Mobile Phone Service for visiting the US

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When you use your mobile phone while traveling to a different country it is called roaming. And your home phone company charges you roaming fees. The issue is, these roaming fees are excessive. Each mobile phone company has roaming relationships around the world, these roaming relationships are in effect the same relationship an MVNO would have with its MNO host. So for example a Canadian customer of Rogers Wireless in Canada who travels to the USA will roam over to the AT&T network in the USA. AT&T is Rogers’ roaming partner. Considering the size of Rogers and the volume of roaming, Rogers is likely to have one of the best wholesale agreements with AT&T. (Rogers is the largest Mobile Phone Company in Canada with approx. 9,376,000 subscribers. Since 65% of Canadians travel to the USA at least once a year, Rogers would be sending about 6 million roaming customers a year towards AT&T.) That means that Rogers is paying AT&T less than almost anyone else for the wholesale service, then Rogers goes and charges their customer what they can.  To determine what is a fair roaming rate? it is fair to look at the range of local USA MVNO’s using AT&T and see what they are charging their customers.  Typically the retail calling rate is between $0.04 and $0.15 per minute. Then look at what Rogers is charging their Canadian customers while visiting the USA. it is $1.45 per minute. That is between 9 and 29 times more than it should be. This is why CNN says International Roaming Fees are the biggest travel rip off there is.

 

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. Telus and Bell used and sold CDMA up to about 2009.  So if you have an older Telus or Bell phone it might be CDMA. 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 Canadian Carriers 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.

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.
  • 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.

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.

Note: There is a USA law which makes unlocking a phone illegal in the USA, but it does not apply to anyone unlocking a phone outside the USA and traveling to the USA with that phone  (A grey area might be buying a USA phone, having it shipped outside the USA, unlocking it and then returning to the USA to use it. Ask a lawyer.)

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 county 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 the USA. 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 the USA 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 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 Canada, Australia and New Zealand, if visiting from these countries you will be familiar with these plans.

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.

Comparing the Networks

In the USA there are only two GSM networks, Either AT&T or T-Mobile. This makes comparison easier than in other countries with many networks. Check the list of USA MVNO’s to see which MVNO use which network.

Basically the most noticeable difference is coverage and the band (MHz) used for data. And in many places these are identical.  So for example if you are going to LA. The service in most of LA is virtually identical.  But if you are going to Montana (Yellowstone Park) then you look at the coverage map and T-Mobile is not there for both voice and data, where as AT&T is. Or if you are planning a road trip going to many places and traveling through large rural areas, then T-Mobile may have voice coverage, but T-Mobile uses 700/2100MHz for data in many locations including virtually all of rural USA. Non T-Mobile USA GSM phones use 850/1900MHz so they will only allow 2G/Edge speeds. To make sure the location you are visiting has 850/1900MHz check with T-Mobile as the list is ever changing.  This Wikipedia article on World 3G GSM band usage is also helpful.

4G / LTE data is similarly variable in coverage.  However, an additional problem for visitors is the USA bands which overlap only slightly with EU and other World region bands.  See this Wikipedia article on LTE Bands by region.  YOUR PHONE MAY NOT BE CAPABLE OF USING THE SAME 4G FREQUENCY BANDS AS THE USA CARRIER.  Check your phone’s capabilities on the manufacturers web site.  Each USA carrier’s band usage as at Feb 2016 is in the table in this Phonearena article. None of the main bands used by the 4 major USA Carriers matches the standard EU bands.

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 the USA 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 is, as you will never look. But if you don’t stop your phone from checking while visiting the USA, 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 on T-Mobile 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 the USA virtually any Walmart, grocery store and corner stores carry Prepaid No Contract SIMs and plans. Also AT&T and T-Mobile 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 the USA, the USA mobile phone companies do not ship outside the USA and some require a USA address on registration. There are some companies that specifically target visitors to the USA and will ship outside the USA.

  • Travelers Mobile Offers service in the USA, Canada and the UK, Travelers Mobile is the least expensive option researched.  Travelers Mobile will ship to any country. Travelers Mobile use AT&T in the USA, Rogers in Canada and Vodafone in the UK.
  • DBS Sim Trade Offers the same plans that you can find online, however, what makes them more favorable is that the price you see is the price you get. No activation fees, no shipping fees, no fees. They ship free worldwide. There is a live chat in their website for questions and they even give discounts to groups.
  • Roam Mobility Offers service only in the USA and only sells to Canadian consumers. Roam Mobility is more expensive than Travelers Mobile, it uses the T-Mobile network in the USA only.
  • Bright Roam Offers service in 18 countries and will ship to any country. Bright Roam is a division of IRoam Mobile Solutions.  Bright Roam is the second most expensive option researched.
  • G3 Wireless Offers service in multiple countries and will ship to any country. G3 Wireless is the most expensive option researched. In some cases G3 wireless is actually more expensive than roaming with a travel plan from your home carrier.
  • Telaway Offers service only in the USA and will ship in UK, Australia and USA. Telaway offers unlimited plans with free follow numbers from your origin country. Telaway uses the T-Mobile backbone.
  • USAPrePaidSimCard Offers services in the USA (on the AT&T Network) with free roaming in Canada and Mexico and will ship to Australia, New Zealand, the UK and most other countries.  USAPrePaidSimCard offers calls, texts and 4G data for phones, as well as 4G data only plans for iPads, Tablets and Mobile Hotspots.

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