Google Fi still markets and sells its own small set of smartphones that are “designed for Fi,” but has also opened its doors, officially, to any unlocked phone that wants to be on its network. For many, this is the final barrier to drop for trying out Google Fi, as it was quite a bit of extra hassle to change phones just to try out a new network for a little while.
But unfortunately, there are still barriers to be found further down the road. Unlocked phones on Google Fi don’t get all of the same features as its own certified phones, and what you do get depends on the specific phone you bring. Let’s break down the differences to help you decide whether bringing your own phone to Google Fi is worth it.
Check device compatibility first
You need to know if your phone supports T-Mobile’s network bands before you even consider going to Google Fi.
Before you get started with your transition to Google Fi, you need to know whether your phone will even work on the carrier. This one’s pretty easy: if your phone is advertised as being compatible with T-Mobile, then it’s compatible with Google Fi. Because Google Fi simply operates on the T-Mobile network, no further network bands or technology is required to use an unlocked phone on the carrier.
Google has a Fi network compatibility checker if you’re unsure, but know that the compatibility checker isn’t meant to be a complete list of all phones that are compatible — it’s simply a subset of recent popular phones. But chances are if you’re using a phone designed for the North American market launched in the past few years it’s going to be compatible. That even includes most modern Verizon and Sprint phones, which still have the right GSM and LTE network bands for T-Mobile. Some international phones will work, too — just use Google’s compatibility checker, or research the exact radio bands your phone has and compare them to T-Mobile’s needs.
Make sure your phone is unlocked
Once you’ve figured out that your phone is compatible with Google Fi, you need to check that it’s SIM unlocked. If you purchased your phone from a carrier recently — or if you still owe money on a financing plan — there’s a chance it isn’t (yet) unlocked. You’ll need to call the carrier (some have an online portal also) and request a SIM unlock code — sometimes that request will only be fulfilled if you’ve had the account open for several months and the phone is paid for in full.
If you already have your Google Fi SIM card, then you can simply put the SIM in your phone and you’ll find out immediately whether it’s unlocked — you either have service, or you don’t. If you have a friend who has a different carrier than you and wants to swap SIMs to test, that will accomplish the same goal.
You (probably) only get T-Mobile’s network
Coverage may not be an issue for you, but do yourself a favor and check first.
Google Fi bills its service as providing more value because it operates on not one, but three, mobile networks at the same time: T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular. That’s true if you’re using one of Fi’s certified phones, but it isn’t true when you bring your own device. Unlocked phones with a Google Fi SIM inside will only access T-Mobile’s network, which means you need to know if that network is strong where you spend most of your time. Google Fi has a coverage map that lets you select whether you’re looking at coverage for “designed for Fi” or “compatible with Fi” phones — to check unlocked phone coverage, choose the latter. In most areas, the difference isn’t huge — but check your specific location and see whether there are weak areas using just T-Mobile.
The only caveat here, of course, is if you bring your own “designed for Fi” phones to the carrier. Google maintains a list of supported phones that offer all of the advanced network switching capabilities offered by Google Fi, but the list isn’t huge. It basically boils down to the North American versions of Nexus phones since the Nexus 6, North American Pixels, North American unlocked LG G7 and V35, and the North American Moto G6, G7 and X4. If you buy an unlocked version of any of those phones and bring it to Google Fi, you’ll be able to use Google Fi to the fullest capability just as if you had bought the phone from Fi directly.
Wi-Fi calling and the Google VPN are open to all
Up until December 2019, you had to have a “designed for Fi” phone in order to get Google Fi’s advanced networking features. Now, two of its most popular features are available for any Android phone listed on its compatibility list. By simply installing the Google Fi app, you get access to the Google VPN and Wi-Fi calling, which are both great for anyone who runs into spotty service regularly.
The Google VPN, if you turn it on, routes all of your traffic through a VPN to keep you secure and help smooth out transitions between Wi-Fi and cellular coverage. It works in the background and you won’t notice a thing, except a simpler data experience. Wi-Fi calling is something we take for granted on just about every phone nowadays, so it was a weak point of bringing an unlocked phone to Fi — but now, it works just like it does on any other carrier.