Mobile Internet Options in Canada
Internet simply isn’t as abundant as one might hope for up in the Great White North, and even where a cellular signal can be found there are hurdles for non-Canadians looking to stay connected without risking outrageous international roaming charges.
But with a little planning, you should be able to travel in Canada while staying affordably connected - especially if you can get by with more modest internet usage.
Sometimes the best strategy is to explore Canada while in more of a tourist mode, without stressing about connectivity – especially if you are making the long drive up to Alaska which will have you mostly well away from the more populated (and connected) border.
But anyone who depends on lots of internet for their mobile lifestyle can still make it work while traveling up north but you may find it more difficult and expensive than you might like.
But it is getting easier. A lot easier.
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Wi-Fi in Canada
Relying on Wi-Fi is the simplest way to stay connected in Canada, since you do not need to secure any special hardware or plans in advance. Wi-Fi works exactly the same in Canada as it does in the USA, and you can use all your current equipment.
According to most nomads we’ve talked to who have ventured to Canada, Wi-Fi seems to be present and usable in most campgrounds, marinas and RV parks (even if only in the front office or clubhouse) – and many travelers utilize public Wi-Fi for their primary internet needs.
Aside from campgrounds & marinas, Wi-Fi hotspots – like in most places across the world – are often accessible from cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, breweries, and more.
Of course, public Wi-Fi hotspots will vary from free to paid, and the quality of the connection will vary substantially.
Having Wi-Fi repeating gear on board can help improve your connectivity situation if the prime issue is increasing the range between your RV and the hotspot, but often no amount of gear will make any difference. Very often it is the upstream connection itself that is very limited – especially in small remote towns.
Be especially considerate of others sharing the same Wi-Fi network - streaming video should only be attempted if you have an explicit OK from the network manager.
Don't be the one who drags the internet to a crawl for everyone - in some rural areas, there just is not a lot of connectivity to go around.
Wi-Fi Calling Tip: Every one of the big four cellular carriers now supports Wi-Fi Calling on compatible phones. If your phone supports this, you can make and recieve text messages and voice calls over Wi-Fi, even if you have no cellular service.
Make sure to set up Wi-Fi Calling before your trip to Canada, and then you can leave your phone in airplane mode (but with Wi-Fi turned on) to still be able to make calls when you need to, assuming you can find Wi-Fi that is.
Roaming on a US Cellular Data Plan
Roaming is when a cellular carrier has agreements with other networks to utilize their towers, helping the carrier provide connectivity to their customers who are just passing through areas they don’t directly service themselves.
Behind the scenes, the carriers may be charging each other for any usage while roaming onto their networks, thus the carriers manage their costs by having specific roaming policies on their plans.
There are two main types of roaming - domestic and international.
When roaming internationally, many US carrier plans differentiate between North American roaming and global roaming. This means that their policies may be completely different when traveling in Canada and Mexico, then when traveling further afield.
It's very important to know the exact terms of your plan. Some plans might roam just as if you're at home, some might include a daily or monthly cap when across borders and other plans might not include any international roaming at all.
Also, since roaming agreements aren't intended for primary international use - many plans have limits for how long you can travel abroad before roaming is shut off.
All of the US-based cellular carriers have vastly improved their international roaming agreements in recent years - making it even easier to stay connected when you cross borders.
Warning: If your plan doesn't have generous international roaming limits, be extra careful when traveling near borders. Your cellular device may pick up on international towers and you may unintentionally be roaming. Even with within a few miles of a border.
The roaming setting on many devices only turns off domestic roaming, not international roaming. So be sure to TURN OFF any devices that don't have international roaming allowances when near or crossing borders.
Data Saving Tips for Capped Plans
As noted above, most US based plans that permit data roaming into other countries place data usage caps on the roaming portions of those plans. If you are purchasing a local SIM card to use in another country, you may also find yourself dealing with data caps. Satellite based plans also often have data caps.
So how can you make the most of your data limits?
We've got a complete guide - with tips to lowering data usage - in our guide:
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US Carrier Canadian Roaming Policies by Plan
Each carrier and plan has its own roaming policies. In this section, we track the Canadian roaming policies for current and legacy plans on each of the major US carriers - including Google Fi.
Cellular Frequency Bands
Getting the best cellular service means having equipment optimized for a carrier's network - this section tracks the cellular bands utilized by the Canadian carriers.
Getting Local Service on Canadian Cellular Carriers
For extended stays in Canada, it may be best to seek out a local plan - which isn't necessarily easy without a Canadian billing address.
Satellite Internet in Canada
Satellites have coverage maps too - this section tracks which mobile satellite services have you covered up north.
VPN Service: Virtually Getting Back to the USA
Once you cross the border, you may find your favorite websites and streaming services block international traffic. This section has some tips on getting around those blocks.
Bonus Tips: Canadians Traveling in the USA
For Canadians traveling in the US who don't have access to a US billing address and credit card - here are some options worth considering:
- US Prepaid Plans – Obtaining a pre-paid or reseller plan with the major US carrier can be feasible but is sometimes tricky. The carriers may require a US-based credit card and mailing address. Many of the large Canadian banks have US subsidiaries so check with your bank to see if this opens up options. Many mail forwarding services can be used as physical addresses if you're planning to hang around for a while. Between using a prepaid credit card, or picking up refill cards in stores – and using the mailing address of a US friend or relative – you might be able to navigate this.
- Rent/Lease Unlimited Plan – For Canadians wanting lots of data, there are rental unlimited plans that can be obtained on a month-to-month basis on many of the major carriers. Most of these plans offer some form of unlimited data. Since you are signing up with a reseller, they should be more willing to work with as a non-US citizen.
- KnowRoaming – Offers a variety of packages for the USA or global using a SIM or SIM "Sticker" that auto-detects when you leave your home country, and then authorize the charge while abroad. They can also supply a local phone number. As of May 2019, KnowRoaming confirmed that mobile hotspot use is available for Android and Windows but not Apple (iOS) products.
- Rogers: Rogers smartphone plans have an option to add US service for around Can$15. This allows the use of the full plan terms in the US and Canada, but there are restrictions that prevent you from adding this option for short periods of time.
- Telus: Easy Roam - Canadian based Telus offers the Easy Roam travel plan for use in the US or Internationally for customers on monthly plans. Telus tends to roam on T-Mobile and AT&T towers in the U.S. The cost is Can$7 a day in the US and Can$12 a day internationally.
- Bell: Roam Better - Canadian based Bell offers two different options for US roaming. Roam Better - with home data allows you to use the data from your account when traveling for Can$8/day in the U.S. and Can$12/day in over 180 international destinations. Roam Better - with 100 MB gets you 100 MB/day of data that doesn't come out of the data from your current plan for Can$7/day in the U.S. and Can$11/day in over 180 international destinations.
- Roam Mobility – Utilizing T-Mobile's network in the US, Roam Mobility supplies a SIM card to Canadian customers that offer a variety of options for daily phone & data, snowbird seasonal packages, and data only packages. Options start as low as Can$4.95/day.
While Internet access simply isn’t as abundant as one might hope for in Canada, with some planning, expectation setting, and flexibility, many nomads are able to keep connected. Careful research into cellular plan terms and other options for connectivity can make or break your mobile internet experience on a Canadian adventure.
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