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SCIENCE AND TECH

6 MIN

Roaming Without Monster Cellphone Bills: A Guide for Canadians

Should you stick with your provider's pricey plan? Pop in a foreign SIM card? We explore your options

Not long ago, Canadians routinely risked monster cellphone bills after travelling abroad.

How bad could they be? David Muscat, a Toronto-based finance manager, recalls: “There was the time [my provider] forgot to put the European Data plan on my account when I was in Italy for a month and I ended up with an $8,000 phone bill.” Corey Herscu, a PR professional also living in Toronto, got it worse. “After helping a client in South Africa for the World Cup,” he recalls. “I got a $20,000 roaming bill.”

These stories are enough to make even the most phone-addicted traveller consider leaving the device at home.

Fortunately, the days of cardiac-arrest-inducing roaming fees are over. In 2013, the CRTC created a new Wireless Code which sets out several new rules for how the mobile phone industry in Canada must operate, including a mandatory cap on roaming charges. Now, the most your provider can charge you for using your phone abroad, is $100 per month, regardless how much talking or texting or web surfing you do while away from home. That’s a vast improvement over the predatory practices that used to exist, but $100 is still a lot of money, especially when you consider that most phone plans give you plenty of voice and data for $60 or less, anywhere in Canada. So what are your options for keeping your roaming fees from exceeding your baggage fees while at work or play around the world?

Option 1: Turn off data and rely on WiFi

Most hotels and conference centres offer Wi-Fi. Some restaurants and airports do, too. It’s becoming even more common for this data access to be free, at least if you’re a guest. If you have access to WiFi, you can effectively eliminate roaming fees as long as you’re willing to be flexible. To do so, simply turn off your phone’s cellular voice and data connections – note, this is not the same as airplane mode, which will turn off WiFi too. All of your connections will now happen over WiFi, which depending on the connection could be fine for email, YouTube, web surfing and most mobile games.

If you’ve turned off voice calling to save money, you’ll need to be flexible: You can still make phone calls using Google Voice or Skype (a small charge per call may apply) or you can use an increasingly wide selection of messenger-based voice options like FaceTime (on iOS devices only), Facebook Messenger, Viber, Line or even Snapchat.

Verdict: Cheap but less than cheerful

Option 2: Use your carrier’s roaming plan

All of the major carriers have travel add-on plans that let you buy pre-determined amounts of voice and data while travelling, on a daily, weekly or sometimes monthly basis. What these plans cost and how much voice and data they cover varies by carrier and the country you’ll be travelling to. Bell, for instance, offers a package called “roam better” which costs $5 a day and includes unlimited voice and texting, but limits data to 100MB. You can buy an additional 100MB per day for another $5, but this extra bandwidth expires at midnight of the day you buy it – no rollovers allowed. These prices are only for travel to the United States – Bell has a list of 100 other countries in which the same package exists, but for $5 more per day.

“You actually use your data a lot more when you’re away from home”

Rogers, on the other hand, does things a little differently. If you subscribe to one of its Share Everything plans, you can access its “roam like home” feature which, just like with Bell, will cost $5 a day for unlimited calls and texts, but it lets you consume the data that you’ve already paid for as part of your existing plan, instead of requiring that you buy special roaming data packages. Rogers also caps the amount at $50 (or 10 days) even if you’re away for longer. The upside is that you won’t have to think about the 100MB cap (especially if you have a generous monthly plan); the downside is that you’ll likely be consuming a lot more data while you’re away.

“You actually use your data a lot more when you’re away from home,” says Peter Nowak, a freelance writer who has tried several roaming options over the years. “You probably won’t have access to your computer,” he points out, “and may not have access to WiFi.” Yet you’ll be a lot more dependent on info from the web because, after all, you’re a stranger in a strange land. Where to eat? How much does a train ticket cost? What’s the local currency conversion rate again? You get the idea.

Tapping into your existing data plan while travelling has proven popular with Rogers customers and MobileSyrup.com reports that other carriers are looking to follow suit. But approach this option with caution, Nowak warns: “One trip to the U.S. for the week and you could suck up your entire monthly data plan. When you get home, you’re screwed.”

Verdict: Maximum convenience, but potentially very pricey

Option 3: Third-party travel SIM cards

In addition to the big wireless carriers, there are also smaller players that exist strictly to offer Canadians an alternative to their carrier’s roaming packages. Roam Mobility is a favourite for Canucks who are heading south of the border, whether it’s to the United States or Mexico. Customers buy a Roam Mobility SIM card that gets swapped with your carrier’s SIM when you head out of the country. The card, which carries a one-time fee of $9.95, gives you a U.S. phone number and the option to sign up for one of three pay-as-you go plans. The most competitive package to what you’d get through your carrier is the Talk+Text+Data plan, which gives you unlimited calling and texting, plus a large amount of data, for $4.95 a day. If you go beyond 14 days, each additional day costs a dollar.

The upside to this arrangement is you get a very generous amount of data, and it costs the same as if you had used a carrier plan.

The downside is you will need to unlock your phone if you have not already done so. Your carrier is obliged to do this for you for a fee, once you’re beyond the first 90 days of your contract. Then there’s the fact that swapping SIM cards also turns off access to your regular phone number. If you depend on your phone for receiving critical calls from a wide variety of people, you’ll need to forward your existing phone number to your new, U.S. phone number. And your carrier will charge you long-distance rates for every forwarded call.

Roam Mobility SIM cards can be purchased at a wide variety of retail locations across Canada, but the company will also ship you one for free if you plan ahead.

Another Canadian option is KnowRoaming. It uses a special SIM “sticker” that you adhere to your regular carrier SIM. When you travel, it connects you to the local network that KnowRoaming has partnered with. When in Canada, it does nothing, so there’s no need to remove it. Just like Roam Mobility, the sticker SIM comes with a U.S. phone number, but unlike Roam Mobility, that sticker can be programmed from your phone to use phone numbers in any of the over 200 countries the company supports – not just the U.S. and Mexico. Once again, your phone needs to be unlocked to use KnowRoaming.

You can opt for pay-as-you-go based on usage; for example, 13 cents per minute for calls and 10 cents per MB of data. Or you can choose an unlimited plan (talk, text and data) for US$7.99 a day. Unlike both Roam Mobility and your carrier’s travel plans, the unlimited data on Know Roaming is 3G, which is a good deal faster than 2G, but far slower than 4G LTE. If you’ve become accustomed to LTE speeds at home, you’ll definitely notice a difference.

Another benefit to KnowRoaming’s technology is the way it does call forwarding. Instead of paying you carrier’s long-distance rates, KnowRoaming charges you a “Reach Me” fee, which varies depending on the country you’re travelling to. In the case of going to the U.S., it’s US$3 a month. Paying this fee makes it possible for anyone in Canada to call you on your normal phone number (you still need call forwarding on your carrier plan) and reach you without any additional long distance fees. It only works for inbound calls and doesn’t work with text messaging.

So while the sticker SIM represents a super-convenient alternative to SIM-swapping, you’ll need to do the math on both price and features to see if this option is actually better for you.

Verdict: Potentially the best option on price, and generally positive user experience. But you have to be willing and able to unlock your phone, and switch to a different phone number while you travel

Option 4: Pop in a SIM, use pay-as-you-go service in your destination country

The least convenient option might also be the cheapest. If your phone is unlocked, you can always walk into any local wireless carrier’s shop (or other retailer) and pick up a SIM card. Vending machines selling prepaid SIM cards have also become a fixture at major international airports.

Companies like Vodafone in Europe and Verizon in the U.S. offer easy, pre-paid options. Verizon, for example, will sell you a 4G SIM card with one month of unlimited talk and text and 2GB of data for US$25. Deals like this one are only available online and they’ll only ship the card to a U.S. address, so some advanced planning is needed.

In the United Kingdom, you can get a Vodafone pay-as-you-go SIM card delivered for free to any U.K. address and for £15 (about C$25) you’ll get one month of unlimited texting, 1GB of LTE data and 250 minutes of calling.

“If you’re going for more than a just few days,” Nowak says, “getting a local SIM card is the way to go.” He says he once got a Vodafone plan in the Netherlands that gave him 3GB of data for C$23 – far cheaper than getting the same amount of data would have been at home in Canada.

However, for shorter trips this might not make sense: It can be hard to find daily pay-as-you-go plans when dealing with local carriers.

As with Roam Mobility and KnowRoaming, you’ll end up with a phone number that’s local to the country you visit, and be temporarily unavailable at your regular number unless you set up call-forwarding. This could make it harder for the folks back home to get in touch with you.

Verdict: Again, you’ll have to unlock your phone ahead of time, and your phone number will be a local one while you travel. But for cost and convenience, this may be best for longer trips abroad

Published Wednesday, August 17th 2016

Header image credit: Shutterstock

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