Is the Free Slow International Data Service Offered by T-Mobile Really Practical?

T-Mobile's slow international data service is sometimes faster than promised.
T-Mobile’s slow international data service is sometimes faster than promised.

Last year T-Mobile announced an extraordinary change in its international data charging policies.  In addition to selling blocks of regular high speed data at high prices, the same as other wireless carriers (eg 500 MB for $50), it also started giving away unlimited free slow speed data in most but not all countries (about 120 countries are included).

The slow free data was said to be limited to speeds of about 128 kbps.  That’s massively slower than the potential maximum speeds of high speed 3G, 4G and LTE services, and many people (me included!) worried it would be too slow to be of any use.  After all, you get what you pay for, right?

So, clearly, the catch appeared to be that the data service is ‘slow’ rather than ‘fast’.  But just how much slower than ‘normal’ or ‘fast’ data speeds is the free T-Mobile slow service?  We’ll answer that question if you first tell us how high is up!

By this we mean that all wireless data services vary enormously in their speed.  This is because each cell tower has a fairly low maximum bandwidth capacity.  If only one person is using the tower’s data bandwidth, their phone probably gets most or all the speed theoretically available.  But as more users start simultaneously sharing the data bandwidth, speeds start to quickly drop down.  Weak signals also slow down data speeds further.

So even a ‘fast’ data connection is seldom (never!) anywhere near as fast as its theoretical claimed maximum speed.  And there’s much more to the ultimate experience we get than just the data speed.  For example, the speed at which a web page appears on your phone isn’t just related to the data speed, it is also related to the latency, the speed of the server issuing the page, other internet speed constraints, and lastly, the time it takes your phone’s CPU and GPU to render and display the page after obtaining the data.  All these factors have appreciable impacts on the total time for a web page to appear.

In other words, if you halve the data transfer speed, you might only notice a very tiny slowdown in how fast web pages load on your phone.

To complicate matters further, the same bandwidth sharing issues apply to the slower earlier types of data service too.  So not only is ‘fast’ data a very moveable target, so too is ‘slow’ data.  Indeed, my own experience in both Europe and New Zealand with T-Mobile’s free service hints at a possibility that while sometimes the free slow data may indeed truly be S*L*O*W, sometimes it seems it is very much faster than 128 kbps too.  Other people have reported similar experiences and sometimes also getting unexpected fast free service.

In theory T-Mobile says it caps its slow data at 128 kb/sec, and in theory faster data can be ten or one hundred times faster than this.  But the perceived difference in speed to us as users – and that’s really all that matters, most of the time – is much less impactful.  In the case of email, you’ll seldom if ever notice the slower speed, because email is not an interactive process.  All that happens is that instead of an email being received in one second, maybe it is now received in ten seconds.

You couldn’t stream video at this slow speed, but you probably can use Skype for voice calls (latency is as much an issue as speed when placing Skype calls).  You can even download fairly large files (I downloaded a 600 MB map update in less than half an hour – I’d have paid $60 for that alone if buying fast data at 10MB per dollar).  T-Mobile restricts your ability to tether your phone and share the free slow data with other devices, so that’s not an option.

We were a bit cynical about how useful slow data would be, but we’ve used it now on several journeys in both Europe and the South Pacific, and have had no problems with it and no longer feel the need to buy faster and expensive data service too.


Bottom line?  All we can really say about the slower data service is that web pages load perceptibly more slowly, but if you don’t mind waiting another ten seconds or so, you still get the page up and onto your phone.  It isn’t snap-your-fingers-fast, but it is functional, and most of all, it is free.

So – to answer our opening question.  Is T-Mobile’s slow and free international data service a practical offering for us when we travel?  Yes, definitely.  Many thanks to T-Mobile for this transformationally wonderful new service.

5 thoughts on “Is the Free Slow International Data Service Offered by T-Mobile Really Practical?”

  1. I enjoyed your articles on T Mobile and the Overseas SIM card. My question (and others may have it), is can one get a short term use T Mobile SIM card in the US for this. Or does one need to have T Mobile as their main carrier to enjoy this benefit? Many (most?) of us are not T Mobile customers.

    1. T-Mobile allow people to sign up for their service on a month by month basis, without any annual (or even longer) contracts, and with no sign-up fees either.

      So, yes, you definitely can do this.

      The company also says it may terminate accounts if people use their account predominantly for international travel, but it takes some time (months) for them to deem that this is happening, and I know several people who only activate their T-Mobile service for international travel and who have never had any come-back.

  2. Another positive thing about T-Mobile is they allow you to unlock your phone after, iirc, a couple of months. That means you can buy local chips for data use (and normal telephony) without having to travel with a second phone or jailbreaking your phone (with potential hassles from you US carrier or phone manufacturer).

    It’s slow but usable, and twenty cents a minute for calls beats the slacks off of two dollar a minute roaming fees when you really need to call, but have no wifi access at the moment. (With wifi, Skype and Whattsapp, etc. fill the gaps nicely for keeping in touch.)

  3. I have both a personal T-Mobile Moto X and a work AT&T BlackBerry that I have been with both to 30+ countries over the past year. I don’t know how to scientifically test but side by side my feel has been that I am getting the same speed on the same networks with either one. Others I have talked to that understand the tech more have claimed that T-Mobile doesn’t have a way to slow down other networks and a close read of T-Mobile’s terms is not that they limit to 2G, only that they guarantee minimum 2G.

    Where I see a difference is that while T-Mobile generally can only connect to one network in a country, AT&T can often connect to several, which helps in coverage gaps.

    I particularly like that for most non-covered countries T-Mobile immediately sends a text asking you to reply with a code if you want to enable roaming at the expensive rates. A few non-covered counties I have not gotten that message and worried when texts slipped through, but have never been charged, such as last statement ones in Slovenia never were charged. Only charges I have ever incurred is from accidentally bumping the voicemail notification on my phone which I can’t figure out how to get Android to dismiss without separately calling in to clear out messages.

  4. We have used the TMobile system for many years. Since the new “free” roaming when into effect a year ago have used it in China, HK, Costa Rica, Germany, Suisse, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine.
    (Were connected to Ukraine system when within 10-15 miles of their border with Romania.) Used the free data to run our Google map app when driving around for 8 days in Romania. Couldn’t have made the drive w.o. it. Used data a year ago when in HK to listen to a U. of O football game. Didn’t miss a play. Could use the free data to access FB, CNN (not video), NYTimes etc. which are blocked by the Chinese fire wall if on a regular internet connection or using a Chinese SIM.
    IOW – the “slow” data lets you do almost all normal tasks. Email comes right thru.

    And SMS (text) is unlimited (in and out) when traveling to their 120 countries.

    Now can travel and leave phone on all the time. (Turn off at night because of time diff.)

    Calls back to U.S. are free when connected via wifi w. most Androids. Even those stuck w. Apple phones (newer models) can make free wifi calls – although some reports say it isn’t quite as good as w. Android or BB phones.

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