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The One U.S. Mobile Phone Plan That’s Meant for Travelers

best mobile phone plan USA

The USA may be the birthplace of the telegraph, the telephone, and the web as we know it, but that doesn’t mean we get the best telecom service. In many respects Americans pay more and get less than people in much of the rest of the world, especially when it comes to mobile.

Last month the landscape shifted again though, in a major way. I can unequivocally say You should drop whatever U.S. phone company you’re using now as soon as possible and sign up with T-Mobile.

My family straddles the USA and Mexico for where we call home and of course many of our monthly bills go up drastically when we’re stateside. One of them is the mobile phone bill. In Mexico all phones are unlocked, pre-paid calls/data costs are transparent and reasonable, and we can call or text the USA for the same rate as within Mexico. When we cross the border and come north, we brace ourselves for lots of restrictions, gotcha fees, and hassles.

Our Phones Are North Americans

But this time we signed up just as T-Mobile announced that the promise of NAFTA is finally coming true. We got a true free trade agreement for our phone plan in North America. We can now call the USA, Canada, and Mexico with our unlimited minutes.

That’s on top of the fact there are no nasty roaming charges when we go abroad anywhere else. A simple per minute phone cost and data is gratis. Since T-Mobile is configured for the GSM network, you don’t have to deal with the incompatibility issues you often face internationally with Verizon and Sprint. If we wanted, we could switch out our SIM card easily too if staying somewhere long-term.

We are now paying $45 less per month than we used to more than two years ago with AT&T. For our new $120 family plan we get three times as much data (more than we need and it rolls over if unused). Plus there’s unlimited texting and unlimited calls. And key for me the travel writer, I can keep using the high-speed data in other countries (up to 1GB, which is plenty) without paying the kind of extortionist rates that are normally reserved for mafia loan sharks, payday loan kiosks, and telecom companies. No $20 extra charge or a new SIM card just to upload a few photos now and then. No turning off my phone or disabling the data for fear of getting a surprise nasty bill because my e-mail updated.

What’s the catch?

People in other countries won’t really consider this a catch but, you have to buy your own phone.

If you’re used to getting a new iPhone every two or three years because it’s mostly being subsidized in your bill, this development might come as a shock. Instead of that $750 retail phone cost being hidden in your monthly plan, you see it as an up-front purchase or a separate line item. If you tend to go for features over fashion, however, no big deal. I got last year’s Samsung Galaxy model new for $300 unlocked and I’m golden. I can replace the battery myself and stick in a micro SD card to expand memory. No “genius” needed. I got my daughter a cheaper Samsung with 16GB of storage built in and she’s thrilled.

best $150 android phoneI’m a bargain shopper at heart though and I think the best value we got overall is the Motorola Moto E 2nd Generation. This is, by almost all accounts, the best unlocked Android phone you can buy for under $150. It does all the things you’d expect an Android phone to do and the only real drawback of consequence is a so-so camera without a flash. It’s decent though: below is a shot snapped in the rain of where my wife was stranded yesterday after heavy rains. Good enough.

Otherwise you get a straighforward Lollipop interface without a bunch of junk apps, 8 gb of storage (expandable with a micro SD card), Bluetooth,4G LTE, a quad-core processor and a battery that outlasts most competitors. The 4.5-inch display even has Gorilla Glass. But hey, don’t take my word for it: Engadget gave it an 83 out of 100—for a phone that costs 1/5th of the new premium models out there.

motorola e photo

You have to buy it outside the T-Mobile store though, as I actually did with the other two phones also. There’s nothing wrong with doing that if the phone is unlocked and GSM, but you have to make sure it supports the 1700 band to get the highest data speeds from this network. Some phones (including others from Motorola) don’t. I found the best bet to be buying a T-Mobile pre-paid one from a department store or online as that will already be unlocked and compatible.

In the end, just looking at this purely as a math problem, I’ll have broken even in less than one year on what I would have laid out to be back with AT&T again. But I’m getting sooo much more for that money that it’s like night and day. My old plan was for people who never left Uhmerika. This one is for people who have a passport and know how to use it.



Friday 18th of December 2015

I recommend trying ChatSim. It’s a sim card design for people who travel often around the world and and want an easy way to keep in touch. It lets you chat free of charge wherever you are for a flat annual fee of €10. After this initial expense you can use all the world’s leading chat apps to chat for free with anyone, anywhere in the world, without limits for a year. Buying a multimedia recharge you can even make voice calls using instant messaging apps and exchange photos and videos. The coverage is excellent and it's really fast on 3G and 4G networks. It is a valid choice for globetrotters!

Wade K.

Sunday 9th of August 2015

I had a Magic Jack app on my iPad while in San Miguel de Allende. Allowed clear phone calls back home and have read others have used it in South America and Asia with great results. They sent me an email the other day stating they now have it available for Android phones.

Ben S

Saturday 8th of August 2015

That's good information, and I've been a happy T-Mobile customer using unlocked phones around the world for a few years using their free international service. Regarding your review, I would not consider that camera anything other than emergency use only. That photo lacks so much detail and it's already in a very low contrast environment. I'd hate to see the results in a harsher setting. The more expensive phones out there are honestly night and day with regard to cameras and they do actually retain a lot of value when reselling, which is another benefit of buying unlocked.

Tim Leffel

Sunday 9th of August 2015

I agree Ben that the main sacrifice in buying a cheaper phone is getting a 5mp so-so camera instead of a 16mp or more good one. But if you take a REAL camera on vacation anyway and are just using this (as my wife is) for occasional snapshots to put on Facebook, it's fine. With all the filter mechanisms everyone is using anyway---for better or worse---what they take is seldom what actually shows up on Instagram anyway. It's all manipulated. If you're using your smartphone for non-camera functions, cheap Android is the same as expensive Android. With almost as many apps at your fingertips as with an iPhone, but expandable memory and a battery you can replace.