Google already makes the OS for your smartphone and, for some of us, makes the phone itself. And if you sign up for Google Fi, the tech giant can provide the cellular service for that phone, too.
Known as Project Fi when it launched in 2015, Google touted its service as an alternate wireless carrier for select Google devices by using a blend of Wi-Fi and other carrier networks to keep you covered. Subscribers were drawn to its pay-only-for-what-you-use approach, too, especially after Google started capping the amount it charges each month.
A few years after its launch, Project Fi is all grown up — so much so that Google changed the name of the service to Google Fi and removed one of its biggest restrictions. While only select phones worked with the service before, now you can use just about any smartphone with Google Fi, including Apple's iPhone. You can even now pick up a SIM kit from Best Buy retail stores and join the service the very same day.
Here’s what you need to know about Google Fi.
What phones can you use with Google Fi?
Phone selection had been the biggest limitation with Project Fi. But now that the service is rebranded as Google Fi, that's changed in a major way.
As before, Google Fi is designed to work with Google's own phones, whether that's last fall's Pixel 2 models or the Pixel 3 phones that came out in October. And in 2017, Google opened up its wireless network to other devices when the Moto X4 became available. It was an Android One version of the phone, meaning it's as close to stock Android as possible.
As of this writing, the Fi-friendly phones available at the Google Fi website include the budget Moto G6 (now $99 when you buy it through Google's service) and the newer Moto G7. (Older devices from Moto and LG have come and come and gone, but you can expect the rumored Pixel 3a and 3a XL to join the ranks of Google Fi phones if they arrive, as expected, in May.) Like Google's Pixels, these phones are able to take advantage of Google Fi's multiple cellular networks and Wi-Fi hotspots (more on that below), seamless jumping to whatever tower offers the best coverage.
But Google has broadened Google Fi's reach by expanding the number of phones you can use with it. The relaunched service now lets you sign up using almost any Android phone. If you've got an iPhone, you can sign up for Google Fi, too, using the Google Fi iOS app; just be aware that Google Fi for iPhone is currently in beta.
Expanding the number of phones that will work with Google Fi certainly widens the pool of wireless users who can take advantage of Google's straightforward data plan pricing. The trade-off in not using a Fi-approved phone, though, comes with what network you'll use when accessing cellular connectivity.
Google Fi still lets you transfer your current cellphone number over to its service when you sign up.
What network does Google Fi use?
Like other mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, Google Fi relies on another carrier’s network to provide cellular coverage. In Google Fi’s case, a trio of carriers are used — Sprint, T-Mobile and regional carrier US Cellular. For Fi-certified devices, Google says its cellular services determines which carrier has the fastest network where you happen to be and connects you to that one. Should you relocate to an area where another carrier partner has better coverage, you’ll be switched over to the better connection.
But cellular coverage is only part of the Project Fi story. Similar to fellow MVNOs Republic Wireless and TextNow, Project Fi also delivers talk, text and data over VPN-protected public Wi-Fi hotspots when a wireless network is available. Again, Google promises seamless switching between Wi-Fi and cellular connections for its Fi-certified devices. And it’s that reliance on Wi-Fi that allows Project Fi to offer lower monthly bills compared to the major carriers.
Things work a little differently if you sign up for Google Fi with another Android device or an iPhone. In that case, your device will be restricted to either T-Mobile's network or Sprint's depending on how it's set-up. You'll also give up that seamless switching over to Google's network of Wi-Fi hotspots.
What are the best Google Fi plans?
Even with its new name and broader array of smartphone options, Google Fi keeps plans simple. You’ve got one plan option: Fi Basics, which provides unlimited talk and text (including international texting) for $20 a month.
But what about data? You estimate how much LTE data you’ll use each month, paying $10 for each GB. Let’s say you expect to use 3GB per month. That would tack on another $30 to your bill, meaning you can expect to pay $50 each month. Given Google Fi’s use of Wi-Fi when available, you presumably would use less LTE data than you might with a traditional carrier.
At first glance, that doesn’t compare particularly well to other low-cost carriers. Metro by T-Mobile, currently our top choice among discount carriers, offers a 10GB plan for $40 a month — that same $40 buys you just 2GB of data at Project Fi.
But Google Fi’s appeal lies in the fact that you won’t have to pay for any unused data. Google Fi credits you approximately 1 cent for each MB you stay under your allotment. Sticking with our 3GB scenario, should you use just 2.2GB in a month, you’ll get a refund of $8, which will appear as a credit on your next bill.
The service's Bill Protection feature effectively adds unlimited data to Google Fi. Bill Protection caps your monthly bill at $80 a month, or 6GB of data under Google's $10-per-gigabyte pricing. However, you're still able to use data once you go over 6GB without your bill increasing. Only when you hit 15GB of data during a month will Google start to slow your data speeds.
You can add additional people to your Google Fi account for another $15 per line. Everyone on the account draws from the same pool of LTE data, so a family of four that uses 9.5GB a month would pay $160, which is what T-Mobile charges that same family for unlimited data. Bill Protection works on multiline accounts, too, though the cap varies depending on how many lines of data you have.
What special features does Google Fi offer?
Besides rebates on unused data, Google Fi customers are able to use their phones as a wireless hotspot for no additional cost, though any data they use comes out of their monthly allotment.
Google Fi’s real special feature should appeal to international travelers: You’re able to draw from your regular pool of data in 200-plus countries, without having to pay any roaming fees. To put that in context, T-Mobile lets you use unlimited data when traveling in 200-plus countries, but it severely limits your speed. Verizon charges you $5 to $10 per day depending on where you’re traveling to use your data plan overseas, unless you're paying for its most expensive unlimited plan.
As noted above, unlimited international texting is included with your Google Fi plan. Phone calls in more than 200 countries will cost you 20 cents a minute over cellular connections; rates vary for Wi-Fi calls.
Google has implemented an option called Enhanced Network Beta that routes all internet connections through the company's secure VPN. This means that whether you're on mobile data or one of Google's 2 million free public hotspots, your data is private and cannot be viewed by anyone — T-Mobile, Sprint, US Cellular or even Google itself. This feature does result in 10 percent more data usage than normal by Google's estimation, though it's definitely a worthwhile addition for those concerned about security. It's only available to Fi-certified phones, however.
Google Fi also offers a referral program in which you can get a $20 credit for each new user you bring into the Google Fi fold. You're capped at 10 referral credits, or $200.
What do customers say about Google Fi?
Reviews of Google Fi posted by the service’s users in the rebranded Google Fi app are a love-fest for Google’s wireless service. Fi gets an average rating of 4.5 out of 5, with more than 80 percent of customers posting 5-star reviews. Customers like paying only for the data they use and the lower monthly bills. The few complaints on the Google Fi app concern call quality.
That pretty much squares with the wider perception of Google's service, which has won the Readers' Choice Award as Project Fi at PC Mag for three years running. Other reviews at Computerworld and Forbes are similarly glowing, praising the services customer service and simplified billing. Those reviews do acknowledge the limitation on supported phones, and the Forbes reviewer suggested that heavy data users won’t get much bill satisfaction from Google Fi.
We've reviewed Google Fi, testing it on both optimized phones and regular handsets, and we think it delivers an unparalleledcustomer experience, even if other carriers offer cheaper plans and you get the most out of Google's service with an optimized device. Google Fi offers our favorite cell phone plan for international travelers.
There are some clear advantages to Google Fi, from the straightforward billing to the monthly credits for unused data. Bill Protection makes Google's service even more appealing for heavy-data users. If you prefer Google’s Pixel phones, the service is a no-brainer, and international travelers will love the convenience of using their regular data plan to stay connected on the go.
Now that Google Fi works with phones beyond Google-approved ones, more users can give this service a try, though you're sacrificing some of the benefits of having an optimized device.
Other carriers may offer more aggressively priced data plans, though Bill Protection makes Google Fi more competitive for heavy data users. You may not reap Google Fi’s benefits if you’re not around Wi-Fi as much, though. That said, fans of Google devices will find plenty to like about Google Fi.
Credit: Project Fi