Google Fi broke up with me while I was out of the country. Soon after arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, I found a terse email in my inbox, warning that “Your international data roaming will be suspended soon.” That sent me on an adventure to discover new ways to stay connected while traveling – and I’m glad I did.
The result made me question the conventional wisdom that a traditional cellular plan is the best way for travelers to stay connected. It turns out there are cheaper and more reliable ways to make calls, send texts, and access the Internet while you’re abroad.
Google Fi may not support digital nomads abroad
So why did Google Fi, the phone plan service I’ve recommended to travelers for years, kick me out of its network? Its terms and conditions, which no one has ever read, require you to use Google Fi “primarily” in the United States. I have been abroad for a few months, using my service in Portugal, Germany, Qatar, UAE and South Africa.
“We will need to suspend your international roaming data capabilities unless you start using Fi in the US again,” the message read.
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I had no intention of going back to the US just so I could keep my phone service.
“Google Fi is not intended for extended international use,” Google spokeswoman Liz Baggot told me. She advised that there are exceptions for Army and State Department employees, but that all others must switch to a domestic airline.
There are better ways to communicate when you’re abroad
She’s right. Google Fi is the wrong carrier if you’re going abroad for more than a week or two. On the unlimited data plan that I share with my two sons, we consumed about 15GB of data in the last month on Google Fi. The carrier also charged us a per-minute fee for our international calls for a total of $192. Then there was the $33 in taxes and regulatory fees, which seemed excessive.
My last phone bill came to $376.
It turns out that there are much cheaper ways to connect and communicate while traveling. They include inexpensive data-only communications delivered through SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards that you can insert into your phone or install electronically. There are messaging apps that make the phone number obsolete. The hardest part is learning to think beyond the traditional cell phone contract, and then let go.
Buy a SIM card when you arrive
For travelers like Catherine Boudreaux, the solution is simple.
“The cheapest and best way to stay connected while abroad is to purchase a prepaid plan SIM card in the country you will be traveling to as soon as you arrive,” she says.
Boudreau, remote operations manager for the CallerSmart phone app in Bogotá, says she can buy a prepaid Colombian SIM card for just over $3. It comes with 9 GB of data and is valid for 20 days, but it can be loaded with more data for more days for a few extra dollars.
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You can either buy a SIM card when you reach your destination, or get it in advance. Many modern phones have an eSIM option, which allows you to purchase a data connection without a physical card. Make sure your phone is unlocked.
After Lydia Scarlatt “burned” a $1,700 bill for five minutes of data roaming in Egypt, she decided to use an eSIM. Scarlat, a multimedia producer based in Chisinau, Moldova, has switched to a service called Avo Simfree, which offers 5GB per month in Europe for about $20.
“I just landed in London, had instant internet without waiting for passport control and without sharing my private data with airport Wi-Fi providers,” she says.
Communication has changed during the pandemic
There’s more going on behind the scenes. Frequent travelers, who have long been targets of exorbitant roaming charges and expensive data connections, are not just changing the way they communicate, but how others do it. Scarlatt reports that almost no one calls her anymore. During the pandemic, things have shifted to messaging and then making a time to talk either on the phone, or more frequently, on Zoom or Skype. This is not all for her.
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Why does switching to a data-only SIM make sense? Travelers say they have relayed their calls to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) applications such as Google Voice or Skype, which allow them to make phone calls and receive text messages from a data connection. Another change was the way people communicate, especially outside. By downloading just three communication apps – WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram – you can be sure that you’ll stay connected while you travel internationally.
That’s what Kathy Keefer does when she’s on the road. Prefer Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to connect with friends. She also uses iMessage to keep in touch with her family.
“It shows up on the recipients’ phone as an international number that sends them text messages,” she says. “So once I introduce myself, we can then text as if I were at home.”
Michael O’Rourke, CEO of global security consultancy Advanced Operational Concepts, spends months abroad with his teams, buying local SIM cards for their phones to stay connected. He recommends a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and Signal, a messaging app focused on privacy.
“It adds a layer of security,” he says.
What is a VPN? And why do travelers need to use one?
How I survived the breakup of Google Fi
I use ExpressVPN, which works on both my PC and phone, and the first thing I did was install Signal before switching to a data-only connection. Delivery cost? A 4GB connection for South Africa was only $16 a month.
I terminated my cellular service and transferred my phone number to Google Voice. I now rely on several messaging apps to communicate while on the road. Now that I’ve jumped in, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the cellular plan.
While ending a cell phone plan may not be for everyone, messaging apps have become a valuable tool for travelers, says Aaron Santanam, Vice President of Communications at Capgemini Americas.
“Since the pandemic, many people have started working remotely and a teleconferencing platform has been connected to their phones,” Lee told me. “Making calls through these platforms has also become a reliable solution while traveling, and is also more secure due to your company’s infrastructure investments.”
In other words, these solutions will work for staying connected while you’re out and about at home as well. And you don’t even have to travel to use it.