Mobile broadband roaming is insanely expensive. Using my AT&T iPhone overseas costs $20,000 per gigabyte, and that’s not a typo or a joke. So I always pick up a local 3G data SIM for my Huawei E585 mobile hotspot when traveling. Here’s documentation of my experience with T-Mobile in the Netherlands this week.
The Best Wireless Internet Overseas
First, it is absolutely essential to purchase an unlocked 3G mobile hotspot or hotspot-capable mobile phone if you plan to do much international travel. American mobile phones can occasionally be unlocked, but AT&T is notoriously reluctant to allow foreign SIMs to be used in their iPhones. And frequency differences can affect the ability of American devices to work in Europe, South America, and Asia.
You basically have two choices:
- Do some research and locate a device to purchase when you land that can be easily unlocked. I picked the Huawei E585 from Three in the UK, though that device is no longer available.
- Purchase an unlocked device before leaving. eBay is a great source of such devices, though you run the risk that it might not work when you need it most. But then you can always fall back on option 1.
Whatever you do, don’t plan to use your US device overseas. Most aren’t unlocked, so they won’t accept any SIM card but your own. And many won’t work with the high-speed 3G data frequencies in use outside the USA, so you’ll be limited to 2G speed.
There are also some rental services that will mail you a local “MiFi” or hotspot, but these often cost far more than just buying a device and a local SIM card!
3G Data Options in the Netherlands
There are a number of mobile phone operators in the Netherlands, but KPN, T-Mobile, Telfort, and Vodafone are the most popular. Of these, only T-Mobile offers an “unlimited” pre-paid data option, though all my Dutch friends recommended Vodafone for their superior coverage.
I considered Vodafone’s €14.99 prepaid 1 GB smartphone SIM but decided instead on T-Mobile’s option. The T-Mobile Laptop PrePaid SIM offering. At €0.30 per MB does not look cheap, but there’s a daily maximum charge of €4.50, which is very reasonable for travelers. Since I would only need access for three days, this was the cheaper option.
Buying the T-Mobile Laptop PrePaid SIM
You might also be interested in my experience with Wireless Internet Access in the UK
There are many T-Mobile outlets in the Netherlands, but the first store I visited (MediaMarkt in Utrecht) was out of stock. So I headed to the “high street” T-Mobile company store on Lange Elisabethstraat. After waiting a surprisingly long time, the salesman was able to sell me a Laptop PrePaid SIM for the advertised price of €9.95, which includes “€10 usage credit” (more about that in a moment).
I had previously looked up the local APN specifications for my hotspot, so I was ready to go. I inserted the SIM, entered the PIN through the E585’s web interface, and was up and running (for the moment!) The salesman discussed how to recharge the account (through SMS or in the store) and sent me on my way.
Here are the APN details when using a prepaid SIM with T-Mobile Netherlands:
- APN: Internet
- Username: tmobile
- Password: tmobile
Performance of the T-Mobile network in Utrecht was acceptable – a bit slow inside the Café-Restaurant Olivier, but almost 2 Mbps down and .5 Mbps up past the train station. And the UK Huawei E585 was 100% compatible with the T-Mobile NL frequencies, including HSPA speed.
Zero Account Balance and No Connectivity
After a short period of usage, I was surprised when every page I visited redirected to a T-Mobile portal. Something was not right. I located the proper page to view account credit and was shocked to see a balance of €0.04 – I had used up the entire account value already!
I was unable to call T-Mobile NL’s prepaid support phone number using my American mobile phone, and could not locate an online service guide in their (Dutch-only) web site (which was still accessible). I searched through the documentation and located an offer of €7.50 for registering the SIM online, along with a URL that worked.
After registering, the T-Mobile site showed €7.54 credit, so I timidly tried accessing a web site. Suddenly everything was working again! My credit steadily dropped until it hit €5.50, where it stayed even through a Speedtest.net session. I was back in business!
It turns out that the SIM does not come with €10 as advertised. It comes with €2.50 and an offer for an additional €7.50 after registering! See the problem? I used up all the credit before hitting the €4.50 daily max because I had not registered the card!
The T-Mobile NL Laptop PrePaid SIM card is a great choice for use with an unlocked MiFi device like the Huawei E585. But make sure to set up the APN first, and register the card online immediately to get the full €10 credit!
Update: One warning if you go with T-Mobile NL: Top up your card in the store with all the credit you will need! Although you can buy T-Mobile NL credit in convenience stores, you cannot actually use this credit without an NL bank account. I wasted €10 this way and never could get the credit applied. Purchase all the credit you will need (€4.50 per day) in the T-Mobile store. Also, the daily max is per calendar day, not per 24-hour period. So you lose your “unlimited” status at midnight.