What Is Google Fi and How Does It Work?

All about Google's phone service

Google Fi is a mobile virtual network carrier (MVNO) that provides voice calling, SMS, and mobile broadband services. It's based in the United States, and partnered primarily with U.S.-based cellular carriers, but you can use it for international calling, and international data is also available. Coverage and service are similar to major carriers, while pricing is in line with lower cost MVNOs. Google Fi works with most modern phones including Android devices from most manufacturers, as well as the iPhone.

What is Google Fi?

Google Fi originally launched as Project Fi on an invitation-only basis in 2015, and it opened to the public in 2016. When it launched, it was only compatible with the Nexus 6, and the public launch added the Nexus 5x and the Pixel line. Compatibility has since been extended to most Android devices in addition to iPhone, although Google only offers personalized customer support and trouble shooting for a fairly short list of devices.

A woman uses Google Fi on her phone.
Sitthiphong Thadakun / EyeEm / Getty

As an MVNO, Google Fi arranges to use cellular networks built out by other carriers instead of building their own. In the United States, Fi has partnered with T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular, allowing users to seamlessly transition between networks as they travel.

When you sign up for Google Fi, they are your mobile service provider. Your voice and data are transferred over the T-Mobile, Sprint, or U.S. Cellular network, but Google keeps track of your usage and Google bills you.

What Makes Google Fi Different?

Google Fi is clearly different from major carriers, because it's an MVNO. However, that's not the thing that really sets it apart from most mobile carriers. The big difference you'll notice with Fi is streamlined billing. You pay one basic fee for unlimited talk and text, and then you pay a flat rate per gigabyte of data.

A screenshot of Google Fi features.

The Google Fi app makes it easy to keep track of usage and see how your bill adds up in an entirely transparent manner. They used to pre-charge for data and then refund any amount you didn't use, but that practice is long gone. They have also instituted a second plan for heavy data use, but it's still quite simple compared to most other carriers.

How Does Google Fi Work?

Google Fi works a lot like a regular mobile carrier, with the exception that they don't own their own network hardware. Instead of building cell towers and other infrastructure, Google Fi leases time and data on other networks. Specifically, Fi has deals with T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular in the United States.

If you have two or more of those networks where you live, your calls will always go through the strongest connection, and you will seamlessly transfer between different carriers as you drive around town. If you only have one of those networks in your area, your overall experience will be the same as someone who uses just that network.

For example, if you have T-Mobile in your area, but there is no U.S. Cellular or Sprint coverage, then you can expect Google Fi to work just like T-Mobile, with the same coverage and dead spots.

Some phones designed for Fi also have additional functionality, like the ability to seamlessly transition between mobile and Wi-Fi for both data and calling. Refer to this list of phones designed for Fi to see if yours fits the bill.

Google Fi Coverage

The coverage offered by Google Fi is equal to the sum of the coverage offered by the carriers that it has partnered with. That means you essentially have the coverage of T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular wrapped into one. There is a lot of overlap, and there are some dead areas where you could get coverage from a larger provider like Verizon or AT&T, but the coverage is fairly comprehensive.

The Google Fi coverage map.

The rule of thumb is that if you live in an area serviced by T-Mobile, Sprint, or U.S. Cellular, then you can get Google Fi. If you've ever used one of those providers, then you'll even have a general idea of how well Fi works in your area.

To find out if the service has coverage at a specific street address, use this tool from Google Fi.

Google Fi Plans

Google Fi has only two plans: Flexible and Unlimited.

Their flexible plan is the current incarnation of the plan they've offered since the beginning, which includes unlimited talk and text and charges a flat per-gigabyte charge up to six gigabytes. If you use more than six gigabytes, additional data is free for the rest of the month.

The Google Fi Unlimited plan includes unlimited talk, text, and data, with high speed data available for the first 22 GB of transfer, per person, each month.

A screenshot of Google Fi plans.

Both plans also come with the standard assortment of taxes and government fees seen on all cell phone bills.

You can view your usage and billing information at any time through the Google Fi app, and you can also change your plan at any time through the app. When you change your plan, the change goes into effect at the start of your next billing cycle.

Each plan is based on just one user, but you can have up to six users on one service account. Each additional user adds to the base cost of the plan and gets their own allotment of high speed data on the Unlimited plan. You can also add data-only SIMs for tablets, hotspots, and other devices for no additional charge.

Does Google Fi Work With International Calling and Data?

Google Fi works with international calling and data in every sense of the word, but the charges vary depending on your plan. You can call internationally from the United States, and you can use your Google Fi plan to call and use data when traveling internationally.

A screenshot of international rates for Google Fi.

Subscribers to Google Fi's Flexible plan pay a set per-minute rate for calls to other countries. A lot of countries cost just $0.01 per minute, but some cost significantly more. The Unlimited plan offers free calling to over 50 countries.

When traveling internationally, Fi users are able to make voice calls, send texts, and access data in over 200 countries and regions.

Subscribers to the Flexible plan pay $0.20 per minute when placing calls from outside the United States, texts are free, and data is charged at the same rate as data in the United States.

Subscribers to the Unlimited plan are also able to place calls from outside the United States for $0.20 per minute. Texts and data are totally free, just like in the United States.

In some cases, you can also place international calls via Wi-Fi to avoid the per-minute cost.

How to Get Google Fi

If you have a compatible phone, getting Google Fi is as simple as signing up on the Fi website, porting in your old phone number if you want to, then waiting for Google to send you a SIM card. Once you have the SIM card, all you have to do is pop it in, and you're good to go. If you have a Pixel phone, you can get started even sooner using the built-in Fi-compatible eSIM built into every Pixel device.

Google Fi also sells a number of Fi-compatible phones if you don't already have one, or you can purchase a compatible phone elsewhere and just install your SIM. Just make sure it's compatible with Google Fi and the smartphone it unlocked to avoid any headaches.