Keeping Connected in Canada – Mobile Internet Options for RVers & Cruisers

Canada is a very large country, with a lot of wild unpopulated areas. While unpopulated places are often desired by RVers and nomads, the lack of internet sources in these areas is often not.

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 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 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.

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Satellite Internet in Canada

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Cellular Frequency Bands in Canada

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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 Beyond Unlimited and Go Unlimited plans include 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."
  • Tiered Data Plans: Verizon customers on capped data plans can access their existing domestic plan while traveling in Canada – including talk, text and high-speed data. You can add TravelPass for $5/day to use your domestic talk, text and data allowances for a 24-hour period in which you utilize your plan.
    • You must enable TravelPass on the MyVerizon website or mobile app to enable in the International Services section. There is no charge to make this change and keep it active.
    • The fees will only be charged on days you actually use your plan’s inclusions; but if you go over your plan's data limit, you'll be hit with overage and roaming charges.
    • High-speed data usage is limited to 500mb per day.
    • If no service is used in a 24-hour period, there is no charge. We recommend turning your cellular off on your phone if you are using this service trying to avoid charges for periods of non use.
    • Monthly Canada add-ons are also available, but are restrictive and pricey. The $15 per month pack includes 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 100MB of roaming data each month, while the $25 plan comes with 500 minutes of talk, 500 sent texts and 1GB of data.
    • Legacy plans of 16GB or higher (XL) include TravelPass in Canada 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.
  • Monthly International Travel: If you prefer a monthly plan, Verizon offers a few 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.
    • Currently, the $15 per month pack includes 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 100MB of roaming data each month, while the $25 plan comes with 500 minutes of talk, 500 sent texts and 1GB of data.

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

 

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!

All current, and some retired, T-Mobile plans are now capped to 5GB/month of data usage in Canada and Mexico (as of November 2017). The T-Mobile Essentials plan offers unlimited data 2G speeds in Canada & Mexico.

T-Mobile Canada Roaming Terms:

  • T-Mobile ONE and ONE Plus plans offers data access in Canada, capped to 5GB/month of data usage in Mexico as of November 12th, 2017.
    • Data usage in Canada is capped to 5GB / month - and if you happen to also travel to Mexico in the same month, you are using one 5GB data bucket between the two.
    • After 5GB is used in Canada (and/or Mexico), data speeds are slowed to 128kbps for ONE plans, and ONE+ plans are slowed to 256kbps.
  • T-Mobile's Essential plan offers unlimited texting, talk and data at 2G speeds in Mexico and Canada.
  • T-Mobile ONE Prepaid plans 
    • Data usage in Canada is capped to 5GB / month - and if you happen to also travel to Mexico in the same month, you are using one 5GB data bucket between the two.
    • After 5GB is used in Canada (and/or Mexico), data speeds are slowed to 128kbps for ONE plans, and ONE+ plans are slowed to 256kbps.
  • T-Mobile Simply Prepaid plans can get the same Canada features as T-Mobile ONE Prepaid plans for an additional $5/month per line.
  • MetroPCS, T-Mobile's prepaid brand offers roaming in Canada for $5/month extra, with a cap of 5GB.
  • Retired Plans:
    • T-Mobile One +International included unlimited high speed data use in Canada & Mexico without the 5GB/month cap. This was THE plan to have for North American use. This plan is now grandfathered in.
    • Simple Choice T-Mobile Plans, including the now retired Simple Choice North America or other legacy rate plans (with a qualifying Mexico feature) are also now capped to 5GB/month of data usage in Mexico as of November 12th, 2017.
      • Data usage in Mexico is capped to 5GB / month - and if you happen to also travel to Canada in the same month, you are using one 5GB data bucket between the two.
      • After 5GB is used in Mexico (and/or Canada), data speeds are slowed to 128kbps.
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!

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

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. If your needs are more than a couple of months in Canada, a direct T-Mobile plan will not likely work for you.

Also, we recommend procuring your T-Mobile plan at least a month or two advance of your trip, and using data, to establish primary US use. 

NOTE: Some T-Mobile resellers, like Unlimitedville, do not support high-speed roaming in Canada.

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-Logo1As of 2017, AT&T's Unlimited Plus/Choice and AT&T Unlimited Enhanced Plus/Choice 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 now retired Unlimited Plus 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.

In May 2018 AT&T dropped the 50% restriction from the Unlimited Enhanced plans (it remains in effect for the Unlimited Plus/Choice plans).  This means customers on Unlimited Plus Enhanced or Unlimited Choice Enhanced could use ALL their data in Canada with no additional restrictions.  However, this feature is limited to smartphones and certain other devices only.

AT&T's Connected Car (including the popular Mobley devices on these plans) unlimited data plans and Homebase / Wireless Internet plans do NOT include any international use. We have a variety of reports of service just simply not working across borders, to extremely high international roaming charges - so definitely disconnect your device BEFORE getting near borders.

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 confusing – and seem to change on a whim.

  • Unlimited Smartphone Plans: Have free roaming in Canada and Mexico with LTE data.
    • Unlimited Basic:  5GB of LTE Data
    • Unlimited Plus: 10GB of LTE Data
    • Unlimited Premium: Unlimited LTE Data
  • Premium International Experience (now retired) Unlimited Freedom plan customers get free LTE data roaming, texts and voice calls in Canada and Mexico - deemed the "Premium International Experience."
  • "Sprint Global Roaming" those who are not on an 'unlimited Freedom' plan are eligible for this option. You 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. You must sign up for this 'add-on' at least 3 days in advance of your international usage.
  • Data Passes If you are not eligible for the "Premium International Experience" (aka, on an Unlimited Freedom plan), but you still need faster access at faster than 2G speeds, you can purchase data passes. These passes provide you with full speed data for $2 a day or $10 a week - limited to the constraints (data limits) of your plan.

Sprint's fine print implies that they network manage all international data usage, stating:

To improve data experience for the majority of users, throughput may be limited, varied or reduced on the network. Sprint may terminate service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds a majority of KB. Offers and coverage not available everywhere or for all phones/networks. Network speeds subject to coverage/device availability. Sprint reserves the right to change or discontinue offer at any time.

So basically, these international plans are not meant to be used for lengthy periods of time - make sure you are using most of your data in the US.

Get the Book

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 (capped at $60/month with an allowance of up to 15GB of high speed usage), and speeds are now full speed as supported by your device and the roaming partner.

More information: Google Fi International Page

For more info on the various plans available from the big four US carriers:

Guide to Selecting a Data Plan


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 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 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. 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. 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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Summary

While Internet 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.

Headed 'all the way' North to Alaska? Check out our guide:

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