Roam Like Home: Lessons from three months of using my phone overseas

I’ve talked a little about my three or so months in London this past winter, where I was working on a contract to make some money after having lost my old job back in December. From a money, and cultural, and social standpoint it was an interesting experiment – getting acquainted with a new company, new parts of London and new people, alongside all the things I already knew well about the place.

But there was another aspect that struck me about it recently. In the months I was away, although I bought a little pay-as-you-go burner phone, because my contract required me to have a local number, I continued to use my US smartphone as my primary means of communication. Not only that, I didn’t make a phone call on it once – my bills from T-Mobile during that period remained resolutely the same as always.

The key is that my mobile operator here in the US is T-Mobile, which alone of the four big carriers offers free roaming for texts and data, albeit super-slow data, although as it turns out that wasn’t such a problem. Voice calls are charged extra if you’re abroad, whether making or receiving, but at 20 cents per minute (now raised to 25), even that wasn’t excessively high.

Back when smartphones were newish, a number of reporters and analysts that I followed on Twitter were running experiments to see how they coped with using a smartphone as their primary or only computer. The conclusion seemed to be that they were actually pretty good as computers, and that if you needed to downsize you could do so without too many problems.

The result of my experiment feels a little more radical, somehow – in three and a half months of using a smartphone for messaging, surfing, texting and the like I didn’t make a single phone call.

(OK, that’s not strictly true, because I used my burner once or twice, but even in those circumstances I could have gotten around it – the burner was, as I said, more for my job and for signing up for stuff there in London, like a gym near my flat).

I guess we’re still conditioned to think of our smartphones as phones first, but we’ve come to a point, with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, social media and so on, to say nothing of texting, where the old voice calling capabilities are probably not as important as they were even as recently as the 3G years. There are so many ways of communicating with each other that voice isn’t as necessary as it used to be, and even when real-time communications are necessary you can now just video call on FaceTime or WhatsApp and use your data rather than your minutes (though this proved a little tough when I was away from Wi-Fi, because as I said, my data was SSSSLLLLLOOOWWWW).

As 4G was rolling out in Europe and North America, one of the big ideas was Voice Over LTE, or VoLTE, similar to VoIP technology that apps like Skype use. This would have allowed users to make voice calls over the LTE networks that their phones connected to, rather than having to switch between the 2G or 3G radio and the 4G radio to call. But it seems we’ve bypassed that a little bit, by using video calling or just plain old VoIP through Skype and WhatsApp, and by having data allowances that are large enough to cope, if not actually unlimited.

One aspect of this unintended experiment that I didn’t get to test was how long it would have lasted. T-Mobile’s fine print says something about not roaming long-term, but doesn’t really give a set amount of time after which they cut you off. I kept waiting for some kind of notice that they needed me to come back, but every month I just got another “Welcome to the United Kingdom” text explaining the terms of my roaming.

The reason this is important is that I do spend a lot of time overseas, and to be quite honest, I’d like to spend even more time overseas. But I don’t want to have to cut off all my services when I do go, or fiddle about with things like prepaid phones (which get disconnected after three months of non-use), or any of that.

So I have to welcome the fact that some services just continue to work regardless of what country you’re in. In fact, during those months not only did I use my US smartphone much as I always have, I also used my Netflix subscription as normal, with the exception of watching certain things that are only available overseas (like Star Trek Discovery). In a world where almost every aspect of living across multiple countries is a pain in the balls, frequently by design, it’s nice to see that some companies don’t hassle you too much about it.

I’ve mentioned T-Mobile US here, but a couple of European operators do it too, and with the abolition of roaming in the EU, this stuff is going to get even easier. And I can’t help but welcome it.

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