[UPDATE: March 2012 When this article was first written, Truphone had a great and revolutionary product. Since then, we have cancelled our account with Tru, as their service has deteriorated and their costs have risen. In addition, we have received feedback from readers of this blog – some of which you’ll see in the comments below – that suggest we are not alone in feeling this way.
It is sad when a great little company goes off the rails. While not perfect, some of the larger networks have fought back with global data roaming tariffs that are becoming increasingly competitive. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. We will leave the original article intact for posterity. Thanks for all your feedback!]
I have a number of colleagues that carry around several phones – either because they want to keep their corporate/personal bills separate, or because they need to juggle a local SIM with their SIM from home when travelling the globe to keep call and data costs down.
This is a kludge. Two phones means increased headache for recharging, App & document management, settings synching, etc, etc. Imagine carrying separate GSM-enabled iPads as well as Smartphones and you get the idea. Yet, when you use the Internet a lot when travelling overseas, then you know what I mean when I say that the Telecos REAM you on data costs. It’s absolutely criminal. £2-5/MB is not uncommon in Europe. It’s a stealth tax that can result in heavy users myself spending over $400/week when visiting overseas.
I had no intention of punishing myself in this way, or handing over all my gold to the evil Telcos, so I employed a crafty but complex scheme of multiple Skype local numbers, VOIP apps, virtual phone number forwarding services and calling cards. Sometimes, I purchased a prepaid international SIM card but I hated having to swap it in and out of my phone. But all of these clever strategies were, ultimately, too clever and too complex. It became a logistical nightmare. There had to be an easier way.
Truphone offers a solution to this problem. Based in the UK, they have been slowly amassing local telco contracts around the globe in order to offer a truly global SIM solution. I had been watching the company for some time and wondered what their service was like. I started off using their iPhone App which is a simple VOIP app like Skype. It had a better quality of service than Skype here in the UK. It worked pretty well abroad and allowed you to dial from your contacts database within the App before Skype upgraded their software to offer this same feature, too. Nevertheless, Truphone had established themselves in my mind as an innovative and nimble player in this market.
Four months ago, I took the plunge to become a contract user of their global SIM card service, which they call Tru SIM. Unlike prepaid international SIM cards, it is a contract service that allows you to make local calls within the countries that you are visiting. Not only are local calls profoundly cheaper than the usual roaming charges, but, they also offers data rates as low as 20p/MB (30 cents/MB) in many of the countries that I find myself in on a regular basis (US, UK and Western Europe).
UPDATE on March 23, 2011: Tru has announced a US data rate decrease of 50% from 35p/MB to 15p/MB.
Tru SIM is, in essence, a virtual Telco company. They use partners’ networks abroad and, so far (as of this writing), have brokered deals in 5 countries – US, UK, France, Germany and Australia. Their UK partner is Vodaphone and their US partner (I suspect) is Cingular. What this means is that when you call from within those 5 countries, your call is truly local. However, the company reps were quick to point out to me that they use these contracts to establish better deals when you travel within other countries not currently under contract with them. That is to say, they use the power of their partner Telcos to negotiate better deals and they used least-cost-routing methods to route your calls over an IP network to originate from somewhere where they will get better rates. In particular, they don’t have to pay a call setup charge when calling from other countries like you might be forced to when roaming with your home provider in a foreign country.
The upshot of all this is to provide you with a single SIM card that gives you true local call charges in many countries and, hopefully, lower call charges than your home network when travelling in countries that they don’t have directly under contract. They also offer those extremely competitive data rates when roaming which, in my mind, the most compelling reason to use them.
Does TruPhone offer the cheapest international call rates in the world? No. But they will offer cheaper international call rates than your home Teleco AND better data rates when roaming abroad… on a single SIM card with multiple local phone numbers on a contract basis (not pre-paid). This means you carry ONE SIM and ONE PHONE but get a lot of the benefits of carrying two.
As I said, I’ve been using the service for 4 months now and am happy with it. It isn’t perfect. There are times when I cannot get a Tru connection when travelling and the phone must default to some other network. This happens more frequently in the US than in Europe and I found myself on AT&T at times. But this has more to do with the US’ crappy mobile phone coverage than with Tru. One more caveat – Tru doesn’t get 3G/4G support (as of yet) in the US but it does have this support in Europe. This might make a difference to you if you need to do some heavy data lifting.
Despite what Tru says on its website, they do support the mico-SIM slot of the iPhone 4. But only if you sign up with them as a corporate customer. Otherwise, for individuals, they pretend not to. Not sure why.
It goes without saying that to use it in an iPhone, you have to have an unlocked model. You can buy these directly from Apple in the UK without ruining your warranty. I suppose that unlocked models will eventually show up in the US when the network exclusivity deals come to an end. In the meantime, just buy one here in Europe. It might cost you £500 but you’ll save in the long-run if you do a lot of data roaming like I do. I was spending £400/week in the US before I had this SIM with Tru!!
Overall, I found them to be a very reliable service. I was given local numbers in the countries that I wanted – for instance the USA and the UK. This enabled locals to call my handset with a local number, which is more convenient and less off-putting than giving them a UK international phone number. The other nice feature of this is that people can send you text messages. One of the problems with call forwarding services is that they rarely support SMS. However, with a global SIM like Tru SIM that can tie lots of different phone numbers from around the world to the same SIM, you don’t have this problem.
Initially, I set up a local number for the UK and the USA, as I was expecting a lot of travel between these two countries. I gave American contacts my US number and vice versa to my UK contacts. Everyone was able to call me locally and SMS text me without problems. I travelled to three US States from coast to coast and the Midwest and found that I received Tru service wherever I went. Call handling worked well and calls were very clear.
Because I am a corporate customer, they gave me 10 SIM cards for other devices and, also, gave me a USB Dongle for my laptop. All of the SIMs were tied to the same account and they provided fairly detailed itemised billing for everything. My first bill when I returned for the US was £195, instead of £600 (like it was when I was on 02), so I was very pleased.
Occasionally, I get asked to update my Network Provider profile on my iPhone. A little message pops up for Tru, asking me to either Accept or Decline the network token. It’s no more of a nuisance than simply tapping on the ‘Accept’ button… although, if it happens when I’m in the middle of something else, I need to put my phone into Airplane mode, then take it out again to sort it out. This is happening a bit more frequently lately (once every three weeks). It’s not a deal-breaker by any means but it is slightly annoying.
In summary, I would have to say that TruPhone offers and extremely compelling global SIM service for customers who want the cheapest international calls that they can get on a contract SIM without resorting to prepaid calling cards and other VOIP workarounds. It is also a heck of a lot simpler than juggling multiple SIMs or multiple phones.
[UPDATE: November, 2011: We employed Truphone throughout our organisation and experienced extremely high data and call costs when travelling in certain countries in Europe. Tru has been fairly competitive in the US (for European users) but that’s about it. To make matters worse, Tru charges for data even when in your home country (in our case the UK, where the Tru company is based). The costs were better than roaming with a home SIM card but they began to get worse, as we multiplied the number of devices we used with Tru SIM cards (phones, tablets, etc). We recently heard, however, that Vodaphone in the UK is rolling out a global roaming deal with very fair and competitive data rates when used abroad, while data rates in your home country are bundled in the tariff. This seems like a much better scenario and we are looking into converting all our Tru setups over to Vodafone. Consequently, we have downgraded our usability score for Tru because of its extremely high pricing given the current market economy.]