One of the main challenges I have faced as a location independent entrepreneur is to maintain constant access to the internet, in a reliable way, as I move around the world. After years of using a combination of local SIM cards, roaming SIM cards and Boingo / iPass, I found out about Google’s Project Fi and decided to give it a try. In this article, I review the service, share my experience with it and provide a few alternate options.
Project Fi is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) by Google, which is designed to work with a number of Pixel, Nexus and Android One phones. It is based in the United States and offers features aimed primarily at that market. This includes unlimited domestic phone calls and SMS as well as the ability to connect via whoever has the strongest signal amongst a number of local networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular).
There is only one plan. It cost 20 USD + taxes / fees and include the features mentioned above. Data is billed separately at the rate of 10 USD per GB. While this may sound expensive, it is important to understand that there is a billing cap which kicks in at 6 GB. This means that in practice, you get unlimited data for a maximum of 80 USD + taxes / fees.
What is amazing with Project Fi is that the plan can be used in over 170 countries at no extra cost, for an unlimited length of time. Best of all, 4G roaming is supported in most of those countries. This is as close to a global data plan as you can get today.
Other interesting features, in the context of location independence, include the ability to pause the subscription for up to three months at a time (useful if you are in a country where you have a local SIM), the ability to use your phone as a hotspot (at no extra cost) and the ability to make and receive calls over wifi (SMS too). You can also order additional data SIM cards for use in LTE-enabled tablets and laptops.
The only drawback is that you need to activate the service using a supported device while physically in the United States. That said, there is nothing preventing you from using an unsupported device once the service is active. I myself use a Samsung Galaxy phone and have never experienced any issues. I have even met people using Project Fi on their iPhones.
To sign up, you will first need to order a Project Fi SIM card here (using my referral link will give both of us 20 USD in Project Fi credits). You will need to have access to a US mailing address as Google does not ship internationally.
You will also need access to a supported device in order to activate the service. You can get one cheaply from Amazon and have it shipped to an Amazon locker in a US city you intend to visit. Make sure you order the US model as international models are not supported.
Once you have everything in hand, activating the service is as easy as putting the SIM card in the supported device and opening the Project Fi app. It takes only a few minutes for a phone number to be assigned.
I am aware that a number of people have managed to activate services while overseas but do not recommend doing so as there have also been reports of devices being bricked in the attempt.
On a side note, an added benefit of using a US SIM card is that you will always get a US IP address. This will not only allow you to use US-only services without a VPN but it will also allow you to bypass censorship and local regulations.
While it may be easy to think of the internet as global and highly accessible, my experience has proven that it is anything but. Many countries lack decent network coverage and even when that is not an issue, getting online can still be impractical due to local regulations, the lack of availability of short-term mobile plans or high roaming costs. Wifi is not much better, with unreliable networks and slow speed widespread.
This has been a major challenge for me over the years, especially when visiting remote locations such as French Polynesia and Easter Island. I have tried nearly every option under the sun. None proved viable.
When Project Fi rolled out their global unlimited plan, I almost could not believe it. An end to all my internet problems? I decided to sign up and give it a try.
I ordered a Project Fi SIM card using the address of a Wyoming LLC I own as the delivery address and a random address in New Hampshire as the service address (to avoid the sales tax). I also bought the cheapest compatible phone I could find on Amazon (a Nexus 5X) and had it delivered to a locker in Boston (where I was at that time). The SIM card arrived a little over a week later and I had it forwarded to my hotel in Honolulu (where I now was).
As soon as I completed the activation process, I transferred the SIM card to my Samsung Galaxy phone. It worked a charm and the internet immediately connected (via the T-Mobile network).
I have been using Project Fi for a while now without any issues, in multiple countries. I usually get a 4G signal before even leaving the plane, tethering also works really well. Needless to say, I am very happy!
While Project Fi offers the best plan for those living the location independent lifestyle, other carriers offer competing plans which may be a better fit depending on your circumstances. For example, China Mobile Hong Kong offers a data plan which can be used in over 80 countries. It comes in two flavors, 6GB for around 50 USD and 10GB for around 75 USD. Another example is Three UK which offers a data plan which can be used in over 70 countries. Costing only 20 GBP for a 12GB allowance, it is an absolute steal. Many carriers also offer country / region passes as add-ons and these can be good value for shorter trips. In any cases, I do not recommend the likes of Flexiroam as their rates are nothing short of daylight robbery.