On the road with T-Mobile's free international roaming

The speed of the service is capped, so is it really useful when traveling?

By , IDG News Service |  Networking

For people who travel overseas a lot, it sounds almost too good to be true: unlimited international data roaming and texting at no extra cost. But that's exactly what T-Mobile USA started offering its U.S. users earlier this year as part of its price battle with AT&T.

International roaming can be really expensive. An accidental click on a video or a browse down the Facebook newsfeed can cost several dollars, and if you leave the phone downloading messages in the background, expect a hefty bill when you return.

So, T-Mobile's offer is enticing, but there's no such thing as a free lunch, right?

In February, I got a chance to try it out when I traveled for a week to Spain, on a reporting trip to the Mobile World Congress expo, and then afterward to Austria and the U.K. I'm a T-Mobile customer so the test was done on my personal phone, a recently purchased Nexus 5, and my personal line, with no assistance from T-Mobile or prior notification to the company.

Typically when traveling overseas, I disable data roaming and try to get a prepaid local SIM card, so it felt quite liberating to switch my phone on as I landed in Spain, and even better moments later when I received a welcome SMS message.

"Welcome to Spain. Unlimited text incl with your global coverage. Talk $0.20/min," and then, "Unlimited web included as part of your global coverage."

That second text message also included a link to purchase high-speed access because the free T-Mobile service is capped, and that's the biggest down-side to the service. Data typically flows at 128kbps -- many times slower than the typical U.S. speed -- but part of my test was whether it would be good enough.

While I was waiting for my bags, messages started dropping into my inbox and notifications started popping up on the screen.

"Not bad for free," I thought, and that was the same conclusion with which I ended my week of travel.

For email, Twitter, Facebook, browsing news, navigating with Google Maps, and much of the other things I do with my phone, the service was fine. Sure, I had to wait longer for things to load. Sometimes it took up to a minute to post a picture to Twitter, but I doubt few of us live such important lives that we need things to happen a lot faster.

In all three countries, I ran tests using Ookla's Speedtest app. I'd invariably get a download speed of around 0.13Mbps and an upload speed of around 0.12Mbps -- just as T-Mobile had said.

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