For years I have collectively used all cell services available in the San Francisco Bay Area, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Just recently, though, I decided to move to Google Fi, formerly Project Fi, after trying it out for almost two years. Yes, you can try it out without having to spend too much.
Overall, I’d sum up Google Fi in a short phrase: Ubiquitous coverage, reasonable data cost, cheap voice, and free texts. If you’re looking for hassle-free cell service, or about to take an extended international trip, I total recommend it.
Dong’s note: This post was originally published on Apr 18, 2018, and has been updated to reflect changes in the Fi service.
- Ubiquitous coverage world wide
- Sensible data cost, cheap voice, and free texts
- Clear billing, no contract
- Allows users to pause/resume service at will
- Other carriers have less expensive unlimited plan within the U.S.
- Intermittent low voice quality for international calls
- Privacy concerns
- Can't be linked to a Google Voice number
Google Fi: A cell service like no others
Fi is Google’s mobile virtual network that delivers talk, text, and data by leveraging both Wi-Fi — it has more than 2 million hotspots worldwide — and cellular networks.
In the U.S. Google Fi uses the cell service of Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S Cellular. That means it has the coverage of all those carriers combined. In the area with overlaps, Google says your Fi-specific phone will automatically switch to one with the strongest signal.
Internationally, Google Fi piggybacks on major local carriers. As a user, you only deal with Google, however, and your phone will always show Fi Network.
The quick breakdown of the Fi service
No contract: You can sign up and cancel anytime. Talk, text, and data available in more than 170 countries around the world. Virtually all countries I’ve been to and would like to visit are on the list.
Flat service cost: For $20/month you get unlimited talk (within the U.S) and unlimited text (within the U.S. and internationally). Any additional line will cost just $15/month. By the way, you need to be 18 to get a Fi plan, or 13 to be part of a family plan.
International cellular talk: While roaming outside of the U.S, talk (including calls to a number inside the U.S.) generally costs $.20 per minute for both incoming and outgoing calls. It’s the same when you call other countries while being inside the U.S.
International Wi-Fi talk: This shares the same rate as that of Google Voice or Google Hangout: Always free when calling a number inside the States. Calls to other countries cost somewhere between $.01 to $.20/minute.
Data cost: Google Fi charges another $10 per 1GB no matter where you are (in or out of the U.S.) with Bill Protection kicking in at 6GB for the single-user plan — data above 6GB is free. (If you use over 15GB, though, the speed will be throttled down for the rest of the billing cycle.) In other words, for a single line, you’ll never pay more than $80 (text and talk included) per billing cycle, period. You can think of Fi as a $60/month unlimited data plan, plus the option to pay less if you use less than 6GB/month.
That said, within the U.S, Google Fi’s data cost is slightly expensive than the unlimited plans of other carriers. However, I prefer how Google Fi charges for data. It gives you the incentive not to use the phone when you don’t need to. With Fi, I find myself staring at the screen less, knowing I save money that way.
Notes on data cost
- You pay $.01 per megabyte (1GB ≈ 1000 megabyte). Within a billing cycle, if you use less data than you have paid for, the remaining portion will be converted back into dollars and refunded to your account. In other words, with Google Fi, you pay for the exact amount of data you use. There’s no messy roll-over or expiration.
- There’s an add-on data-only SIM card that works with popular LTE tablets, including Apple’s iPads. The SIM itself is free, and you pay the usual $10/GB of data to use it. Note that you can’t use a data-only SIM without a regular Google Fi plan.
A couple of things to keep in mind:
- You need a Google or Gmail account to use Fi — not a shortcoming unless you’re somehow a hardcore AOL user. (Even then you can still open a Google account using your original email).
- You can’t text using a computer by logging into your Google Fi account, the way you do with Google Voice. However, you can use Android’s Messages for a web feature that works similarly.
- If you have a separate Google Voice number, for now, you cannot link it to a Google Fi’s number, the way you can with another cellular plan. In other words, you can’t have calls to your Google Voice number forwarded to a Google Fi number. In my experience, you can use the Hangout Dialer app (instead of the Google Voice app) if you want to use Google Voice service on your Google Fi phone.
- Update: On November 28, 2018, Google changed the Project Fi’s name into Google Fi and opened the service the majority of Android phones and iPhones. Designed for Fi devices, such as Google’s Pixel series, enjoy more features with the service, however.
Signing up for Google Fi is about as easy as signing up for a Gmail account. You can order the service and a new phone from Google and will receive the phone in a few days. If you already have a phone, Google will ship you a SIM card for free, even when you want it shipped overnight. I got mine within one business day.
After that, you can use the Google Fi app to activate the service. There’s no need to visit a store or call anyone. By the way, if you have the Pixel 2/XL or later you can activate using eSIM, meaning you won’t need to wait for a physical SIM card.
The activation process takes just a few minutes if you get a new phone number — you can pick an available number based on the area code of your choosing — or use an existing Google Voice number. Considering you can’t link a Voice number to a Fi number, I’d recommend converting your Google Voice number into a Google Fi number.
If you want to transfer your phone number form a different carrier, including a landline number, that can take a few days, depending on the provider. But you can also initiate the process using the Fi app.
If you already have a cell plan that you want to keep (or can’t get rid of due to a contract) you can use Google Fi only when you travel outside of the U.S. I did this for a long time.
Upon returning from your trip, you can pause Fi (up to 90 days at a time). During the pause, you won’t need to pay but can still use Wi-Fi to receive or make calls and text messages. Talk, data and text using cellular won’t work during this time.
The best thing is you can resume and re-pause the service at any time. As long as you pause for more 24 hours or more, your account will receive credits for the time you’re not using the service, which is $.66/day.
If for some reason you want to get rid of Google Fi, you can cancel it. In this case — Google Voice user take note — you have the option to convert your number (back) into a Google Voice account with all previous history intact. And by the way, if you reactivate within six months of the cancellation, the process is quick, and you won’t need to get a new SIM card.
Seamless, consistent, fun experience
From a user’s perspective, Google Fi works the same everywhere, inside or outside the States.
There’s no need to contact the carrier before the trip to activate international roaming, or sign up for a new data plan and so on. You can just pick up your phone and go knowing that for the most part, everything remains the same.
Each time you arrive at a new country, the Google Fi app sends you a “Welcome to… ” notification which includes the cost details for calls and data at the new location. If you arrived at a country where the cost is too high, which has never happened to me by the way, you can pause service right then and opt to use Wi-Fi only.
I’ve been to some 15 countries in the past two years, in Europe and Asia, the data service was consistently excellent. Once in a while, I found myself at a place without any cell reception, but local users had no service there, either.
In terms of data speed, I generally get somewhere between 3Mbps to 30Mbps, both in the U.S and in other countries. Keep in mind that performing speed test eats up data pretty fast so I didn’t do a lot that, neither should you. But overall, I have never had problems with Fi’s connection speed.
Talking using Google Fi wasn’t always great, however.
Indeed, during my international trips, Google Fi’s voice quality wasn’t consistent. At times, the connection suffered from a significant delay that my friend on the other end and I talked over each other. This delay also happens when I call other countries from the U.S though less frequently. In all, this has never gotten to the point of unbearable, but I hope it will improve.
Another concern is that of privacy. Using Fi means you’re even more connected to Google. Recently, Fi includes a new feature called Enhance network which is a free VPN service. Enhance network, once turned on, helps keep your connection secure but will also route your phone’s Internet traffic, including that of its Wi-Fi, through Google.
And finally, I find the $20/month cost for talk and text is a little too high. The reason is most of the time, Google Fi’s talk and text are routed via the cellular or Wi-Fi anyway. Also if Google lowers the cost of data by 50 percent, even just for the U.S market, that’d make Fi so much more appealing.
In all, as it is right now, Google Fi is not perfect but, still, it’s far better than most alternatives.
In fact, for those living in the U.S but frequently travel internationally, this is by far the best cell service yet. Among other things, it makes preparing for a trip abroad much less of a hassle and significantly lowers data cost during the trip.
AT&T, for example, charges you $60 per gigabyte if you sign up for an international data plan — six times the cost of Fi’s data. If you want to pay as you go, AT&T will cost you $2 per megabyte, that’s 200 times more expensive Google Fi. By the way, 2MB is about the amount of data you need to upload one high-res photo to social media.
You can, of course, bring an unlocked phone and get a SIM card at the country of destination. This extra work is kind of a hassle since you unlikely know which SIM and where to get it the moment you arrive. And when you do, calling or texting home will cost a lot extra. Also, you can always use that SIM in another country.
That said, for your next extended international trip, do yourself a favor and get Google Fi. Among other things, it’ll instantly make you feel like a citizen of the world as far as mobile service is concerned.
Tip: The link above will give you $20 Fi credit, as long as you stay active with the service for 30 days or longer.