T-Mobile’s free 2G international roaming is not bad at all

BARCELONA–I did something weird when I got off the plane in Brussels Sunday morning after a horrendously-delayed flight out of Dulles: I took the phone out of airplane mode.

T-Mobile 2G roaming

My usual routine on a trip to Europe has been to limp along on WiFi until I can buy a prepaid SIM (which hopefully will work right away but doesn’t always). But after switching my T-Mobile service from an old small-business plan to a slightly more expensive Simple Choice plan with free 2G roaming, I didn’t have to put up with that workaround.

What I didn’t know before this trip here for Mobile World Congress is if I could stand to spend that much time on an EDGE or slower connection. The limits of T-Mobile’s network in rural areas give me that experience more often than I’d like, and it’s not fun.

But when the alternative is either WiFi alone or having to find a store selling prepaid SIMs–sadly, the one in the arrivals area of Barcelona’s airport seemed to have closed when I arrived Sunday afternoon–slow but free can be not bad.

T-Mobile 2G roaming speed testBy “slow” I’m talking a connection that the Speedtest app clocked going no faster than .13 Mbps on a download, .24 on an upload. That’s nowhere near fast enough for sustained use or for work–Monday, I switched to faster bandwidth.

But in the meantime, that EDGE service provided sufficient bandwidth for my e-mail to arrive in the background, to read and write tweets (and even share a picture on Twitter, slowly), to get directions on Google Maps, to check up on Facebook and check in on Foursquare Swarm, and to browse mobile-optimized Web sites with a certain degree of patience.

I’m not alone in that judgment: Ars Technica’s Peter Bright mentioned to me on Monday that he was relying on T-Mobile 2G roaming, and avgeek blogger Seth Miller wrote in 2013 that this free roaming could very well be good enough for short visits.

And even if you’ll still buy a prepaid SIM at your first opportunity overseas, there’s a lot to be said for getting off the plane and not having to freak out over what it will cost you to exit airplane mode before that point.

Advertisements

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.

International upgrades: plugs, phone, passport

Preparing for an overseas event like Mobile World Congress or IFA isn’t too different from getting ready for CES, except that your power adapters and phone won’t work like usual, and you can find yourself waiting a whole lot longer to escape the airport when you return.

Plug adapter, SIM and passportTo address the first issue at MWC, I packed a small power-plug adapter from Monoprice. I picked that not because the Cube2 cost $15 and change at the time, but because it includes two USB ports to charge other devices. This is actually the second one of these I’ve used; the first had its USB ports go dead, but Monoprice sent a replacement after I returned the old one at their expense.

To fix the second problem, I once again bought a prepaid SIM–which at Barcelona’s airport, I was able to do before even reaching baggage claim. (Making this purchase is not so easy elsewhere; Berlin’s Tegel airport has no such retailer.) I opted for an Orange prepaid SIM, $21.05 at the current exchange rate, with 1 gigabyte of data but no included calling or texting.

I was fine with that, since I could always place a VoIP call using the GrooVe IP app, while texts to and from my Google Voice number continued to travel over the Internet. And the one time somebody did phone me from D.C., I happened to be in the press room with my laptop open, so I took the call via Google Plus’s Hangouts app—and broke it to a TV producer that I couldn’t make it into the studio that evening to discuss OS X’s “gotofail” vulnerability.

Despite being on my phone all the time, I only used up 313 megabytes of data. Almost 100 megs came from tethering: I loaned my connection to a Yahoo Tech colleague who needed to finish a few edits after the WiFi was turned off at an event. It’s always nice to be able to give the gift of free bandwidth.

Finally, my return to the U.S. did not involve the usual wait to show my passport and get it stamped, courtesy of Global Entry. After years of hearing friends rave about this trusted-traveler program, I finally signed up at the end of last year (it helped that my frequent-flyer status meant United covered the $100 application fee). It was kind of magical to exit customs 12 minutes after getting off the plane at Newark; doing so by having a machine scan my fingerprints and then report a match with a government database added the faintest whiff of dystopian sci-fi. Having spent more than an hour to clear customs at Dulles, I think I can live with that.