Using Your Cell Phone in Canada for Less

If you live in the USA, it’s easily possible to use your cell phone in Canada, but the most straightforward way of doing so (roaming) is unfortunately very expensive. Virtually all U.S. cell carriers consider any sort of international roaming to be a high-end feature. Either you will pay an exorbitant fee per day or per call to use it, or you will pay an exorbitant fee (i.e. at least $50 per month) for a high-end plan that offers roaming without such extra fees.

If, like me, you’re a cheapskate who has traditionally received cell service via a discount plan like TracFone (which doesn’t offer international roaming at all), the prices are likely to make you say “Ouch!” They sure made me say “Ouch!”

For years, I stuck with TracFone despite living in a state that borders Canada, and just put up with being out of cell coverage range whenever I was in Canada. Recently, however, I moved further north, to a county that borders Canada directly. The closest big city to me is now Vancouver, so if I want to do big city things, odds are I will be traveling to Canada to do them. Furthermore, my parents are getting evermore elderly and frail, so it is getting evermore unacceptable to be without cell service.

My solution? Forget about roaming, and just buy a discount cell plan from a Canadian carrier. I did some research, and subscribing to the least expensive plan by Public Mobile increases my monthly costs by less than half the amount that any option for purchasing the right to roam in Canada would. Public Mobile is basically Telus’ discount brand, which is important because cell coverage in rural areas of Canada is often quite spotty, and Telus has the best coverage in rural B.C.

The silly bit is that I’m now paying more for the right to use my cell phone in Canada than I do for the right to use it in the USA, but that’s more a function of what a screaming deal TracFone is than what a raw deal Public Mobile is. Canada’s cell charges tend to be high simply as a result of Canada being large and sparsely-populated, which results in fewer users having to bear the costs of maintaining a large network.

There are some catches, however:

  1. Calls to my U.S. number won’t follow me into Canada; my Canadian service plan comes with its own separate Canadian phone number. For me, that’s a minor drawback: I can simply tell anyone who has business being able to contact me to use my other number when I’m in Canada. For someone whose career depended on always being available at a given number, it’s not so minor a drawback.
  2. I had to install a SIM card from my Canadian carrier into my phone. In my case, that was a minor issue, as my phone has two SIM slots in it. If I had a phone with only a single SIM slot, this probably would have prompted me to buy a new phone (which would easily pay for itself within a year from the savings it would enable). I definitely would not want to fiddle with swapping SIM cards each time I visited Canada.
  3. If you have a phone you purchased from a cell carrier, you are most likely shit outta luck: most phones sold by carriers have been deliberately crippled so as to not work on any other carrier’s network (I purchased my phone from an electronics retailer, and purchased a SIM card from TracFone separately).
  4. If you are a Verizon customer, you are probably shit outta luck. Verizon uses a nonstandard technology that other carriers do not use, so many Verizon phones could not be made to work on any other cell network even if they were somehow unlocked.

One final thing: if you go to the web sites for most Canadian carriers and attempt to order a SIM card from them, you will discover that they absolutely refuse to ship such things outside Canada. My solution was to wait until my next trip to Vancouver and visit a London Drugs outlet (they sell Public Wireless SIM cards). Once you have the SIM card, Public Wireless will happily let you register it to a USA mailing address, and associate it with a USA credit card.

I think there’s a few entrepreneurs importing Canadian SIM cards and offering to ship them to US addresses, for a fee, but the key here is for a fee. Being a cheapskate, it was easy enough just to wait until my next trip to Canada and buy one in person. I then went to a nearby coffeehouse with free WiFi and used my phone to register itself for service. It was activated and on Telus’ network within an hour.

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