Keeping Connected in Canada – Mobile Internet Options for RVers

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Despite rumors to the contrary, the symbol on the Canadian flag is NOT a cell tower radiating signal.

Canada is a very large country, with a lot of wild unpopulated areas.

Internet simply isn’t as abundant as one might hope for up in the Great White North, and even where cellular signal is to be found there are hurdles for US residents 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. 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

wifi-optionsRelying 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 RVers we’ve talked to who have ventured to Canada, Wi-Fi seems to be present and usable in most campgrounds 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, 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 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 gotten 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.

Satellite Internet in Canada

The Insta-Sat service is powered by iDirect's satellite, with a coverage area that stretches just about anywhere you could possibly drive an RV.

The Insta-Sat service for the RVDataSat is powered by iDirect's satellite, with a coverage area that stretches just about anywhere you could possibly drive an RV.

Traveling across borders is where satellite internet has a definite advantage.

If you have a legacy HughesNet or Mobil Satellite plan and the equipment on your RV, you can subscribe to a satellite that covers part of Canada and be connected anywhere you have access to the southern sky.

There are no changes you need to make to your plan when you cross the border other than perhaps switching satellites, if needed. And the same rates and data limits you have stateside apply while across the border.

The new RVDataSat dish also provides service in Canada too.

The newer HughesNet spot beam based plans however do not cover outside of the continental US.

Canadian Satellite Tip: The further north you are, the lower communication satellites will be on the southern horizon. Way up in Alaska, satellites dishes are amusingly pointed almost directly perpendicular to the ground.

This makes getting a clear shot of the sky towards the satellite a lot trickier than in the lower latitudes. You may need to park on a hill or in a wide open field to have any hope of connecting a satellite that is barely peaking above the distant trees.

Cellular Frequency Bands in Canada

Canadian cellular carriers use some of the same LTE cellular frequency bands as US carriers, so many devices will "just work" without any fuss. And the fallback 2G, 3G and 4G/HSPA+ technologies match up north and south of the border too.

But not everything is the same - and there are some important differences that can impact your ability to roam north of the border, especially if you want to be able to take advantage of the fastest LTE speeds.

In particular - LTE Band 7 is widely used throughout Canada, and is not used at all in the USA. In the future LTE bands 38 and 40 are slated to be used by Canadian carriers too, and those bands are not licensed for use in the USA either.

To ensure maximum compatibility and the best possible coverage and speeds, you will want to make sure that your cellular equipment is compatible with all the key Canadian LTE bands. Flagship models (like the iPhones 6S or Nexus 5X) usually feature a full suite of international LTE bands - but many older devices, cheaper devices (including the iPhone SE), and carrier-specific models often are not as well equipped for international LTE roaming.

Here are the LTE bands in use by the three major nationwide Canadian carriers, and their subsidiaries:

  • Rogers (includes Fido, Chatr, Cityfone, Mobilcity) - LTE Bands 4, 7, 17 (eventually 2 & 5)
  • Bell Canada (includes Virgin, Solo, MTS) - LTE Bands 2, 4, 7, 12, 13, 17, 29
  • Telus (includes Koodoo, Mike, Clearnet) - LTE Band 4, 13, 40 (eventually 2 & 5)

Check your tech to make sure that you are compatible, and so that you know what to expect.

Canadian Cellular Tip: If you have devices with LTE Band 7 compatibility, they were probably made with the Canadian market in mind. Yay!

Finding Towers: There's a great website that lists all of the cellular towers in Canada, to help you find them: http://www.ertyu.org/steven_nikkel/cancellsites.html

What About Cell Boosters?

Most cellular boosters that work in the USA are also certified for use in Canada, but it can't hurt to check with your booster manufacturer to make sure that they have submitted all the necessary test reports and paperwork to make your gear legal.

Our current top pick boosters from weBoost are all certified for use in Canada and the United States.

Understanding your US Carrier's Canadian Roaming

In the past couple of years, all of the US based cellular carriers have vastly improved their international roaming agreements - making it even easier to stay connected when you cross borders.

Here's the options for the four top US carriers for travel in Canada.

Verizon

Verizon-logo-2015Vrvmi-top-pickerizon offers two different options for international travel. Although they do not have nearly as many roaming partnerships as T-Mobile does in Canada, Verizon's unlimited plan and XL and larger tiered plans (now grandfathered) are a top pick for Canada & Mexico travel.

  • The new Verizon Unlimited plan includes voice and text roaming in Canada and Mexico, as well as 500MB/day per line of high-speed data usage across the continent - with performance reduced to 2G speeds if you exhaust the 500MB amount. Hotspot is permitted, and subject to the 10GB of high speed usage cap per month.
    • If you are planning an extended trip in Canada or Mexico, do be aware of Verizon's fine print: "If more than 50% of your talk, text or data usage in a 60–day period is in Canada or Mexico, use of those services in those countries may be removed or limited."
  • TravelPass for Tiered Data Plans: Verizon customers can access their existing domestic plan while traveling internationally – including talk, text and high-speed data. While in Canada and Mexico, the rate is $5 per 24-hour period in which you utilize your plan.
    • Legacy plans of 16GB or higher (XL) include coverage in Canada and Mexico at no extra charge. They do reserve the right to suspend international usage if at least 50% usage is not with in the USA over a 2 month period. These plans are no longer available for new customers.
    • In over 65+ other partner countries, the rate is $10/day. If you don't utilize your plan in a 24-hour period, there is no charge. You do need to opt into the TravelPass option on your Verizon account to enable the feature – it is NOT automatic. This is however a super convenient and pretty affordable international option for occasional travel.
  • Monthly International Travel: If you prefer a monthly plan, Verizon offers a variety of options. In Mexico and Canada you can add a monthly plan by line for $10 – $25/month that gives you a bucket of minutes (or access to 99 cent/minute rates), text messaging, and a monthly data allowance.
  • More Information: Verizon's International Page

Grandfathered Unlimited Data Plan Warning: A special note for those protecting a grandfathered-in unlimited data plan. These older plans existed before all of the newer international travel options. There is an international travel plan you can add on to your owned gUDP (rental vendors don't allow it), but it is very pricey and doesn't give you much data at all. And, there's risk in the process of encountering a representative who switches you to the wrong plan. We recommend considering your gUDP to be US only, and seek out other options for international travel.

T-Mobile

rvmi-top-pick

With T-Mobile, you can roam just about anywhere internationally for free - and in Canada and Mexico you get high-speed service just as if you were at home!

With T-Mobile, you can roam just about anywhere internationally for free - and in Canada and Mexico you get high-speed service just as if you were at home!

T-Mobile offers an attractive plan for international travelers in it's ONE Plus International Plan.

For Canada and Mexico, T-Mobile's ONE Plus International allows you to use your entire domestic plan on their roaming partners in a program called Mobile Without Borders. This means you get unlimited voice calls and text messaging, and access to all of your unlimited domestic high speed data allotment while traveling.

And T-Mobile's high-speed data is NOT throttled in Canada. On our last trip, we measured speeds over 40Mbps in some locations. T-Mobile was actually faster and more reliable than the cable-modem in our rented AirBnB apartment!

T-Mobile also offers some North American data access on its other plans, including T-Mobile ONE, ONE Plus, Simple Choice North America, or legacy rate plans (with a qualifying feature). All of these plans are capped to 5GB/month of data usage in Canada and Mexico beginning November 12th, 2017.

  • Data usage is combined for Canada & Mexico per month - you don't get 5GB in each.
  • After 5GB is used in either or both Canada / Mexico, data speeds are slowed to 128kbps for ONE, Simple Choice, & Legacy plans or 256kbps for T-Mobile ONE Plus plans.
  • For prepaid T-Mobile customers on the MetroPCS sub-brand, roaming is included in Mexico & Canada for just $5/month extra, with a cap of 5GB.
Near the Canada / US border a T-Mobile device will see an overwhelming number of networks. You can roam freely onto almost all the Canadian options at full speed!

Near the Canada / US border a T-Mobile device will see an overwhelming number of networks. You can roam freely onto almost all the Canadian options at full speed!

International (beyond North America): All T-Mobile ONE plans now include 256kbps international roaming , and the plans can be upgraded to One+ Unlimited for 3G speeds. Simple Choice legacy phone plans also include unlimited international data at 2G speeds and text messaging in over 140 countries, in addition to the high-speed coverage in Canada and Mexico. And all T-Mobile voice plans offer a 20-cent per minute flat rate for making and receiving calls too almost anywhere in the world.

With T-Mobile, your plan and device must be activated within the US before your trip begins, and your plan must be used "primarily" domestically.

T-Mobile plans are not intended for extended international travel, and it seems T-Mobile defines this as 60% US usage over the course of a couple of months - and we have confirmed reports of termination letters from those who have pushed the limits.

NOTE: Some T-Mobile resellers, like Unlimitedville, do not support high-speed roaming in Canada. During our last trip we saw glacial 2G speeds of 128kbps on our Unlimitedville T-Mobile hotpsot, while our native T-Mobile iPad was cruising along in rural Canada at over 20Mbps.

More information: T-Mobile's International Page

T-Mobile Canada Field Report: T-Mobile has roaming agreements with just about every Canadian carrier, giving you access to the combined coverage maps of nearly every Canadian cellular service. This means you actually have more coverage at your disposal than even the locals!

But if you leave your phone in "Automatic" mode, T-Mobile will not always pick the fastest or best option to roam onto where you are.

If you disable the automatic carrier selection on your phone, you can try all the carriers nearby your phone, hotspot, or tablet can pick up. You might be surprised to find you can get a 10x speed increase with just a little experimentation!

Don't be afraid to try 3G network options - we ran into a few places where we saw faster and more reliable connections when on a 3G carrier than on LTE.

AT&T

ATT-Logo1The new AT&T Unlimited smartphone plans include the "Roam North America" feature which allows you to use your plan (voice, text, and data) in Canada and Mexico with no limitations.

Yes - even unlimited hotspots on the Unlimited plan will work. This makes AT&T an extremely compelling option for RVers who frequently travel north or south of the border.

Customers are still able to enjoy the international perks that they’re used to with this plan. You can use data in Canada and Mexico with no roaming charges. They do not need to add the Roam North America feature, it is automatically on the account. However, if a customer uses more than 50% of their data in Canada or Mexico for two consecutive months, the feature may be removed.

However, of important note - AT&T's Connected Car unlimited data plans do NOT include any international use (including the popular Mobley devices on these plans). 

Customers of AT&T's prepaid brands Cricket Wireless and GoPhone can also use their plans in Mexico and Canada at no extra charge, up to 50% of the time.

AT&T also offers an 'International Day Pass' option for travelers looking to venture outside of North America, and there are some business plans available for rent from resellers that include high speed international use.

More Information: AT&T's International Page

 

Sprint

Sprint_Stacked_4C_RMark_LowresSprint's international plans are a bit complicated to understand – there are two different programs that you can choose, they are free to sign up for, but you do need to sign up at least three days before your trip – and you need to pick the plan that best fits your needs.

  • "Open World" plan includes free unlimited calling and text messaging in Canada, Mexico, and many other Central and South American countries – and you get 1GB of high-speed data to use internationally per month – with additional data billed at $30/GB. You also get free texting and voice calls for 20-cents/minute in many other countries as well – with 2G speed data charged at $30/GB.
  • "Sprint Global Roaming" and get free unlimited data, text messaging, and voice calls for 20-cents a minute – but data speeds are limited to 2G (64kbps) speed on the Global Roaming plan, even in Canada and Mexico. While the 2G speed data may be unlimited - if you need faster access, you can purchase 3G speed data packages starting at $15 for 100MB for a day, up to $50 for 500 MB to use in 14 days.

More information: Sprint's International Page

Sprint Canada Field Report: In our testing, Sprint in Canada seemed to only roam onto the Rogers 3G network. If their was no Rogers, Sprint devices would not fall back to use any other carrier.

This meant our Sprint phone had no service in a vast number of places where our T-Mobile devices had no trouble staying connected.

Also - Sprint's "high speed" data in Canada with the Open World plan seems to be throttled - and top speeds seem to be capped at 2Mbps. Swapping between our T-Mobile SIM and our Sprint SIM in the same phone in the same location always gave us better speeds on T-Mobile, despite forcing T-Mobile to use the same Rogers 3G uplink.

And of course - T-Mobile was not limited to Rogers 3G. We could get high-speed LTE on a range of other carriers, absolutely blowing Sprint out of the water.

Google Project Fi

fi_logo_2xGoogle's "Project Fi" cellular service utilizes T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular behind the scenes domestically, but also offers a very flexible data usage package while traveling.

When in partnered countries (roughly the same 140+ that T-Mobile offers), you just pay the standard $10/GB rate that you pay in the US, except speeds are capped at 256 Kbps.

Google Fi Canadian Field Report: Our Google Fi Nexus 5X roamed to a range of carriers in Canada, and kept us connected nearly everywhere that T-Mobile did. But the data speeds were abysmal - usually well less than the promised 2G cap of 256Kbps. Our T-Mobile phone was often more than 100x faster for data, and would also let us make local calls without any extra cost.

But in a pinch - Google Fi was certaintly nice to have.

More information: Google Fi International Page

Getting Local Service on Canadian Cellular Carriers

Getting cellular service from a Canadian carrier as a non-Canadian resident can be a bit tricky and expensive.

To get a prepaid plan directly with one of the carriers, most require a Canadian credit card or banking account, and as well as a Canadian address.

However many carriers have resellers, who will allow non-Canadian citizens to sign up with prepaid accounts – which tend to have low data usage amounts.

Once you have a cellular plan activated, service outside of metropolitan areas can be spotty and unreliable.

There’s very little, if any, coverage in the wilds.

You'll also need to understand Canada's roaming areas, as unlike the US, different regions of Canada may be considered in or out of the local network for each of the carrier – depending on your plan.

There are three major carriers in Canada – Telus (www.telus.com), Rogers (www.rogers.com), and Bell (www.bell.ca). Each has its strengths and weaknesses in different parts of Canada, so be sure to check their coverage maps for your travel plans before investing much energy into trying to get a plan set up with one.

  • Telus – Telus has two options for getting an account – either a direct prepaid plan if you can find a kiosk who will sell you one without a local address. And their reseller account is also under the name Koodo which offers never-expiring prepaid data and minutes.
  • Rogers – US residents can purchase a prepaid plan through reseller Fido (www.fido.ca) or chatr (www.chatr.com). There are divisions owned byRogers, available in many malls and service centers. You can obtain a SIM card for your existing device, or purchase a new device – and then a flexible monthly plan can be purchased that is billed as you need it. Fido tends to be better for more extended stays with higher data limits, and chatr better for shorter stays.
  • Bell – US residents can purchase plans through reseller Virgin Mobile Canada (www.virginmobile.ca) by visiting kiosks in several chain stores like Walmart or The Source.

Another option is having a friend who is a Canadian resident add on a noncontract SIM card to their plan and you can reimburse them. We’ve read reports of others doing this with great success.

If you’re sticking to metropolitan areas, you may be able to hook up some very affordable and fast prepaid mobile internet deals with www.Mobilicity.ca and www.Windmobile.ca – they offer service just in the five largest Canadian cities of Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

International Roaming Services

  • Similicious – Takes the frustration out of searching for and activating a SIM as a non- Canadian resident. They’ll ship you a SIM card in advance from chatr (Rogers network) or have one waiting at your first destination. Rates for phone, texting, and data range from $45 to $60/month with up to 2GB of data included.
  • Telecom Square - Offers international daily unlimited data plan rentals starting at $12.95.
  • SkyRoam - Offers international daily unlimited data plan rentals starting at $8/day.
  • AlwaysOnline Wireless - Offers on demand hourly & daily international plans that can be activated from a single SIM card. Rates vary by country. In the US, they roam onto T-Mobile.

VPN Service: Virtually Getting Back to the USA

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Tips for Canadians Traveling in the USA

For Canadians traveling in the US, here are some options worth considering:

  • US Prepaid Plans – Obtaining a pre-paid or reseller plan with the major US carrier might be feasible, but tricky. The carriers may require a US based credit card and mailing address. 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. Since you are signing up with a reseller, they should be easier to work with as a non-US citizen. Check eBay as well for rental options. For options:
  • KnowRoaming – Toronto-based SIM sticker maker is offering an unlimited data package for $7.99/day that covers customers in 55 countries they have roaming agreements with. You purchase a SIM sticker for GSM based phones and tablets for $29.99 that auto-detects when you leave your home country, and then authorize the charge while abroad. They can also supply a local phone number. We were not able to confirm if the service allows for personal hotspot or tethering of the data, or if it is on device only.
  • Rogers: Roam Like Home – Effective November 2014, Canadian carrier Rogers launched a service for their customers traveling to the US. For just $5/day (with a $50/month maximum charge), customers can access their plans in the US. So if a customer has an unlimited talk & text plan with a 6GB of shared monthly data – the entire plan can be used in the US too. Customers just need to text the word 'travel' to 222, to enroll in the plan and they are only billed for days they use the service.
  • Roam Mobility – Utilizing T-Mobile's network in the US, Roam Mobility supplies a SIM card to Canadian customers that offers a variety of options for daily phone & data, snowbird seasonal packages and data only packages. Options start as low as $3.95/day.
  • Freedom Mobile  – Newer Canadian carrier Freedom Mobile (formerly) WIND Mobile began offering unlimited US roaming in 2014 as part of its regular plans, which may be an option for some.

 

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