You’ve seen the story. A few weeks after returning from a trip abroad, a traveller receives a cell phone bill that is larger than Greece’s debt. They’ve unknowingly racked up astronomical roaming and data fees. Is it their fault? Pretty much. You’ve got to pay to play, and if you’re going to get chatty on the road, you need to know what it’s costing you. Often you’re charged twice: for air time AND for roaming on top of that. Data is another killer. Here’s how to avoid a surprise bill:
Call your current provider:
Check with your provider to see what your current plan covers. Find out how much roaming and data fees are. How much is it to call back home? Be specific and get specific answers. Ask if they have short term roaming and long distance packages and international data plans. Many large providers offer them and they’re much cheaper than standard roaming. If you decide to sign up, keep the package for an extra month in case of billing delays from their roaming partners.
Get an unlocked phone (or get yours unlocked):
Whether you’re visiting one country or many, an unlocked phone can help you save big. Basically an unlocked phone can be used on any network. Most mobile phones are “locked” to your local provider and their roaming partners. With an unlocked phone, you can buy a local SIM card (a small chip that identifies and authenticates your phone on a cell network) and your phone becomes a local phone. SIM cards are cheap (sometimes free) and you can top up your account as needed. No contracts, no bills. You can use the same phone in multiple countries simply by swapping out SIM cards. There are also phones that hold two SIM cards – so you can keep your Canadian card installed and add a country specific SIM. There are different sizes of SIM cards, so make sure you get the right one for your phone. SIM cards are used in GSM network phones, which are pretty much the world standard.
If you want to unlock your phone, there are many businesses that offer the service. Check online for unlocking services. Another thing to be aware of if you’re taking a North American phone abroad is to check voltage and plug compatibility of the phone’s charger. Also, tri- and quad-band GSM phones will work with most cell phone networks abroad.
Buy a phone at your destination:
If you don’t want to deal with unlocking, SIM cards and GSM bands, you can always buy a phone upon arrival. I paid $25 for a brand new phone in Guatemala. It included everything I needed to get up and running including a credit. Calling back to Canada was relatively cheap and local calling was a bargain. When I ran out of credit, I simply went to a local store and bought more time. You can even top up online through websites like ezetop.com.
Staying in Canada:
If you’re going to be in another area of Canada for any length of time, you can get a phone specific to that area. 7-Eleven’s SpeakOut offering is a good option. Walk into any 7-Eleven and pick up a cheap phone (as low as $20) and top it up with credit. Phone usage is 25 cents a minute for local calls and the credit is good for a year. If you travel to, say, Montreal several times a year and you’d like a local number, this is the way to go. You can also forward your home number to your temporary phone and you can top up your account online. Note that SpeakOut phones will not work in the USA.
An American option:
If you travel to the USA often, AT&T has a plan called GoPhone. You can purchase a phone or a SIM card for an unlocked phone. Put some credit on your account and you’re good to go. One option is a $2 a day plan where, once you’re in the US, you get unlimited talk (US) and text on the days you actually use your phone. This is a great option if you’re hopping the border often. Data plans are available too.
Roam Mobility is another way to go. You can buy one of their phones or just a SIM card for your unlocked phone. Because Roam Mobility connects to a US network, there are no roaming fees. They also give you a US-based number. All plans are prepaid.
Avoiding data disasters:
Phones are more than just talk and text. Data usage can end up costing a bundle. As mentioned above, check into data plans offered by your carrier. Switching off your data is a good idea too – leaving it on can result in you downloading large email attachments and racking up the charges. If your device has WiFi, use it to connect and download your email or use other data services.
If you’ve got a smartphone, there are a variety of apps that you can can download for cheap calling. Skype is the big one. You can use it to call regular numbers at a low rate or for free to another Skype user.
Line2 is similar, and it comes with free and paid versions. The free version gives you a local number, mobile app, voice mail and unlimited calling and texting to Line2 users in Canada and the US. Upgrading to a monthly plan ($9.95 or $14.95) adds unlimited calling and texting to any number in Canada or the US plus other features. Once you’re set up, you can make calls via your data plan or, to save money, make calls when you’re connected to the internet via WiFi.
If you own an iPod touch, which is a WiFi only device, the above apps will turn it into a phone and you’ll never have to worry about roaming charges.
Beware the border:
Even in Canada, be careful in border areas. Sometimes you may still be in Canada (in a border line-up) and your phone has jumped to a US network. Check your network settings and if necessary, select manual mode for joining networks and choose your Canadian provider.
Plans and rates change constantly. Many providers offer a bewildering array of options. Always read the fine print and remember that a little work before you depart can save you from a big and costly surprise when you return home.