Way back in 2006, I wrote this post about getting Tracfones for travelling in the US to save big on the roaming charges that are charged by Canadian Cell phone carriers. A lot has changed since then (except the fact that you will still get gouged by your carrier for roaming) in the cell phone industry. Many of us are using Smartphones with email, maps, applications, surfing the web and posting to Facebook and social network sites while also using cell phones and texting. You don’t want to come back from a vacation or business trip where you spent enough money already to be surprised by a 200.00, 300.00 or even 500.00 bill for roaming with your smartphone. So what can you do to avoid these bills?
Well your first option is not to use the data feature on your phone. All smartphone operating systems have a way of turning off data while roaming. Your phone and texting function will work but email and other data will not. Then you can use Wi-Fi connectivity to get your email, post to Facebook etc. I would suggest keeping this feature turned on in your phone all the time to protect yourself. Phone calls and texting in the US without an appropriate plan however can still cost you a fortune!
Now there are more options than ever for you if you travel. We will try to go through what we consider some of the best ones while travelling in the US.
Your Existing Carrier
Most of the Canadian carriers offer add on travel packs for travelling in the US. I have used them from Rogers several times and I can’t speak to the specifics of the other carriers but I find the Rogers ones expensive and you usually have to buy several travel packs for your device especially if you will be gone for more than 7 days. For example for a trip to the US in the fall I had to buy a voice plan, a data plan and a text plan. It became very expensive and it was restrictive (60MB of Data good for 7 days only for 50.00, 50 text messages and 15 minutes of talk). While this could work for a short trip or if you are not planning on using your Smartphone much while you are away.
Basic Phone, Texting and Webmail
After 7 years we still use our Tracfones while travelling. I upgraded all of our phones the past February to a new LG version. This phone looks similar to a Blackberry and allows for calls, texting and some basic web surfing with a full qwerty keyboard.
To save time, I pre-purchased the new phones via WalMart.com and had them delivered to a store local to where I was staying (you can pay via PayPal so you don’t need a US credit card). I did it this way so I knew the phones would be there and I didn’t have to go store to store to find them (i needed 6). With the new phones we got double minutes for life and I bought some 1 year, 400 minute cards for 100.00. This gives each phone 800 minutes of talk time with the service good for a year. With Tracfone there is no long distance in the US and you can talk internationally as well but you still have to dial a 1-800 number first. You can text another US number with no issues as well but you can’t text Canadian numbers even if those phones are in the US. There is web surfing but it is fairly basic using the web browsers on the device and you can get email via a web browser and more. This would be a fairly basic option compared to a smartphone but it is far cheaper if you need more than 1 phone in the US for example if you need 2 phones for a family.
Swapping your Sim Card
What do you need?
Just an unlocked smartphone that uses a SIM Card. Smartphones that used to use Telus’ or Bell’s old CDMA networks will not work as they don’t use SIM cards unless they were “world phones”. You can also do this for travel to Europe and other parts of the world where buying a SIM card is very common.
All cell phones that get sold subsidized by the carriers (cheap with a contract) are carrier locked. This means that you can’t take out the SIM card and put a new one in for another carrier. This is how they protect from people buying a phone subsidized, using it for a year, then cancelling the contract and going somewhere else. You can buy unlocked phones but they usually cost big dollars (450 to 600) for the latest and greatest phones. However unlocking a cell phone is easy (except iphones but I’ll give options for that below). There are several sites across the web where you can send your IMEI number to them pay a small fee and they will send you an unlock code and instructions on how to do the unlock. Carrier unlocking your phone doesn’t do anything strange to your phone except allow you to use different carriers with the same device. iPhones have to be jailbroken to unlock and that is an issue whenever Apple issues an IOS update because you have to jailbreak your phone again after the hackers learn to do it again. www.cellunlock.net has unlock codes for 16.00 and up. You can find other sites and unlockers on Ebay. I don’t think I have paid more than 8.00 to unlock previous Blackberries I have owned. So shop around.
So after unlocking your phone what happens? If you put in another SIM card for another carrier typically you will get a new phone number. All of your apps and email will work but if people want to call or text your regular number you won’t get them until you put the original SIM card back in or check your VM or they call your new number. So why use a different SIM? Well you have your phone that will work where you are and have full access to data, local calls in most cases long distance, your existing contacts and email. In short everything on your own device with your Canadian carrier. Here are a couple of options for different SIM cards. Texting to a US number will also cost extra for a Canadian unless they have that built into their plan (I know some Rogers Value packs have this).
T-Mobile. www.t-mobile.com After a lot of research I found that T-Mobile offered one of the best pre paid plans in the US. A sim card costs between 8 – 10 dollars and you can get prepaid cards for 10, 20, 30 or 50.00. I bought a card at a T-Mobile store in Miami with a 20.00 prepaid card when we were there in February. I was assigned a Miami number, had the pre paid applied to the account and walked out of the store in 15 minutes. With T-Mobile you have 2 choices of plans. 2.00 per day for unlimited voice (All US), texting and unlimited data (but it is 2g speeds, like Rogers Edge or Bell and Telus’ old CDMA services). For 3.00 per day you get unlimited voice, text and the first 200 MB a day of Data @ 4G speeds (HSPA+) like Rogers, Bell and Telus in your area. After you hit 200MB in one day you get throttled back to 2G speeds but still unlimited data. This way you can post and check Facebook, upload pictures, use maps etc.. Be sure to check their coverage maps before leaving to ensure that they are available where you are travelling. SIM cards are available at T-Mobile stores and some other locations (Radio Shack).
Here are a few little gotcha’s with T-Mobile
1) If your device is not on the same frequency as their network you only get 2G speeds regardless of the plan you choose. The Galaxy Nexus is one of a few phones that offer a 5 band radio. T-Mobile uses the same frequency as Wind and Mobilicity here in Canada so if you have an unlocked phone from them it would work at the highest 4G speeds. As a result the 2.00 per day plan is what most would use.
2) Text’s to Canada and LD to Canada get deducted from your pre paid card in addition to the daily fee.
3) Daaily billing only happens when you turn on your phone. The billing cycle is 12:01AM to 11:59 PM. Turn your phone on at 10:00 PM and you are charged for the day then after midnight if the phone is on you get charged for another day.
4) You have to top up every 90 days or the SIM card will be deactivated. Minimum top up is 10.00 USD and can be done online, So it costs 40.00 per year for the number. If the SIM card is deactivated you have to get a new one as you can’t reactivate it.
5) You would have a US number and your Canadian number while the T-Mo card is in your phone wouldn’t work, people would have to call or text the US number.
6) Not sure if this works in Canada or Internationally (I haven’t tested this yet). Some reports say it will work in Canada.
7) No Blackberry BIS (or BES) Service is available, so you can’t use your Blackberry email service but you can browse via the browser to web based services.
8) Not sure if tethering other devices works (haven’t tested).
Most Canadian Smartphones would only get EDGE or 2G data speeds. You do get an online account that you can manage your plan with, purchase additional time cards. I recently had to top up to my account to keep from deactivating my sim card. I used a prepaid US Visa card (registered to A US relatives home address) . I buy one of these cards (50.00) almost every time I go to the US for services like this. Haven’t tried a Canadian credit card yet so I don’t know if they work online for purchases. You can always pick up T-Mobile pre paid cards almost anywhere (grocery stores, Wal-Mart,, convenience stores, etc.) in the US.
Roam Mobility – www.roammobility.com
Roam Mobility has been very active in their advertising lately. They are a company out of Vancouver that is reselling T-Mobile’s services to Canadians with a couple of additional benefits for Canadians at slightly higher cost than T-Mobile’s.
First you purchase a SIM card from Roam either online or at Pipestone travel stores here in Calgary The SIM card costs 19.95.
You activate the card online and pick and purchase a plan. Your US number is only assigned once you turn on your phone in the US. They do have several options for text, talk and data
1 day for 7.95 + 100mb data
3 days 18.95 + 200MB of Data
7 days 39.95 + 500 MB of Data
14 Days 69.95 + 1 GB of Data
30 Days 99.95 + 2 GB of Data
All plans include unlimited texting and calling back to Canada, this is one of the advantages they have over T-Mobile.
Because they are reselling T-Mobile’s services they have some of the same gotchas as above in regards to phones and data speeds. In a chat with them while I was writing this they say if your phone supports tethering you will be able to do it, but it could use up your data quickly. Once you activate a SIM though it is good for 1 year and you only have to activate 1 top up per year. Plans expire 30 days after purchase. Once you use up your data you have to buy another combination plan. I have a 6GB data plan here in Canada and I rarely use more than 1 GB of Data per month but I do use Wi-Fi most of the time..
They do offer voice and text only services though at 2.95, 8.95, 20.95, 34.95 and 59.95 for the same periods as above.
There is a solution for iPhone owners and data only services that don’t want to Jailbreak their phones! This solution is also ideal for connectivity for Wi-Fi enabled devices like Tablets, Portable games and laptops.
You can purchase a Mobile Hotspot device from Roam (Liberty Mobile Hotspot) for 129.95 with a SIM card. This is a small device with a rechargeable battery that connects data only to the T-Mobile Network. You then buy a Data Only package from Roam and activate the device. The device gives you a portable (pocket able) Wi-Fi hotspot that you can connect iPhones, Laptops, Tablets and Game machines to. Data only pricing is not priced too badly compared to Canadian Carriers roaming prices. You can also purchase data only with a Sim Card for a Jailbroken iPad or Unlocked Android Tablet.
500MB – 29.95
1000MB – 39.95
2 GB – 59.95
5 GB – 99.95
Data plans are good for 30 days from date of purchase.
The only disadvantage to this service is everyone has to be reasonably close to the Wi-fi hotspot to get a signal (30 feet) and you have to carry the device around. The advantage is multiple devices, fastest speeds and multiple people can share the same data. Note text won’t work with this option nor would voice unless you used SKYPE and texting services like text+
You can do the same with Virgin Mobile in the US but their Hot Spot Modem is 150.00 and 1 month of unlimited Data is 50.00
Update January 2013
Here is an update for Roam Mobility as of January 11th 2013. Most of Roam’s products are available in Calgary at Pipestone Travel Stores. You can pick up a Sim Card or if you don’t have an unlocked phone they are selling their Breeze model with a Roam Sim for 49.95. This is not a smart phone but it does feature a qwerty keyboard for texting..
Some of their plan pricing has also gone up a few dollars but for the Talk Text and Data plans that comes with a corresponding jump in data caps.
In addition T-Mobile has been updating their networks in the US and so some phones that support the 1900Mhz band (iPhone, Nexus S) will no longer be dropped down to edge speeds in certain areas. Most major US Cities have or are in the process of being upgraded with the new HPSA+ service.
I have a family vacation planned this summer in the US. I will be using a combination of Roam Mobility and T-Mobile while I am there to compare the two options. I will be carrying 2 phones with me. I will have my Galaxy Nexus that will be connected to T-Mobile for part of the trip and my iPhone with my Rogers sim in it and a 15.00 Voice Roaming plan. Data while roaming will be turned off (although I will use it with Wi-Fi). I plan on using it just to be able to accept calls on my regular cell phone number.
If you need access to your Canadian number you can do a couple of things. Use an old cell phone that is locked to your existing Canadian Carrier, or pick up a used phone on your carrier or an unlocked one form Craigslist or Kijiji. All you may need this for is Voice and receiving texts.
I will report back after my trip on how my experiment worked. I sent an email to the rest of my family earlier this week so that they also knew the options and I will update how we coped.
If you liked this review or found it helpful. Roam Mobility offers a referral program where you save 2.95 on the purchase of your SIM card. Please use the following link and support this blog so we can bring you more stories like this!