As of publication date of this article, there are 3 Google Nexus Android phone models that work officially with Google’s revolutionary Project Fi telephone service. I happily use one of those Nexus phones. I love Project Fi and my average bill is only US$25 for use in the US or abroad. Next month in October, there will likely be 2 new Google phones to work with Project Fi, which are likely to be called Pixel and Pixel XL. However, I know many devoted iPhone users (and users of current non-Nexus Android phones) who want to know about using Project Fi, thanks to its amazingly low monthly fee + international data roaming cost that is identical to when you’re in the US. Learn the two different ways to accomplish it ahead in this article, and the few disadvantages associated with them, compared with using an officially supported Project Fi smartphone.
Link to my original Project Fi review article
Back in January 2016, I published Review: Project Fi, son of Google Voice.
Refresher of Project Fi’s pricing structure
Project Fi costs US$20 for unlimited voice calls (to numbers in the US, Puerto Rico and Canada) and unlimited SMS texts (to worldwide numbers on Planet Earth), plus US$10 per gigabyte of actual consumed data. Whatever your initial estimate may be, if you use less data, you end up paying less. If you use more data, you’ll end up paying more.
Before I moved to Project Fi, my monthly data usage via cellular data was under 500 megabytes average per month, so I estimated the minimum of 1 GB when I signed up for Project Fi. I do not deprive myself of data: I simply set most of my apps only to upload or download heavy audio and video files when on unmetered WiFi. So the first month, I was billed based upon the 1 GB estimate: US$20 + US$10 = US$30 plus tax. From there forward, my bill has been about US$25 per month, plus tax. With Project Fi, there is fortunately no extra charge if you use your phone to do tethering or create a WiFi hotspot.
Calls from the US to countries outside Canada and Puerto Rico are exactly the same as they have been with Google Voice: extremely low, and with direct dial, as long as you have properly listed all phone numbers in your contacts in international format: the + symbol followed by the country code, city code (or mobile phone code) and number. This is something that I have been recommending for decades. (Never use 011 or 01 as the international prefix, always use the + symbol. The + symbol is the international standard, and that’s why it works everywhere, with virtually any service.)
Project Fi when you’re traveling out of the United States
In 135 countries outside of the US, Project Fi users get data roaming at no extra charge. In other words, in those 135 countries, the data costs the same as in the US.
What about phone calls when traveling outside of the US?
When you are connected to any capable WiFi anywhere in the world, calls to the US, Canada and Puerto Rico are free. When you are not connected to WiFi but are in one of the 135 Project Fi countries, calls are US$0.20 (twenty cents) per minute to anywhere. If you are outside those 135 countries, you must either use WiFI (which will be free to call the US, Puerto Rico or Canada) or purchase a local nano SIM card, and pay whatever the local rates may be. Remember that all Nexus phones purchased from Google are born as carrier-unlocked, so they will accept virtually any nano SIM card from virtually any provider worldwide.
Since signing up with Project Fi, I have personally used the service in México, and some of my clients have used it in Argentina, China, Colombia, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Venezuela.
Tech requirements for a phone to be officially supported by Project Fi
For a phone to qualify to be supported officially by Project Fi, first it needs to contain radios than can tune in to all of Project Fi partner’s frequencies in the United States, and seamlessly jump between them, even in mid call. In the United States, Project Fi currently uses the T-Mobile network (including the 700 MHz/LTE band 12), the Sprint network, the US Cellular network, and whatever WiFi you have your phone connected, as long as the Project Fi app determines that it is equal or better than the one available from the cellular signal. It is possible that Google may add new carriers in the US, or even establish its own wireless network, either to augment or replace the current ones. In fact, Google recently applied for testing certain bands in the US with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).
Of course, it also needs a Project Fi app installed in order to manage these networks on-the-fly for seamless switching, even in mid call. As of now, Google has only created the app for the Android operating system. It would be silly for Google to create a Project Fi app for iOS until such time as Apple manufactures an iPhone that contains the required multi-band radio. It is possible that at least one of the iPhone 7 and/or iPhone 7 Plus already has the necessary radio. Apple hasn’t yet answered my question that I posed privately and in this recent article: iPhone 7 Plus multi-sensor smartphone, and the 5 questions I asked Apple PR. It is possible that Apple hasn’t yet responded because Apple may be under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with Google for a future announcement by both companies.
Requirements for a tablet to be officially supported by Project Fi
As I wrote in my original review of Project Fi, back in mid December 2015, Google announced another amazing add-on to Project Fi which may be unprecedented: free data-only SIM cards without any per-device monthly fee. This means that any Project Fi user can request the free data-only SIM card to be used with any compatible device (tablet or computer, including some Chromebooks). In my experience, other carriers add an additional per-device monthly fee, usually an extra US$10 per month. Project Fi does not charge extra for the privilege. Project Fi only charges for the extra data usage, if there is any. So if you own a tablet or laptop that accepts a nano SIM card, you can save your phone’s battery by not having to create a hotspot for that device. If you have a device that accepts a SIM card that’s not nano sized, you can use an inexpensive SIM card adapter.
Caution: Never, ever store an empty SIM card adapter inside of your device (without any SIM card inside the adapter). Many people have permanently ruined their SIM slot by doing that.
A tablet or computer using the data-only Project Fi SIM card will currently only work with the T-Mobile network, not the Sprint network or the US Cellular network, so you can use the data-only SIM card with an unlocked T-Mobile compatible device as long as there is a good T-Mobile signal in the US (or with any partner network in the 135 countries). If you are somewhere in the US and are in a location with no good T-Mobile signal but a good Sprint or US Cellular one, you can still tether or create a hotspot from your official Project Fi smartphone to power your tablet, laptop or other device. That won’t cost you more money, since the data consumption cost is the same. It will only affect your battery life in the phone if you create a WiFI hotspot. By the way, the T-Mobile network is much better than what many iPhone users think it is. I’ll explain that in the next section.
The T-Mobile network is much better than many iPhone users think it is, and it’s Apple’s fault
With its incomplete design of all iPhone models prior to the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, T-Mobile got a bum rap (i.e. dishonor resulting from false accusations or trumped-up charges). Years before the introduction of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, T-Mobile added its 700 MHz/LTE band 12 network to improve reception inside buildings and in rural areas in the US. However, Apple only added support for 700 MHz/LTE band 12 to the iPhone radios starting with the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. That’s why many of my friends suffered from dropped calls with the T-Mobile network when I didn’t (since several phones back, I have been using Android models which do support the 700 MHz/LTE band 12 and worked great with the T-Mobile network). Those iPhone friends falsely blamed T-Mobile for having poor coverage, which wasn’t the case. Those friends had an incomplete radio in their iPhone. At the time, I could not explain why I had great performance with the T-Mobile network and they didn’t. Hindsight is 20/20.
I wrote the word network in italics, since I was not a direct customer of T-Mobile, but I was —and still am— using one of the many MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) that use that network. Today the MVNO I use is Google’s Project Fi (which uses the T-Mobile network and several others combined). Before that, it was Solavei (R.I.P.) and before that it was Simple Mobile. While I was using the last two, I had already ported my public published mobile number to Google Voice, so I had no risk of losing the number if a questionable company went out of business. When Google Voice had is “son”, Project Fi, I ported my public published number again, from father to son.
Workaround 1 to make your iPhone or non-Nexus/Google phone work with Project Fi, and its consequences
Whether you choose Workaround 1 or Workaround 2, you must first activate your Project Fi service on one of the approved phones (i.e. one you already have, or borrow from a friend). As of publication time of this article, those are:
- Nexus 6 (2014 model, to be updated to the latest Android 7.0 any day now)
- Nexus 5x (2015 model, many have already been updated to the latest Android 7.0)
- Nexus 6p (2015 model, many have already been updated to the latest Android 7.0)
Next month (in September 2016), we should see these two new Google phones announced, which should also be officially compatible with Project Fi:
- Pixel XL
So as of publication time of this article, whether you use Workaround 1 or Workaround 2, you’ll need to do your initial activation of Project Fi by (temporarily) putting your Project Fi SIM card into one of the above listed phones. Once your Project Fi account has been activated, you will be able to insert it into another un-approved unlocked phone (iPhone or not), as long as it’s compatible with the T-Mobile network.
What will be missing from your Project Fi experience if you put that very same Project Fi voice/data SIM card into another unlocked phone, be it iPhone or Android phone?
- It will only connect to the T-Mobile network, not the Sprint or the US Cellular network. Whether or not you have perfect T-Mobile reception depends upon your location, and whether your un-approved unlocked phone supports the 700 MHz/LTE band 12, as indicated in detail earlier in this article.
- You will not get WiFi calling the seamless way that Project Fi offers with an approved phone model. (You can still get WiFi calling by using the free Hangouts app connected to the same Gmail account you use for Project Fi, but you’ll have to remember when to use the Hangouts app rather than the standard dialer to make calls. With an Android, you’ll have to download the additional Hangouts Dialer “helper” app to make outgoing phone calls with the Hangouts app. That’s not necessary with an iPhone. In fact, there is no Hangouts Dialer app for iOS, since the Hangouts app for iOS already includes the dialer function. In an iOS device (iPad/iPhone), follow the instructions in this official Google page to assure that incoming calls will ring from Hangouts, and in this case of Workaround 1, only when connected to WiFi.)
Fortunately, you will still get all of the other Project Fi calling advantages, as well as the savings both in and out of the US.
Please note that point 1 above is something that would be identical if you were using T-Mobile as your only official provider. So if you currently use T-Mobile and switch to Project Fi with an un-approved unlocked smartphone as indicated in this section, your reception will remain the same. Your monthly bill will likely shrink to under half the T-Mobile price, but you will loose certain T-Mobile perks, like zero-rated online services (like YouTube at 480p and many streaming music services that don’t affect your data quota cap before throttling occurs) and WiFi at no extra cost in many domestic flights in the US. But with a bill that’s less than half of T-Mobile’s price, you’ll have plenty of money leftover for those things, if and when you need them.
Workaround 2 to make your iPhone or non-Nexus/Google phone (or tablet as a phone) work with Project Fi, and its consequences
If you read the prior section called Requirements for a tablet to be officially supported by Project Fi (or are aware through other means), you already know about the free data SIM card that Project Fi offers, and that Project Fi doesn’t charge you extra for the privilege of using a tablet, only for the total data consumption. You may have known that you can insert and use that free data SIM card in any of the compatible tablets (or even in any unlocked smartphone that is compatible with the T-Mobile network) and use that tablet as a phone to make and receive phone calls using your Project Fi number. However, doing this with Workaround 2 means that you are using pure data from Project Fi, and that all of your calls will be made and received with the free Hangouts app from Google.
Main differences between Workaround 1 and Workaround 2:
- With Workaround 2 and a smartphone, you will not be using the phone’s main dialer. With Workaround 2, you will be only using the free Hangouts app (and with Android, you’ll also need to have installed the free Hangouts Dialer “helper” app). In the case of a smartphone with Workaround 2, you are best served by removing the standard phone dialer’s icon from the dock and hiding it elsewhere, i.e. on the last page of your apps. In its place (and even with a tablet), put the Hangouts icon in the dock, so you will remember to use it as your only telephone app for placing telephone calls.
- In an iOS device (iPad/iPhone), follow the instructions in this official Google page to assure that incoming calls will ring at all times (except when you have the device in Do Not Disturb).
- With Workaround 2, when your device is not connected to an unmetered WiFi, your voice calls will no longer be free or unlimited (even to the US, Puerto Rico or Canada), although they will only consume a tiny 740.6 kb per minute (thanks to Bob Triggs article in Android Authority), which expressed in gigabytes is 0.0007406GB. Considering that Project Fi charges US$10 per GB, your calls will cost you about US$0.007406 per minute (i.e. less than a penny per minute). 100 minutes will cost you US$0.7406 (i.e. about 74 cents). 1000 minutes will cost you US$7.406 (i.e. about 7 dollars and 41 cents). The calculations are for voice calls, and they are amazingly inexpensive, especially considering that your calls are 100% free whenever your device is connected to unmetered WiFi. Video calls via any app will obviously consume more data, but that is outside the scope of this article.
- Unlike with Workaround 1, Workaround 2 doesn’t require thinking about whether to use the standard phone dialer or the Hangouts app. I know that some people don’t want to have to think about it. Well with Workaround 2, you use a single app all the time to make and receive voice calls: the Hangouts app. No thinking required!
Please note that some people might want to use Workaround 2 even with a Project Fi-approved smartphone, but only when traveling outside the US and Puerto Rico, in order to reduce the cost of their voice calls when not connected to WiFi. This applies to people like one of my friends who expects to consume multiple hours of voice calls per month in Canada when he is not connected to unmetered WiFi. In my case, I consume much less than an hour per month of voice calls when not connected to unmetered WiFi, in the US or any other country. As a result, I don’t worry about the US$0.20 per minute for voice calls when out of the US. I currently do use a Project Fi-approved smartphone, which as of the publication time of this article is still a Nexus 6, and is still working fine.
Link to save US$20
Using this link, you’ll get a US$20 credit and so will I after you sign up.
The absolute best Project Fi experience is achieved with one of the approved smartphones, without any workarounds. However, if you happen to prefer another phone (or already one), you can get about 88% of the logistical advantages and 100% of the financial advantages by following Workaround 1 or Workaround 2 as explained in this article.
See recent and upcoming related articles
- iPhone 7 Plus multi-sensor smartphone, and the 5 questions I asked Apple PR from September 8, 2016
- 4 reasons why you’ll be better served buying your next iPhone via Apple’s financing plan, not your carrier’s financing plan coming soon
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