GoogleFi broke up with me while I was abroad. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, I found a terse email in my inbox warning that “Your international data roaming will soon be suspended”. It sent me on an adventure to discover new ways to stay connected while I travel – 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 in touch. It turns out there are cheaper and more reliable ways to make calls, send texts, and access the internet when you’re abroad.
Google Fi may not support digital nomads abroad
So why did Google Fi, a phone plan service I’ve recommended to travelers for years, throw me its network? Its terms and conditions, which no one ever reads, require you to use Google Fi “primarily” in the United States. I had been abroad for a few months, using my service in Portugal, Germany, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and South Africa.
“We will need to suspend your international roaming data capabilities unless you start using Fi again in the United States,” the message read.
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I had no intention of returning to the US just so I could keep my phone service.
“Google Fi is not intended for extensive international use,” Google spokeswoman Liz Bagot told me. There are exceptions for military and State Department employees, but everyone else should switch to a local carrier, she advised.
There are better ways to connect when you’re abroad
She’s right. Google Fi isn’t the right carrier if you’re going abroad for more than a week or two. On the unlimited data plan I share with my two sons, we consumed about 15GB of data in our last month on Google Fi. The carrier also charged us per-minute charges for our international calls for a total of $192. Then there was $33 in taxes and regulatory fees, which seemed excessive.
My last phone bill was $376.
Turns out, there are much cheaper ways to connect and communicate while you’re traveling. They include inexpensive data connections delivered via SIM (subscriber identity module) cards that you can slip into your phone or install electronically. There are messaging apps that make a phone number almost obsolete. The hard part is learning to think beyond the traditional mobile phone contract and then letting go.
Buy a SIM card when you arrive
For travelers like Kathryn Boudreau, the solution is simple.
“The cheapest and best way to stay connected while you’re abroad is to buy a SIM card with a prepaid plan in the country you’ll be traveling to once you arrive,” she says.
Boudreau, remote operations manager for caller smart, a phone app in Bogotá, says it can buy a prepaid Colombian SIM card for just over $3. It comes with 9GB of data and is valid for 20 days, but can be topped up with more data for more days for a few extra dollars.
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You can either purchase a SIM card when you arrive at your destination or obtain one in advance. Many newer phones have an eSIM option, which allows you to purchase a data connection without a physical card. Make sure your phone is unlocked.
After Lidia Scarlat was “burned” by 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, turned to a service called Avo Simfreewhich offered 5 GB per month in Europe for around $20.
“I just landed in London and had instant internet access without waiting for passport control and without sharing my private data with airport Wi-Fi providers,” she says.
Communication has changed during the pandemic
It happens more behind the scenes. Frequent travelers, who have long been the target of exorbitant roaming charges and expensive data connections, are changing not only the way they communicate, but also the way everyone else does. Scarlat points out that hardly anyone calls him on the phone anymore. During the pandemic, things moved to messaging and then setting a time to talk either on the phone or more frequently on Zoom or Skype. And that changed everything for her.
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Why does switching to a data-only SIM card make sense? Travelers say they have migrated their calls to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) apps like Google Voice or Skype, which allow them to make phone calls and receive text messages from a data connection. Another change has been the way people communicate, especially overseas. By downloading just three communication apps – WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram – you can ensure that you’ll be able to stay in touch while traveling abroad.
That’s what Kathy Kieffer does when she’s on the road. She prefers Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to communicate with her friends. She also uses iMessage to keep in touch with her family.
“It appears on recipients’ phones as an international number that texts them,” she says. “So once I identify myself, we can then text like at home.”
Michael O’Rourke, CEO of a global security consultancy Advanced operational concepts, spends months at a stretch abroad with his teams, and they buy local SIM cards to keep their phones in touch. He recommends a vpn (virtual private network) and Signala privacy-focused messaging app.
“It adds a layer of security,” he says.
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How I Survived My Google Fi Breakup
I use ExpressVPN, which works on both my computer and my phone, and one of the first things I did was install Signal before switching to a data-only connection. The cost to connect? A 4GB connection for South Africa was only $16 per month.
I ended my cellular service and moved my phone number to Google Voice. I now rely on multiple messaging apps to communicate while I’m on the road. Now that I’ve taken the plunge, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a cell plan.
Arun Santhanam, vice president of the telecom division of Capgemini Americas, says that while the end of a cellular plan may not be for everyone, messaging apps are becoming an invaluable tool for travelers.
“Since the pandemic, many people have started working remotely and have their teleconferencing platform hooked up to their phone,” he told me. “Making calls through these platforms has also become a reliable solution while on the move, and it’s also more secure due to your company’s infrastructure investments.”
In other words, these solutions for staying connected abroad will also work at home. And you don’t even have to travel to use them.