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Monday, April 8, 2024

How to Switch to Google Fi

Since it launched in 2015, Google’s Fi cellular service has become one of the best ways to get an affordable phone plan. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T may be the best-known cellular providers in the US, but Fi offers better data plans, more international coverage, and the simplest setup and billing system anywhere. 

In the beginning, the catch was that Google Fi worked only on select phones, but these days it'll work on just about anything, even iPhones. (Some features, like network switching, might not be available on your phone.) I activated my Google Fi SIM card using a Nokia 5.3, which is not an officially supported device, but it worked just fine. I also tested the SIM in the Spitz router and a Sony Xperia 1 II and am using it now in a OnePlus 7 Pro (which is officially supported). Still, you should check the compatibility of your device before you sign up.

The reason I originally made the switch? Data plans. Google likes to say that data is data. In other words, it shouldn't matter whether you're calling, texting, or downloading web pages, it's all just data over the network. I applaud that approach. However, it's important to know that Google is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), and it leases its wireless capacity from T-Mobile, which has a decidedly different view of data. I should disclose here that I did suspend my Google Fi service, because Starlink is a better value for me. Starlink is much more expensive upfront and for service, but the speeds blow mobile data out of the water. That said, if you don't need the speed or unlimited data, Google Fi remains a good value both as a phone service and as a hot spot for nomads and rural internet users like me. Here's how it works.

Updated June 2023: I added some notes about Google Fi abroad and compared to Starlink, as well as updating links and prices throughout.

Pick a Plan

Google Fi offers three plans. All of them include unlimited calls and text, and none of them require a contract. There are also no signup fees, though you will have to pay taxes and government fees. For each plan, you can add up to five others for a total of six users.

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Simply Unlimited Plan for $50/month: This is probably the best choice for most people. It offers high-speed downloads up to 35 gigabytes, after which you'll be throttled. The catch is that this data works only on your phone (5 gigabytes can be used for tethering, but if you tether to other devices frequently, the next plan is your best bet).Unlimited Plus Plan for $65/month: If you want to use your Google Fi connection for more than just your phone, this is the plan you want. It comes with unlimited tethering, even in Canada and Mexico. After you activate your Unlimited Plus plan, you can put your chip in a 4G hot spot like the Gl.inet Spitz router (8/10, WIRED Recommends). This plan also gets you 100 gigabytes of storage with Google One, which you can read more about here.Flexible Plan for $20/month + $10 per gigabyte used: This is Google's pay-as-you-go plan. It's a good choice if you don't use much data. Data speeds are capped after 15 gigabytes, so if you're routinely going over that, you're much better off with one of the other plans.

If you're not sure how much data you typically use, there's a way to check. On Android phones, go to Settings > Network & Internet > SIMs, and you'll see how much data you've used in the past month. Tap App Data Usage to see which apps use up the most data, and you can also scroll through your data usage from previous months. On iPhones, you can view this by going to Settings > Cellular > Mobile Data. If you're regularly using less than 3 GB of data per month, the Flexible Plan might be the best option for you. 

All of the prices above are for a single line; they all go down slightly per line as you add more. For example, adding a second line to the Unlimited Plus Plan would make both lines $55 each, or $110 per month total (plus taxes and fees).

Activate Your Chip

Once you've picked your plan and signed up, Google will mail out a SIM card. It took a couple of days for mine to arrive, but I'll gladly take the slight delay if it saves me from setting foot in a physical carrier store. (If you're using an iPhone or Google Pixel, you can set up Fi with an eSIM, meaning you don't need to wait for a physical card.)

Once your chip arrives, you'll need to use a SIM tool to pull out the SIM tray and insert the SIM card into your phone. Then, download the Google Fi app (you'll need to be on Wi-Fi to do this since your chip won't connect to the network yet), and follow the steps there. If you're porting in your old phone number, it may take a little longer. For me, after setting up a new number, Fi was up and running after about 5 minutes. That's it, you're done. 

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I have traveled and lived in rural areas for the past five years, and I've tried just about every phone and hot spot plan around—none of them are anywhere near this simple. The only one that comes close is Red Pocket Mobile, which I still use in addition to Google Fi. (We have more recommendations in our Best Cheap Phone Plans guide.) There are cheaper plans out there, but in terms of ease of use and reliability, Fi is hard to beat.

Using Google Fi in a Hot Spot

You can use Google Fi as a simple way to add cellular connectivity to any device that accepts a SIM card, like a mobile hot spot. You'll need to activate your Google Fi SIM card with a phone using the Google Fi app, but once the activation is done, you can put that chip in any device your plan allows. If you go with the Unlimited Plus plan, that means you can put your chip in an iPad, Android tablet, or a 4G/5G hot spot. You are still bound by the 50-gigabyte data limit though, so make sure you don't go too crazy with the Netflix.

The easiest way to set up Google Fi in a hot spot is to order a data-only SIM. That way, you don't have to use your phone to activate the SIM first. Otherwise there doesn't seem to be a difference between data-only SIM cards and regular SIMs.

Your Questions, AnsweredDo I need a Google account? Yes, you do need a Google account to sign up for Google Fi, but you don't need to be all-in on Google to use Fi. I have an Android phone, and I use Google apps since that's what we use here at WIRED, but outside of work I do not use any Google services other than Fi, and it still works great.Is Google Fi tracking my every move? Yes, but so is your current provider. Google Fi's terms of service say Google doesn't sell what's known as customer proprietary network information—things like call location, details, and features you use—to anyone else.I'm traveling and want to use Google Fi abroad. Will that work? Probably not. Or at least that's what several WIRED readers have reported. Fi's terms of service do require you to activate your service in the US, but after that, in theory, it should work anywhere Fi has partnered with an in-country network. However, based on feedback from WIRED readers, and reading through travel forums, it seems that most people are being cut off if they're out of the US for more than a few weeks. I would say don't plan on using Google Fi to fulfill your digital nomad dreams.Tips and Tricks

There are several features available through the Google Fi app you might not discover at first. One of my favorites is an old Google Voice feature that allows you to forward calls to any phone you like. This is also possible in Google Fi. All you need to do is add a number to Fi's forwarding list, and any time you get a call, it will ring both your cell phone and that secondary number—whether it's a home phone, second cell, or the phone at the Airbnb you're at. This is very handy in places where your signal strength is iffy—just route the call to a landline. Similarly, it can be worth enabling the Wi-Fi calling feature for times when you have access to Wi-Fi but not a cell signal.

Another feature that's becoming more and more useful as the number of spam calls I get goes ever upward is call blocking. Android and iOS calling apps can block calls, but that just sends the caller direct to voicemail, and you still end up getting the voicemail. Block a call through the Google Fi app and the callers get a message saying your number has been disconnected or is no longer in service. As far as they know, you've changed numbers. To set this up, open the Fi app and look under Phone Settings for Spam and Blocked Numbers. Tap Manage Blocked Numbers and then you can add any number you like to the list. If you change your mind, just delete the listing.

One final thing worth mentioning: I have not canceled my Google Fi service despite switching to Starlink for most of my hot spot needs. Instead, I just suspended my Fi service using the app. That way, should I need it for some reason, I can reactivate it very quickly.


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