Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cheap US Roaming for Canadians

I do occasional travel to the US for work and vacations. My biggest annoyance when traveling is the cost of cell phone roaming. It adds up to a ton of money for voice, text, or data (especially data).

I had been considering getting a T-Mobile prepaid account and a separate phone to use just for travelling. They have prepaid service for $3/day. Which is pretty good with unlimited data, voice, and text.

However, I recently learned about a new option that is based in Canada and it seems to work really well. Roam Mobility resells T-Mobile services for use when you are roaming.

Roam Mobility has plans with unlimited voice, unlimited text, and 100MB of data for $4 per day. This is a bit more that T-Mobile, but Roam Mobility has a couple of advantages:
  • You can keep your number for up to a year without using it. T-Mobile expires the prepaid cards after 3 months.
  • Voice to Canada is included. I have not verified, but I believe that outbound T-Mobile to Canada would be long distance.
  • I like the idea of someone specializing in the task we're trying to accomplish. They provide tech support.
You need an unlocked cell phone
To use Roam Mobility, you need a cell phone that is unlocked. Most are locked by the vendor (your friendly telco) because they don't want you to switch networks. There are a bunch of places online that will provide a code to unlock your cell phone for $10-15. If you are more adventurous, there are a lot of hits on Google about how to unlock your particular model of phone for free.

I haven't played much with unlocking phones, but my wife won an HTC Desire from Telus somehow that we've never used with phone service. It has been our "not-a-phone" with Wifi for the last couple of years. So, armed with Google, optimism, and a phone I didn't really care about, I set off and unlocked the phone. I did it for fun. Everyone else should probably just kick out the $10 and be done with it.

To test the unlocked phone, we took a SIM card from an MTS Blackberry and put it in the phone. The phone came up and connected to the MTS network. Sweet.

You need to get a SIM card
Next up was purchasing the SIM card from Roam Mobility. In Winnipeg, the only vendor at this time is London Drugs in St. Vital Mall. The first day we went, they were sold out but let us know there would be more in a couple of days.

London Drugs sold the SIM card, but didn't provide any service to speak of (like explaining that additional setup may be required). So, I'd be happy to recommend to anyone that they purchase online instead of from a local retailer.

After purchasing the SIM card for $20, we inserted it into the phone, but there was no way to tell if it was working because we were not anywhere near the T-Mobile network.

You need to do additional configuration of your phone for data
My wife was the first to travel with the phone and was surprised that, when she arrived in the US, the voice and text functionality was working, but not the data. We were both pretty confused by this, but like the older and wiser technical geek that I am, I recommended calling Roam Mobility tech support (611 from your phone, or 1-888-762-6487) instead of me trying to figure it out. The younger version of me would have spent a week researching it instead.

It turns out that in order to connect to data, you need to perform some additional configuration steps:
  1. Enable data roaming
  2. Add the APN (Access Point Name) for Roam Mobility ("roam")
After performing these steps with tech support the data on the phone was good to go.

Some info about this configuration:

You will save a ton of money
Standard rates from Rogers are: $1.45/min, $.75/text, and $8 per 50MB of data in 24 hours. You can get Travel Packs that lessen the pain, but they are still expensive. For example, the cheapest data plan that can be used for up to 1 month is $80 for 50 minutes, 50 outbound texts, and 50MB of data. Some people would use that in a day.

Traveling to the US for 5 days cost us $20 for the SIM card and $20 for unlimited voice, unlimited texts, and 500 MB of data. The only hassle is unlocking the phone. In the future, it will be just the $4/day.


  1. Nice write-up Byron.
    I hadn't looked into Roam, but I have been using T-Mobile for the past couple of years. Like you mentioned, the telco's don't like you to unlock "their" phones, so I paid the $10 to get the code from the internet and unlocked an old windows phone. The plan I have is $100 for 1000 minutes that is good for 1 year. If you renew your subscription before the anniversary, then any minutes that were left over, get carried forward (otherwise you loose them). I have used the minutes for talk/text/data. For the amount of time that I am in the States each year, the minutes I get is just about right.

  2. If you're on Roger's, they now have a $5 per day roaming option in the US that allows you to use your normal data plan. Avoids the need to buy a SIM card. At $1 per day difference, it's probably not worth unlocking you phone to get a ROAM SIM card anymore.