T-Mobile’s Free International Data Is Slow, Frustrating And Incredibly Useful

It’s been almost exactly a year since T-Mobile launched its unlimited international data plans but I never had a chance to give it a try until recently. Before my vacation earlier this month, however, I decided to give it a try and got myself a T-Mobile SIM card with a monthly contract to have data during my road trip through New Zealand and — now — while in Europe ahead of TechCrunch Disrupt London.

Before this, I’d always try to get a local SIM with a pre-paid plan. That works great in some countries like Germany, where you can just get a really cheap plan from Blau or a similar provider at the airport, but cross the border into France and things get much more complicated (though I hear it’s a bit easier now than even a year ago). Most of the time, I’d just put my phone into airplane mode and use free WiFi hotspots.

By default, T-Mobile (the only U.S. carrier who offers this kind of service) caps data rates at a very, very slow 128kbps (the equivalent of what 2G networks used to deliver a few years ago). You can always buy up to a faster plans for a day or a week with uncapped speeds (but capped download limits). In my travels, however, I never felt the need to do so. Sure, you’re not going to stream any music over such a small pipe or make a video call, but it’s more than fast enough to read your emails, use a messaging app, browse the web (as long as you are patient) and use a hotel booking app so you have a place to stay at night. Even more importantly for a road trip, Google Maps’ turn-by-turn directions sometimes take a while to load, but once they are up and running, they work perfectly. No need to pay Hertz an extra fee for a dedicated GPS unit.

In Europe, where I tested the service in England, Spain and the Netherlands so far, the experience was pretty much exactly the same, too. It’s slow but works.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels like those slow speeds are good enough during travel. In June, T-Mobile said about 2 million customers had already used its free global roaming feature. Of those, fewer than 1% upgraded to a faster speed. I’m not surprised. For basic day-to-day use during a short business trip or a vacation, even those slow speeds are all you need.