Bypass China’s Great Firewall with Project Fi
Project Fi* is an incredible phone service offered by Google. For Americans who travel abroad, it can save a ton of money over traditional carriers.
Here are just a few of the advantages for international travelers:
- High-speed data roaming in 170+ countries—typically 3G or 4G
- International data usage costs the same as in the U.S.
- Unlimited free texting no matter where you are
With Project Fi, you no longer have to find and purchase a SIM card upon arrival or pay exorbitant roaming rates. Just show up in almost any country and use your phone as you normally would.
But there is one feature that is icing on the cake for Fi users: the ability to bypass China’s Great Firewall. This means you can access normally blocked sites, such as Medium, YouTube, and Facebook, without setting up a VPN.
How it works
Typically, when you roam in a foreign country, all data traffic from your device is routed to your home carrier’s servers. For Americans, this includes not just Project Fi, but also all the main carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint).
This also applies to SIMs issued in other countries and territories. For example, a Hong Kong SIM will generally be able to access blocked sites in mainland China, because traffic is routed to servers in Hong Kong.
Gmail, Medium, and YouTube are all blocked by China’s Great Firewall. As an alternative to a VPN, you can access them on a Project Fi phone or a tethered device, such as a laptop.
So if other carriers can also get around the Great Firewall and other local restrictions when roaming, what sets Project Fi apart? It’s the fact that it can access blocked services at high speeds in 170+ countries at a competitive rate.
How Project Fi compares
Project Fi’s rate structure is very straightforward:
- $20/month base rate for unlimited calls and texts in the U.S.
- $10/GB for up to 6 GB of high-speed data, including overseas
- From 6 GB to 15 GB, pay nothing additional for high-speed data (essentially an unlimited data plan at $80/month), including overseas
- After 15 GB, pay nothing additional, but your speeds may be throttled, including overseas
- Unused prepaid data is refunded as credit, and overages are charged at the same rate
- Unlimited free texting overseas to any number
- Calls made overseas cost $0.20/minute. However, in many countries, you are able to receive free calls over Wi-Fi and pay a reduced rate for outbound calls over Wi-Fi, assuming a good Wi-Fi connection is available
- Up to 9 free data-only SIM cards for additional devices—just pay for the additional data
- Tethering at no additional charge — just pay for the additional data
- In the few countries without Fi coverage, you can connect to Wi-Fi for calling and texting
The phones that work on Project Fi support a wide array of bands, which means a Fi phone can hop onto nearly any network anywhere in the world.
The Project Fi app sends a notification upon arrival in a new country. The network is displayed as “Fi Network” no matter where you are in the world.
Here’s where the main American carriers fall short:
- T-Mobile: Many plans offer unlimited texting and international data, but only at 2G speeds and only in 140+ countries. Customers with certain plans can add T-Mobile ONE Plus for $10/month per line for slightly higher speeds (still very slow for 3G). Call prices range by country, starting at $0.20/minute. You will need to ensure your device supports the bands of the country you plan to visit. More info
- Verizon Wireless: The TravelPass option offers unlimited talk and text, but it costs $10/day per line in most of the 130+ supported countries. High-speed data is limited to 0.5 GB per day. You must have a 4G LTE World device. More info
- AT&T: The International Day Pass offers unlimited talk and text, but it only works in 100+ countries and costs $10/day. Data and speed allowances match your home restrictions. Alternatively, AT&T Passport costs $60/month for unlimited calling and unlimited texting, but it includes only 1GB of data. Your device must support the bands of the country you plan to visit. More info
- Sprint: Sprint Global Roaming is included with all plans, and includes unlimited texting and international data in 185+ destinations, but only at 2G speeds. Higher speeds may be purchased for $5/day or $25/week in most destinations, but $10/day or $50/week in some destinations like China. Call prices range by country, starting at $0.20/minute. Limited to certain devices. Service may be terminated if use is primarily overseas, and Sprint is not transparent about data limits. More info
If you do the math, Project Fi is a better value than other carriers for most international use cases.
I’ve been a Project Fi subscriber for two years, having used the service in six countries so far. I recently spent a month in Asia with a Google Pixel 2 XL, visiting Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I also brought along an iPhone 7 Plus with a Project Fi data-only SIM.
In Hong Kong and Japan, I had 4G service most of the time, including in subways. The phone did not initially connect to a network upon landing in Tokyo, but a reboot fixed the problem. There were several periods in which my device had no service on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto. Other than those minor issues, the service was great.
The iPhone with data-only SIM also worked well in Hong Kong and Japan. It was not as quick to connect to the network as the Pixel, but it generally got 3G or 4G speeds, and the experience was more than acceptable.
I made several calls over the cellular network in Hong Kong and Japan, and was charged $0.20/minute. Note that I had to use the correct local dial-out codes to make calls to U.S. numbers.
In the Shenzhen subways, I was only able to get 2.5G (EDGE) service, as indicated by the E next to the signal strength icon.
In China, the Pixel took about 10 minutes to connect to the network when crossing the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. Speeds were generally 4G and sometimes 3G, although I only got 2.5G speeds in the subways (even though some carriers offer 4G underground). I was able to access normally-blocked sites on the Pixel, and I could tether to my laptop to access those same blocked sites.
If the Pixel was simultaneously connected to the Fi Network and my hotel’s Wi-Fi, I could not access restricted sites.
The iPhone with data-only SIM was not able to connect to restricted sites in China. Also, it did not appear to work underground very often. It seems the Fi data-only SIM does not connect to servers in the U.S. Instead, it connects to the local carrier’s servers.
One potential dealbreaker
Project Fi is great unless you need to use an iPhone as your main phone. It also won’t play 100% nice with the latest Android flagships from OnePlus, Samsung, and Huawei. You can make any of those phones work on Fi, but the experience tends to be suboptimal.
The limited device options Project Fi gives you, however, are quite good. I’ve been enjoying my Pixel 2 XL—one of the top phones right now with arguably the best camera. The smaller Pixel 2 is also great, and the Moto X4 is a decent budget option. The Pixel 2 phones utilize an eSIM, which means an additional local SIM card can be inserted for power users.
Using YouTube in China on the Fi Network with LTE speeds.
With that said, you can add a free data-only SIM to any other cellular device. That could be an iPad, a laptop, or even one of the non-Fi phones listed above. While you won’t be able to make calls or texts on the cellular network using any of these devices, you can use the Google Hangouts app over Wi-Fi or the data connection for this purpose.
Project Fi* from Google is a superior cell phone service for international travelers. The transparent cost structure, ability to roam in 170+ countries, and fast overseas data rates make it a great option for those on the go. As long as you are comfortable using a top-tier Android phone, you should take a good look at this service.
If you sign up for Project Fi using this link*, you can get a $20 credit.
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*This article is not endorsed by Google or Project Fi, and the opinions expressed here are solely my own. The referral link entitles new users to a $20 credit on service, up to 10 users. If you elect to sign up using this link, I may also receive a $20 credit to my account. Consult the referral program terms for additional information.