of the US at a time.
A representative from T-Mobile’s “Extreme Roaming Department” (yes, that’s a thing) verified this with me in an interview for this article. The T-Mobile website states that the Magenta plan is “not for extended international use.”
When I asked the representative to define “extended international use,” he replied “It’s a percentage. You cannot be out of network for more than 50% of the time within a twelve-month period. You also cannot roam for three months consecutively.” Pushing that limit is in violation of T-Mobile’s terms and conditions, and your line may be dropped.
In our case, we had pushed that limitation and were subject to the cancellation of both our lines. So much for “unlimited” everything.
Fortunately, T-Mobile was able to make a one-time exception and we were able to save our lines. We had already planned our return to the US, and the phone company showed mercy. The only caveat? We had to promise to not “abuse” the plan again in the future.
I checked the company’s terms and conditions to see whether I could confirm what the representative had told me. I could only find a sentence under roaming that reads “While roaming internationally, your data throughput may be reduced and your Service may be otherwise limited or terminated at any time without notice.” Gotta love a good old “we can do whatever we want” line covered in legalese.
Test #3: Magenta in Germany
The Magenta plan caters mostly to travelers in North America, but it does work elsewhere. To get a feel for the value of this plan to the international traveler, I went to Germany for two weeks. I thought about upgrading my plan to “Magenta Plus” for the month, but I figured I could get by with the local Wi-Fi if necessary.
Shortly after arriving in Frankfurt I noticed some obvious limitations of the plan. The data worked, but it was painfully slow. I didn’t get a proper measurement, but it certainly felt much slower than usual. T-Mobile states that speeds are an average of 128Kbps abroad, which seems accurate. I had no problems getting a connection in Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and Berlin.
For some reason, though, I had no data in Munich. It didn’t work there at all. Texting still worked fine, but I knew I didn’t have the right plan to be making affordable calls via the network. Instead, I just called home over Wi-Fi using Messenger and WhatsApp without any problems. I was able to make calls with both apps using cellular data in Nuremberg and Berlin.
Is it Worth It?
I would say the old adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here, but that wouldn’t be fair.
The T-Mobile Magenta plan is great for people who travel for short periods and regularly return to the US, but not for digital nomads and snowbirds who spend months or years outside the country. That said, it’s definitely freeing to be able to leave the States for a few weeks and know I can stay connected almost anywhere.
If you like to travel abroad, but spend most of your time in the US, this plan is fantastic. It’s a glimpse of what the future has in store: a truly global and affordable phone plan for the modern traveler.
That genie I mentioned at the start, though? I’d use my third wish to restore truth to the word “unlimited.”
Images via Christian Widell (phone sunset), Shopify (money), Jim Fricker II (screenshot)
I used mine in London and Ireland for about a week each. While it was nice having *some* connection (without paying extra), it was painfully slow & inconsistent. SIM cards & data were cheap enough to just buy the local SIM for a week’s stay, for me. For a shorter visit, I would have sucked it up and lived with the slow connection.
Thanks for the comment, Joel! Yes, it was certainly spotty in Germany for me as well. I’ve had the most luck using it in Mexico. Which version of the service did you have when you were in London? The “One Plus International” seems like it’d be more functional in Europe, but I’m interested to hear if your experience was with that plan.
After much research, I switched from Sprint to the T-Mobile One plan in March 2017. I then traveled in eastern, central and western Europe for four months this summer. Sure, the signal was not as strong in remote parts of the Balkans, but I never had an issue with not being able to use data or cellular if I needed it. I was only charged $0.20/minute for calls, which I usually made over wifi but occasionally had to use the cellular signal which is when I incurred the charge. Otherwise no unexpected fees and I was very happy with the service. It definitely made my life easier while traveling solo and helped me navigate public transportation in areas where most people don’t speak English. FYI – I have traveled around the world for over a year before using SIM cards and this was a much easier and affordable option my purposes.
Glad to hear the plan is working well for you, Alethea! It has made traveling so much easier for me.
For those of us over 55 (ahem), T-Mobile offers ONE Unlimited 55+ : two lines at $30/each. Even with the “can’t roam too much” limits that Jim experienced, this is a pretty good deal.
Excellent! That’s a steal. Hopefully this plan will evolve to be even more comprehensive.
I’ve used the T-Mobile One plan extensively on six continents over the past 3 years and have had minimal problems, with the exception of Mongolia. One important note, the $.20/min for calls is only for calls back to the United States. In-country calls outside the US or calls to any other non-US destination while abroad while not on WiFi can be very expensive. Also, if your WiFi signal drops below acceptable speed (around .5 Mb/Sec.) while using WiFi Calling, your signal may switch to the local phone network and cost you the $.20/min rate to the US or worse for non-US destinations — with you knowing it until you get your bill! . All-in-all though, I would consider the service great for the non-digital nomad traveler.
Thanks for sharing, Encore Traveler. Glad to hear you haven’t ran into many problems!
@Encore Traveler, if you use iPhone you can actually prevent that switching from WiFi to local network. Go to Settings > Cellular and then scroll all the way to the bottom where you will see Wi-Fi Assist. Disable that. There may be something equivalent for Android as well, but not sure since I use an iPhone.
TMobile just blocked my international data. They say that I used it too much. I have called and spoken to 5 different agents and they all tell me different things about how I am to use the plan. I may have to cancel my plan with them after being loyal for 17 years : (
As a light data user, I prefer to subscribe to an inexpensive MVNO (still on T-mobile’s network) that also offers paygo international roaming (data at 4G speed) as needed, albeit pricey if you use a lot of data. For about $15/month, the savings over T-mobile’s Magenta plans really stack up over the long run, so I can afford a little bit of slightly expensive paygo roaming on top of the monthly $15. If you have an eSIM phone you can get even cheaper international roaming from several MVNOs.
For my 1- to 3-month trips to Europe, I typically buy a local SIM when I get there, but my home carrier fills the gap between arrival and setting up the local SIM. Another option I plan to try is a cheap paygo SIM from a UK carrier (Vodafone, Three, Orange, etc., sold on Amazon), which also allows roaming in the EU, even post-Brexit.
T-mobile is good for convenience, but not for price or data speed.
Agreed — if you’re only a light data user, you may well find that your total cell cost works out cheaper with a low-cost MVNO if you only need a limited amount of international data and just pay as you go for that.
I would say that if you’re buying a local SIM to cover you for almost all of your time in Europe, you’re probably not really the target audience for this article — it’s aimed at people who want to retain and use their US number/service throughout their time abroad.
One comment I would make about regarding UK SIMs that “also allows roaming in the EU, even post-Brexit” — they still allow roaming, but it may not always be for free. As I wrote in a recent newsletter, major UK carriers have already started adding daily charges for using your call/data/text bundles in Europe. Most (but not all) of those carriers restrict the charges to post-pay customers at the moment, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that changed in the future.
Orange isn’t in the UK any longer (it merged with T-Mobile in the UK years ago and all branding has long since disappeared), so you may be using a French or other European Orange SIM that includes UK roaming, but not a UK number.