On a mild fall day last October, I attended a free Shakira concert in New York City, along with thousands of screaming fans and T-Mobile customers. The occasion? T-Mobile's Un-carrier 3.0 event, where CEO John Legere announced a shockingly generous benefit for Simple Choice customers. Anyone on a $50-and-up monthly plan would have access to unlimited data and texting in more than 120 countries around the world. As a frequent traveler, I was ecstatic -- I spend hundreds of dollars on local SIM cards or roaming products every year -- but as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there was a catch here.
That unlimited international data actually came along with a pretty nasty limit. Regardless of the partner network you're using abroad, speeds are capped at 128 Kbps -- in many cases, that's a tiny fraction of the pipe overseas carriers offer to their own customers, and to a partner's users with a pay-per-use roaming plan. 128 Kbps sounds almost unusable, and it is, but for certain tasks, T-Mobile's restrictions won't make much difference, as I discovered during a week-long trip to Taiwan.
Social media apps worked seamlessly, so I was able to browse and post tweets, check in on Foursquare and even view and upload Instagram photos at reasonable speeds. Google Maps also worked very well, provided I was using the native app and not the browser-based version. It did take longer for destinations and directions to load than I'm used to at home, but the speed was definitely usable. Email was also functional, especially with push activated, since messages can sync in the background.
Browsing the web, however, was an entirely different experience. Chrome, my mobile browser of choice, was never able to load search results or a webpage. If you're in a foreign country and you're trying to pull up a quick translation, menu item description or information on a particular attraction, you're bound to get frustrated with T-Mobile's speed. And this should come as no shock, but you're not allowed to tether with the free plan -- given the paltry performance, I didn't dare try.
While the experience may not be as good as it could be from a performance perspective, T-Mobile's free offering is incredibly easy to use. All you have to do is enable roaming and you're good to go. There's no need to fuss with alternate SIM cards or APNs, and you don't have to worry about coming back to a humungous bill. You also don't need to have an unlocked phone -- if your device works with T-Mobile at home, it'll roam for free as well.
Admittedly, while I brought the T-Mobile SIM along on a trip to Italy a few weeks later, I didn't end up using it at all. I purchased a local SIM instead, which got me 1GB of unrestricted data for about 40 bucks. Performance was far better, and while I could have had data for free, I didn't mind paying a bit for a faster connection. Still, considering you're already spending enough on other travel expenses, such as flights and accommodation, if you're paying $50 for a T-Mobile Simple Choice plan, you might as well take advantage.
Update: T-Mobile does offer faster international data for a fee, but it's hardly a bargain:
Single day pass: $15 for 100MB (high speed data capped at 100MB)
7 day pass: $25 for 200MB (high speed data capped at 200MB)
14 day pass: $50 for 500MB (high speed data capped at 500MB)