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My experience using T-Mobile when traveling through Europe

I switched my mobile carrier to T-Mobile last summer, in part, because their simple choice plans offer free unlimited data in 120+ countries, and includes most of Europe. I tried to find some detailed accounts of how this worked out for others, but was frustrated by how little detail I found. With that in mind, I wanted this detailed report to be out there for someone else wondering the same thing, but couldn’t find good answers.

In August of 2015 I traveled to Spain, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands over the span of four (4) weeks. There were three (3) of us in our group traveling together. All on T-Mobile simple choice plans, and all on iPhone 6. We all had the same experience overall.

Coverage: You roam onto local networks. Because T-Mobile exist in the Czech Republic and the Neatherlands, you would most (but not always) connect to a T-Mobile network. This would be “T-Mobile NL” or “Telekom DE” in Germany. But there were many other networks that we would connect to, and it sometimes would change throughout the day. Most of the time it would show as a 3g connection, but other times it shows as a LTE connection. But regardless, data was always throttled to 2g speeds. In generally, if the locals had a signal in the metro/train/building, so did I.

Messaging: I did not get charged for any SMS (text) messages. iMessage worked as normal, with read receipts coming through, delivery notifications, etc. Whatsapp worked totally as normal. Facebook massager worked totally as normal. Google handouts worked as normal. These were a huge benefit! If we sent a (as in just 1) photo, it might take 30-40 seconds to send.

Calling: Wi-fi calling is great. We could use this at the local starbucks, or our hotel. We paid nothing when calling back to the states. Normal calls got billed at 20 cents per min as expected. This happened a few times, when our uber driver called because he couldn’t find us. The cost to place a normal call to the states, or to the county we were visiting was the same – 20 cents.

Calling Alternatives: There are a few phone app alternatives we tried in our travels. Whatsapp has a voice calling feature. It worked great to call others in or group, or make calls back to the state. Do note that there is a “low data usage” setting, that we kept on at all times. I had 57 minute conservation with my sister in California, and the quality was great, and the app reports it used only 13.9 MB of data. I had no echo or noticeable lag. Facebook messenger also a voice calling feature that we briefly tested, and it worked great too.

Maps: Google maps works fine, although it can be slow at times. We used it for transit directions and walking directions. I recommend also having an offline map app as well. I used “Maps.me” in this and prior trips. Download the countries you are going to in advance.

Apps: I could log into my credit union app, and transfer money, no problem. Gmail app worked fine, although it could take a few more seconds to load. I would get into my small google doc with travel information. Apple’s weather app worked normally. Google translate app also worked fine on the connection. Uber and Apple’s “Find my Friends” also works as normal. That exchange rate app? It updates as normal too. Wikipedia app had no problems either.

Part 1 of 2 -- see next post

Posted by
4 posts

About the speed: Yes, it is slower than what you are accustom to at home. You won’t be loading your facebook feed, nor your instagram feed at anywhere near satisfactory speed – you won’t even want to do it. Speed tests suggested pretty consistently a 0.11 MB download speed, and about the same for upload. This sounds slow, but is more functional (as noted above) then I would have believed before going on this trip. You an upload that one picture just fine however. Or you can check-in on facebook, without a problem. You’ll even see your friend’s comments on you facebook photo right away. With web browsing – it can be painfully slow. It’s good for searching the grocery store hours (which will probably come up in your google search), but not helpful for trying to load full on websites that are graphic heavy. You won’t be updating application over the network either as it would take hours – wait until you get back to wifi.

Helpful hints: I tuned off push notifications in a lot of apps. Not out of data concerns, but mostly because I was on vacation and didn’t need updates on the baseball score, etc. I also turned off “Background App Refresh”. This does not impact push notifications, but helps battery life.

I told my work I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. I removed all my work email account before we left. I’ve done several Europe trips before; I always thought it was nice to be disconnected and not have data on my phone – no one to bug me. But having access to data really made me a smarter traveler, and gave me more of idea of what it would be like to be a “temporary local”. Because it’s not super fast, we were not glued to our phones, ignoring what was around us. Switching to T-Mobile really was great for us. In all, I used about 1 gig of mobile data in the month, which would have cost me tons on my old carrier.

Cheers to smarter traveling!

Posted by
4955 posts

Your experience corresponds roughly with mine on two visits to Europe with T-Mobile. However, I've since dropped T-Mobile for a cheaper carrier, and I have a new phone that doesn't have WiFi calling built in...although I already use my Google Voice number as my primary phone number anyway, so I'll be happy to use Google Hangouts as needed to call when on WiFi or occasionally via mobile data.

I may switch back to T-Mobile temporarily before an upcoming trip overseas this spring - but that would probably cost me $40 extra (would need to do it for likely two months). The benefit is that I would have mobile data immediately upon landing wherever I go. I'm not sure my Android will work any faster than 2G in Europe anyway, so buying a local SIM to get 3G/LTE data speeds might not really help me.

Posted by
8863 posts

Thanks for this information. I switched to T-Mobile a month ago and was happy to learn that I will be able to use it in Europe at no additional cost.

Posted by
13714 posts

I've used TMOBILE from Istanbul to LonDon and 100 places inbetween. It's been nearly flawless.

Posted by
2162 posts

I love my TMobile when I travel around! I used to set up a complicated system of a texting app and Skype. Now I just take my phone with me and don't worry about it. Awesome.

Posted by
8995 posts

There are lots of other trip reports regarding Tmobile usage overseas, on other travel boards. It was these positive reports that pushed me to switch over to Tmobile.

My experience with Tmobile in Austria, England, France, and Holland (Iphone6)was that it was often faster than 2G, Sometimes I did get 2g speed, but it averaged out to 3g. I was able to stream video clips from the BBC news app, uploadHD video clips to Facebook in about three minutes, and upload about 20 photos to FB in under a minute.
All in all very functional!

Posted by
415 posts

I was so convinced that there would be some hidden fee. There wasn't. Using our our phones and our own T-Mobile provider worked so well. My sister flight was delayed 24 hrs and we would have been up a creek had she not been able to contact us. We spent an extra $54 above our regular monthly bill during 35 days in Europe. That's only because my husband had to make several business calls. The Vatican has great wifi. My sister call my mom from St. Peter's Square using wifi on her phone. The call was free and so clear.

Posted by
436 posts

Thank you for your detailed and reassuring report.

I am now using Tmobile and was worried it would be too slow for our March trip. I hope the coverage is better than in Colorado! There are many pockets of no-service here which makes me want to change carrier, but I am waiting until after this trip :-) so we can use roaming data in Europe. Most web access will be via wifi but I want to be able to use maps, check weather and road reports enroute.

Posted by
4 posts

It really is a game changer for us. The ability to text your travel partners in the airport, on a train, at the grocery store makes things so much easier, and more efficient. And the ability to make voice (VoIP) calls using only a (slow) network data connection (on Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger) when no WiFi was available was a great travel hack.

I was really worried that the data connection would be useless because of the slow speed, and heard many conflicting reports of its functionality. But I couldn't be more please with our experience. I won't ever try to travel without international mobile data again.

Posted by
4955 posts

2G data was painfully slow enough for me on my last few trips with T-Mobile that I would certainly buy a local SIM card when traveling if it was relatively cheap and if my phone could really connect at a faster speed. In my case, my phone itself will be a factor; neither my current Android (4GLTE) nor my old Android have the 900MHZ UMTS band needed to get 3G data in Europe, and my current Android probably doesn't have the right LTE bands to get 4G, either. So no matter what SIM I buy I might be stuck with 2G/Edge speeds anyway on that phone. If you have a relatively decent smartphone (my Android - a Moto E 2nd generation - cost under $50), it might support the 900MHZ UMTS band and you might not have this problem.

I'm considering buying the "global GSM" version of my phone (only about $70 used) just so I can use it at 3G speeds on my next trip. Not sure if it's worth it. On the next trip, I might have long hours on trains (probably no driving) so it might be nice to have relatively fast data to upload photos to Facebook or something, not something I was ever able to do at 2G speeds.

Posted by
29 posts

We are also T-Mobile subscribers who just returned from seven day in Rome (with a day trip to Pompeii). Our apartment had free WiFi service. We did not purchase the extra data, but we did ask T-Mobile to unlock our phones in case we wanted to purchase local SIM cards. Both of us have Androids - a Samsung S6 and an LG4. We ended up not needing to purchase local SIM cars.

We were happily surprised to have 4G-LTE service about 3/4 of the time while in Rome. Of the remaining 25% my phone was displaying "3G" most of the time, and "E" only once or twice. We texted quite a bit, used our Wi-Fi calling a couple times, and in general were very pleased with our service. Service was similar in Naples, and I'd say worse reception in Pompeii.

I don't think our data was throttled during the times we had 4G-LTE as response time was great; we were puzzled, but happy to take the faster speeds. Our strategy during the day was to check into local sights/upload a few pictures to FB while we were out sightseeing, then save the serious uploading of pictures to Google Photos when we returned to our apartment each evening.

We also downloaded area maps before our trip, as we used our phones for walking navigation.

Posted by
2747 posts

"Facebook massager" - TMI?

Ironically T Mobile is not considered one of the better carriers in the US. But if my commute changes I'm probably going to get onto one of their cheap plans and a refurb phone because you can stream music all day and it doesn't count against your data allotment.

Posted by
8398 posts

Joseph, thanks very much for taking the time to post this very helpful info.

Posted by
71 posts

Phones will either display a roaming notification or display the normal network connection like they do on your home cellular network. Although this indicator is correct in that you're using 3G/4G network bands, the rate itself is limited to something akin to 2G. Generally 4G/LTE is still a good thing even if you don't get the associated speed boost, as that indicates a much more reliable connection than 2G with less packet loss and much less lag. This makes the slower 2G speeds seem faster than they likely should.

It's much the same way in that your computer at home may have a gigabit port that's capable of transferring very quickly, but in actuality your internet speed is limited to what you pay for from your internet provider.

Posted by
11440 posts

I switched one of my phone lines from Verizon to T-Mobile just before my current trip.

The quality of voice seems better than VZ. It's working fine in Europe. (It does take a few minutes to log on to new carriers when changing countries.) I've received a few phone calls from the U.S. and you couldn't tell any difference.

Data is a little slow but that could be my Windows smartphone. (Don't ask.)

Posted by
20 posts

Thank you so much for this post! It's a huge help especially when you need options of how to communicate locally and internationally when you're traveling.

Posted by
1126 posts

I know Japan is not a European country, but just as a FYI to travelers heading other places, T-Mobile worked fine on a recent trip there. Data was faster than 2G because I'm not sure that Japan even has 2G connections. All U.S. cell phones should work this easily. Maybe someday.

Posted by
6 posts

I used Project Fi on a Germany/Austria/Switzerland trip and had basically the same experience as it uses the same mobile networks. What I did not do which I regretted was order a data only SIM for my wife's phone. I instead shared my connection by making my phone a hotspot. My charges for my period abroad was actually less because of the reduced data rate (~100kB-300kB/s). If you have Android, I highly recommend WiFi Web Login (aka HelloGuestWifi from Ryan DH New) as it learns WiFi sign-ins and automatically replays them for hotel wifi and public wifi so you can seamlessly transition between cellular and wifi.