GEAR REVIEW: Project Fi cell service (for touring anywhere in the world)

 The Nexus 5X running Project Fi service.

The Nexus 5X running Project Fi service.

As always, this is not a sponsored post—just a recommendation for something that's been really helpful for us. Also, Project Fi is currently only offered in America, so this may not apply to all travelers.

Touring with a cell phone is certainly not essential, but a pretty good (and increasingly common) thing to bring along. In addition to serving as a camera and jukebox and back-up map and more, cell phones provide a pretty important (though increasingly fleeting) purpose: making phone calls—say, in the event of an emergency on the road. That said, touring with a cell phone can be a hassle. Setting aside the mess of keeping it charged and keeping it from taking over your experience, monthly cell phone plans (at least in the States) are expensive, prepaid plans a bad deal, and swapping out local SIM cards when traveling from country-to-country a real annoyance. 

Project Fi, a new(ish) service offered by Google, makes traveling the world with a single cell phone (and single SIM card) a breeze. Here's how it works:

  1. You buy a Google phone (alas, the plan is only available for a small subset of Android phones: the Nexus 5X [which I have], Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, and Pixel devices).
     
  2. You pay 20USD per month (no contract) and get unlimited talk anywhere in America, unlimited text anywhere in the world, and pretty cheap calling anywhere in the world too ($0.20/minute in 135+ countries—but you can check specific country rates here). 
     
  3. You choose how much data you want per month and pay $10 per GB (or $0.01 per MB) anywhere in the world. That means a MB in America costs the same as a MB in Afghanistan or a MB in Kenya or a MB in Germany. And for any data you don't use that month, you get refunded right down to the MB (so if you buy a GB of data and only use 201MB, you'll get refunded $7.99 the following month).
     
  4. As with most modern phones, you can also send texts and use data and make calls over wifi, and none of these cost anything.
     
  5. Oh, and if you want to temporarily suspend your service, you can just, like, do that by hitting a button on your phone. Anyone who calls or texts you won't be able to get through (nor will you ever have any record that they called or texted), and you obviously won't be able to call or text or use data (unless on wifi), and you'll need to be connected to wifi to turn your service back on (which also just requires hitting a button on your phone), but you'll be refunded a prorated amount of your $20 monthly total for the number of hours or days service was suspended ($10 for half the month, a few cents for a few hours, etc.).

So at its cheapest (unlimited texts and no calls or data usage except over wifi), Project Fi runs just $20 per month (with another $4 or so in taxes)—just a fraction of what a base plan would cost with T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, or another American carrier. Now, because you're paying per MB, you don't exactly have the spend-it-while-you-got-it luxury you might have with those other plans, and streaming movies every night in the tent can quickly kick the bill up to $50 or (if you're really not monitoring your usage) $100. But assuming you're doing more cycling and exploring than streaming and surfing, Project Fi is a really, really great way to maintain some base-level service with virtually no hassle and a very small cost. To make it super-clear:

  • If you used 500MB of data, sent a bunch of texts, and made calls from America to another phone in America, you'd pay $25 that month (plus about $4 in tax).
  • If you used 3GB of data, sent a bajillion texts, and called back home from India once for five minutes, you'd pay $55 that month ($20 + $30 + $1 + about $4 in tax).
  • If you sent some texts but only called and browsed over wifi, and then paused your service for 10 days, you'd pay about $13 that month (plus a little tax).
  • If you used 20GB of data and kept ignoring the data alerts and turned off your data cap, you'd pay $220 that month, so you probably don't want to use 20GB of data.

How does it actually work? Well, Google isn't providing any actual cell towers, but instead renting cell towers from (in America) T-Mobile and Sprint and (elsewhere) local providers. That means you're getting the same coverage from the Project Fi as you'd get if you picked up a local SIM card, but without having to actually pick up a local SIM card (and burn through the minutes before you reach the next country and those minutes no longer work), and with the networks of a few other competitor carriers probably available to you as well.

 Monitoring data is clear and simple. These 360MB cost me $3.60.

Monitoring data is clear and simple. These 360MB cost me $3.60.

RESTATING THE GOOD

  1. Compared to the lowest plan available on any other American carrier, Project Fi is without question the cheapest. Compared to international calling and data rates, Project Fi is without question the cheapest. And unlike big, customer-abusing carriers (like Verizon), there are no hidden fees: you get exactly what you pay for.
     
  2. You can pause your service whenever you want and get your money back. That means if you don't really want cell coverage for the next twenty days, you can get two-thirds of your monthly bill refunded back to you, and it's so easy to do so. And you can cancel your service altogether as well, without paying any sort of termination fee.
     
  3. Your phone just works anywhere and everywhere. When crossing borders or crossing continents, you don't actually have to do anything to stay connected. 
     
  4. The Project Fi app is simple to use and allows you to manage your service entirely from your phone: pause service, set data limits, enable or disable data roaming, check rates for your current country, pay bills, check current usage, etc.
     
  5. Google customer service is really good. A part on my phone stopped working about six months in and they replaced the whole phone without question, sending me a brand new phone before I returned the old one.
     
  6. I can't personally vouch for these, but it seems that Project Fi now offers an add-a-person option for another $15/month, and data-only SIMs that would allow you to use your data on multiple (compatible) devices at no extra cost (except paying for the data at the same $10/GB rate).

RESTATING THE BAD

  1. You do have to buy one of a limited set of pretty pricey (but really good) phones. I got the Nexus 5X during a Google promotion for $250, which was a really good deal, but a new model phone (like the Pixel) can cost over $600. Note that monthly financing is available, though that'll obviously run up the monthly bill.
     
  2. Some people might prefer to pay $50 upfront and just use a ton of data than pay $20 upfront and be very mindful about data. Even if you use 3GB and end up paying the same $50 per month, it feels more wasteful because it was possible to pay less. Paying per MB makes you a whole lot more frugal in how you use your phone, which is something I like about it but something others may not.
     
  3. Technically, the plan actually costs $30 per month upfront because the least amount of data you can choose is 1GB. But, if you don't use any of that data, you will get the whole $10 refunded to you at the end of the month, lowering the bill to just $20 (and, of course, if you use only half of it, you'll get $5 back).
     
  4. Running around a foreign city to find a local SIM card might be an activity that you really enjoy.

IN SHORT, IF YOU'RE TRAVELING AROUND THE WORLD FOR MORE THAN A FEW MONTHS (AND ARE IN THE MARKET FOR A NEW PHONE), PROJECT FI IS A GREAT DEAL.

Thoughts? Agree or disagree? Let us know if you have a different way of staying connected on the cheap by dropping a comment below.

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