Guide to wireless roaming in U.S. without ‘bill shock’

If you’re heading to the U.S. over the holidays, you may be considering putting your smartphone on airplane mode for as long as you’re outside Canada.

That’s not a bad move, given the horror stories around Canadians slapped with huge roaming charges. One B.C. man managed to rack up $22,000 earlier this year while he was vacationing with his family in Mexico.

But with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announcing it’s probing how the Big Three are charging their smaller rivals higher wholesale rates, and as the CRTC put a cap of $100 on monthly international roaming charges, wireless carriers seem to be paying attention.

Check out our roundup of roaming packages to figure out what might work for you, if you’re going south of the border.

1. Bell
For customers using BCE Inc.‘s Bell Mobility and travelling in the U.S., Bell has partnered with more than 15 different U.S. carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Rates are pay-as-you-go, with most, if not all of the listed carriers charging Canadians $1.45 for voice calls per minute, 75 cents for each outgoing text message, and $6 per megabyte (MB) of data. Not all carriers will support 2G, 3G, or 4G.

Bell also offers travel add-on plans, which it announced in September as a response to an outcry about wireless competitors in Canada, amid speculation that Verizon was considering moving into Canada. See the chart below.

(Image: Bell). Click to enlarge.
(Image: Bell). Click to enlarge.

2. Rogers
For customers making voice calls, Rogers Communications Inc. charges $1.45 per minute, as well as 75 cents per text message. It also charges about $8 for 50 MB of data over a 24-hour period – an amount Rogers estimates would add up to 50 maps, 1,000 emails, or 250 Web pages, or “twice as much as the typical customer would use domestically.”

Travel add-ons are good for one month, and they include one-time fees of $30 for 10 MB of data. For $50, customers get 25 MB, and for $60, they can get 75 MB. It also includes other plans for business travelers, or for customers who want talking, texting, and data included in their travel plans.

(Image: Rogers). Click to enlarge image.
(Image: Rogers). Click to enlarge image.

3. Telus

For roaming in the U.S., Telus Corp. customers pay $1.50 per minute for voice calls, 60 cents per sent text message, 60 cents per received text message, and $5 per megabyte of data.

However, it also offers what it calls “U.S. roaming passports,” which run for 30 days. The voice roam passport for business comes with 150 voice minutes for $40, 100 MB of data for $40, $15 to send 100 texts and $40 to send an unlimited number of texts. It also features some all-in-one packages.

Telus also recently added a new tool called Travel Tracker to its services. The free mobile portal allows 4G device users to check their data usage in real time, also sending text notifications to let customers know when their devices have started roaming through background applications like email, auto-updates, and apps. And when customers get home to Canada, they get a text message showing how much data they used up during their trip. It’s available at

4. Wind

For customers using Wind Mobile, when they head down to the U.S., they can make calls for about 20 cents per minute within the country. If they want to call Canada or take incoming calls, it’s also 20 cents per minute, while calls to the rest of the world are priced at $3.50 per minute. Wind charges 15 cents for each sent text and $1 per MB of data.

However, it also has preferred rates that basically halve all its regular rates for voice calls, texts, and data use, except for when making calls to anywhere outside the U.S. and Canada, which is still $3.50 per minute.

The data plan is cheaper than that of Bell or Telus, but Rogers may still be less expensive if data is mainly what you need.

5. Roam Mobility Inc.

Vancouver-based Roam Mobility Inc. isn’t one of the Big Three, but it does take a slice of the market for Canadian customers travelling to the U.S. For customers with unlocked phones, it provides a U.S. SIM card and permanent phone number for about $20. That connects them to a carrier in the U.S., meaning they don’t have to pay roaming fees to Canadian carriers back home.

While Canadian customers can still skip roaming fees by using their own U.S. SIM card and finding a local carrier, Roam’s convenience factor is helpful – users can start using a SIM card as soon as they arrive in the U.S., without having to track down a carrier to set up a new plan.

Its cheapest talk, text, and data plan is $3.95 per day for unlimited voice calls while in the U.S., unlimited international texting, free long-distance calls to Canada, free voicemail and caller ID, as well as 300 MB of data.

Rates go up depending on whether customers are in the U.S. for three days, seven days, or two weeks. The most expensive 30-day plan includes all the same perks, but charges $90 for 9 gigabytes (GB) of data.

This option wins out for being the cheapest ones on this list for a heavy phone user. The downside? Anyone who wants to contact you has to know you’re now using a U.S. number.

6. Roamly

Similar to Roam, Roamly Mobile Solutions also offers a cheaper option for Canadians heading down to the U.S. by eliminating roaming fees and taking advantage of U.S. carriers.

However, there’s no need for Canadian customers to get a U.S. SIM card – instead, Roamly provides a thin, overlay SIM card that layers on top of the customer’s home SIM. That allows customers to keep their usual phone number and contacts.

When a customer lands in a different country, Roamly will detect the phone is not in its home region and will connect to a partner network within a few minutes, allowing customers to use voice calls, texts, and data.

While costs would depend on how much customers use their phones, Roamly claims it can save them up to 80 per cent off regular roaming rates.

This option sounds great if you want to keep your current number, and it also wins out as perhaps the most convenient option as you only need to put in the SIM card overlay once. When you return to Canada, you can just leave it on, but Roamly will sense you are back home and will connect you back to your regular carrier.

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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