There are many Forum posts where people ask about how to use their Mobile Phone in Canada or elsewhere. The main concern is roaming fees from home country carriers. In Europe the European Union (EU) has put caps on roaming fees within the EU, but in North America there are no caps.

A little more background on the technology.

There are two basic technologies today used in Mobile Phones, GSM and CDMA. GSM is the SIM based phone and currently all Canadian carriers support GSM, and all new phones sold in Canada are also GSM. The main difference of these technologies from the consumer’s point of view is if you have a CDMA phone, you have no choice but to roam and accept the home carrier’s rates. But if you have a GSM phone, and it is unlocked, you can change the SIM to a local carrier or a dedicated travel carrier and save on roaming.  

What to Do?

In general the only answer to excessive roaming fees is to use a phone service from the country you are visiting. You will see it over and over again in Trip Advisor forums, “Buy a local SIM!” It is tested and true advice.  In fact it is the same advice given to travelers by the US FCC and the Better Business Bureau.

The steps for this are basic;

  1. Make sure your phone is unlocked,

  2. Get a local SIM and calling plan.

As with everything the devil is in the details.

Unlocking:

When a consumer buys a phone from a carrier, it is typically locked, because it is typically subsidized by the carrier, so the carrier wants to protect their investment. Unlocking is the process of removing the software lock in the phone so it can be used by any carrier.

There are two different unlocking processes;

  • The carrier or manufacturer unlock, which is a paid service and simply requires the input of a carrier or manufacturer generated unlock code, into the phone and it will unlock. This process is typically triggered by simply inserting a non registered SIM into the phone. This is a safe unlock which will not damage your phone, warrantee or carrier relationship.  In addition this method does not change software in any manner.  There is a belief that unlocking a phone in the USA is illegal.  A study of the specific law that applies shows that the belief comes from the notion of a hack or jailbreak unlock processes which does alter the software and that is illegal.  

  • The hack or jailbreak unlock on the IPhone. With these free or low cost unlocks the operating system is altered by a tool, which bypasses the phones security system. This is a risky unlock which may damage the phone or void the warrantee, and is technically illegal in the USA.

Many online service provide both types of unlock. In addition many mobile phone stores will also unlock your phone. If using a mobile phone store, the larger chains typically use the carrier unlock, where some smaller stores might use the hack or jailbreak unlock. Be sure to verify before getting your phone unlocked.

Local SIM and Plan:

Current GSM mobile phones use a SIM card. This SIM card is easily changes so when you go to a new country you can simply buy a local SIM card and insert it into your Unlocked GSM phone and use a local carrier rather than your home carrier.

When you visit a country you want a local Prepaid, No Contract plan. This is a plan where you can purchase it for a set period of time, there is no contract, there is no ability to go over the amount purchased. There will never be a surprise roaming bill with these plans.

World Travel SIMs:

There is another category of SIMs, that is world travel SIMs, there are services that cover many countries. Typically about 200 countries.  If you are traveling to many countries like a Continental Europe vacation these are very good and in most cases the most cost effective,  Also if they are run by a company in the EU their EU roaming fee is limited, so this is a positive effect of the EU regulations. Unfortunately these world SIMs typically only have good rates in a few countries and can in some cases be worse than roaming with your home carrier. Research and reading the fine print is critical. Customer service is another issue. Covering many countries with adequate customer service is not always effective.

Choosing the right SIM and Plan:

This is where you need to know your needs and comfort zone. Particularly in Canada. Canada is reported to have the most expensive Mobile Phone service in the world. There are many different carriers.  When choosing a SIM and Plan your own needs are the most important factor, so don’t let anyone tell you how you will use your phone so plan X from company Y is the best. They all have different benefits, in a competitive environment they are all working hard for everyone’s business.

These are the points you should consider:

Pay as you go Vs Unlimited

In Canada it is typical to have the option of either Pay as you Go service or Unlimited. With Pay as you Go you purchase a refill in a specific dollar amount for a specific period of time, and use the mobile services as per a fee schedule.  Example Calling would be $x.xx per minute, Texts would be $y.yy per test and data would be $z.zz per Megabyte. As the services are used, the account balance declines, then when empty the account is refilled (Topped Up) again. This is similar to most European plans, so if visiting from Europe, you will be familiar with this. The other option is unlimited, where the plan is for a set period of time, with unlimited service for that period of time. With over consumption of data, many unlimited plans now have unlimited calling and text but limits on data. This is similar to most plans in Australia, the USA, and New Zealand, if visiting from these countries you will be familiar with these plans.

In Canada when using a no contract plan, you purchase the Pay as you Go top up PIN then use it to purchase the unlimited plan.  This process does lead to a bit of inefficiency as the top up PIN is a round number $15, $25, $50 etc. while the unlimited plan will be typically $14.95, $34.95 etc. If you do not have a Canadian Credit card you must use the top up PIN.  Keep this in mind.

For a single trip with high data use, unlimited plans usually are best, for multiple return trips with low data use Pay as you Go is usually best.

Data Use

The large issue with roaming is data use on a smartphone. (Smartphones have been a roaming cash cow for mobile phone companies.) Your smartphone uses data without you knowing it. The average smartphone user will consume between 10 and 20 MB of data per day, without ever knowing it.  It will surprise you what applications use data, and even the operating system does checks for updates. Apps like weather Apps, GPS and maps, voice recognition like SIRI etc. all use data without you realizing it.

A very good practice is to install a data manager application that will measure and report to you the amount of data used in any given period, along with what the Apps that are consuming the data.  Before visiting Australia and purchasing a plan, know how much data you use, and how much you are willing to pay for. You might find the cost of knowing the weather back home in Toronto is not worth it, as you will never look. But if you don’t stop your phone from checking while visiting Australia, that token of knowledge you never used might cost you $10 per day.

VoIP

VoIP is voice over IP, or using the internet to make phone calls. Many people suggest it. You will see many comments saying call home with Skype… Skype is a VoIP App. The thing with VoIP is it has two large dependencies. First the computing power of the device it is running on and second the bandwidth of the Internet service. As for computing power in a phone, it is limited. VoIP might work well on a PC or MAC but usually performs poor on a mobile phone.  As for bandwidth of the internet service, as noted above if you are limited to 2G/Edge VoIP is virtually unusable. VoIP is only reliable under very strong conditions so don’t count on it. Also to use VoIP you need to be connected to the internet, if you do not have a data plan on your phone, and you are not in a WiFi location, it will not work.

Where to buy?

Luckily in Canada virtually any WalMart or major grocery store carry Prepaid No Contract SIMs and plans. Also the phone carriers have many corporate outlets as well. If you can’t find an outlet in the airport you arrive at it is easy to find a store.  

If you want to get your SIM and plan before you leave for Canada, the mobile phone companies do not ship outside Canada and some require a Canadian address on registration. There are some companies that specifically target visitors to Canada and will ship outside Canada.

  • Travelers Mobile Offers SIMs and Service Plans for use in Canada as well as the USA, Australia and the UK, Travelers Mobile is the least expensive option researched.  Travelers Mobile will ship to any country.

  • iRoam Offers service in 18 countries and will ship to any country. iRoam is the second most expensive option researched.