Cell phones – the umbilical cords of globalization.
The world has become much smaller as it has become more communicative. From Peru to Pakistan, and everywhere in between, the smartphone is one of the most vital tools in any canny traveller’s kit.
But what’s the best way for a Canadian abroad to stay in touch without having to pay a hefty markup? Today, let’s tackle the best solutions for roaming abroad on the market.
1. Buy a Local SIM Card
For my money, the most effective solution to using your cellphone while abroad is to buy a SIM card when you’ve landed at your destination.
Local plans are reflective of local prices, and as Canadians are some of the most overcharged people when it comes to cell phone fees, particularly for mobile data, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a better deal on the ground of wherever you’re going to.
By the way, I’m not insinuating you should buy a SIM card the second you land. Pretty much every airport on the planet now has mobile kiosks with English-speaking sales staff trying to foist their “competitive” phone plans upon unsuspecting foreigners.
Avoid such individuals, and find a seller in town. I’ve found that either hotel concierge staff or alternatively, your Airbnb host, can be ideal fonts of information when it comes to finding reliable local SIMs.
Another advantage of purchasing local SIM cards is that in many countries, Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, are the dominant form of communication. Locals, including businesses like restaurants, often won’t respond to traditional calls or text messages.
In such situations, it can be ideal to get a local SIM card because mobile data will be offered at a far more competitive rate than whatever your service provider is charging you whilst roaming. If you do wind up purchasing a local SIM, you’ll want to make sure to set your VoIP app to use your new, local phone number.
Note that when travelling abroad, there is always a slight chance that your model of phone may not work with local SIM cards or technologies. Therefore, always do your research before travelling to ensure you possess a compatible phone.
2. Cafe Camp
You could also forgo purchasing a SIM card entirely. I’d recommend this option only in locales that rely heavily on VoIP services, as then you won’t be too disadvantaged by missing old-school texts or calls.
This sort of thing is in fact quite common, if not the norm, for citizens of countries where Wi-Fi is free but cell service is comparatively expensive, such as Cuba.
By turning off your roaming setting and also keeping your device on airplane mode, albeit with Wi-Fi enabled, you’d be able to just use any publicly-available Wi-Fi with the Canadian SIM card in your phone.
Then, you’d be able to connect to whatever VoIP service is preferred at your destination for all your communication needs.
It’s important to note that this method is best utilized when combined with a service such as a Virtual Protocol Network (VPN) because it can help encrypt your data against potential security threats. Always be cautious when browsing sensitive personal data on an open network – even at home in Canada!
3. Use Your Mobile Provider’s Roaming Plan
Of course, purchasing another SIM card can be a bit of a headache if you don’t speak the local language or aren’t the most technologically-savvy individual out there.
There’s also an argument to be made that convenience commands a premium of its own, and “cafe camping” is certainly not convenient for every single traveller on the go.
If that’s the case, then it might be alright to accept your carrier’s roaming fee. The industry average appears to be about $15 per day across carriers who allow unlimited roaming, but these permit you the full usage of your device as if it were in Canada whilst overseas.
Too bad this is in addition to the cost of your regular bill. I’ve compared Telus, which is big here in Western Canada, with Bell for posterity’s sake:
One of my pet peeves for these services is that they don’t always have a maximum cap on charges; you could theoretically run up $15 a day in roaming fees indefinitely. Hardly ideal for a mini-round-the-world bonanza.
On the other hand, it would appear that the lower cost of $12 for all-you-can-use service is standard when voyaging across or through the United States. Not exactly a stupendous savings, but cheaper than pay-per-use.
My recommendation is that if you must use this option, do so sparingly and for short-interval journeys only.
4. Google Fi?
If the idea of collecting SIM cards like backpackers collect their flags or paying your mobile provider $15 a day doesn’t appeal to you, then I may just have the solution: a service called Google Fi.
Before we start, I want to advise you that Google Fi is listed as only being available to Americans. This means you’ll have to have, at a minimum: a US-issued credit card, a US address, an US-based Google account created with a US IP address, and a 5G-enabled smartphone that meets Google’s compatibility requirements.
Once you have these in hand, you can consider which Google Fi plan is best for your travel needs. Personally, I feel that the plan of US$20 per month plus US$10 per gigabyte of data is the best economic option available, though there are other ones with more comprehensive service for you to ponder as well.
The best part is that on Google Fi’s Flexible Plan, you’re charged for a maximum of six gigabytes of data, or US$60, per billing cycle, with data being unlimited and free past this point. Funnily enough, the “Unlimited” ones can often ding you for data!
Next, you’ll need to order a Google SIM card. And as a modern technology company, they offer you a few choices.
You can get an e-SIM card and start using your Google Fi account instantly, but not every phone is capable of this.
Alternatively, you can wait for your physical SIM card to arrive at your US address and either pick it up and enable it during a trip, or arrange to get the chip shipped to you here in Canada.
Either way, it’s up to you to get your US IP address working, for which you’ll need a US VPN. Having that US IP address should then permit you to successfully active your Google Fi account, at least if your device is e-SIM compatible.
The other key condition of activation is you need to connect to a US cell phone tower. You can either do this in the United States, or at areas close to the border such as the famous Niagara crossing. Or you could cross to Buffalo to complete this.
Once your account is active, you can always pause your service via your Google account, which will suspend your payments (taken automatically via Google Pay) until you re-enable Fi. I’d recommend doing this whenever you’re not on a trip, in which case you’re billed at the regular monthly rate of your chosen plan.
For those of you with either e-SIM capabilities or a dual SIM port (which many modern cell phones, especially flagship models, possess), Google Fi allows you to always have your travel option built into your device – an ideal roaming solution for any traveller.
One word of warning, though: I’d be cautious about using your Fi account too heavily within Canada, and definitely wouldn’t switch to using it as your daily carrier, because this product is supposed to be for Americans only.
Too much foreign usage could seem suspicious, and there’s no point risking a potential account shutdown just so that you can avoid a Canadian telecom company.
One final thing to consider: Google Fi is in beta development on Apple. Whilst I’m an Android fanboy, I know many Miles & Points enthusiasts are equally loyal to iOS.
Thus far, I haven’t heard any gripes from my US-domiciled Google Fi user friends who are Apple aficionados, but it’s something to consider.
e-Sim Services: Mix and Match
This last option is for a variety of service providers on the market, but will only work if you have a modern device with e-Sim capabilities. While the prices might not necessarily beat the local ones you find upon landing, these will give you the peace of mind of finding a mobile service provider prior to stepping onto the plane.
There’s also convenience to consider: with many e-SIM providers, you simply purchase the e-SIM and activate it according to the instructions of the issuer once you’ve reached your destination(s).
Options that I find interesting are those such as Airalo, which provides e-SIMs for given destinations at competitive rates. Take India, for example:
US$13 for 3 GB and 30 days of data (which one can use with call/text apps for those capabilities) seems not half bad. Beware, though: the prices aren’t always guaranteed to be the best. Let’s analyze South Korea:
US$32, admittedly with unlimited data, for 10 days seems a little steep compared to at least checking the local market. At US$62, the US version is worse than just getting Google Fi or a local SIM, but admittedly much superior to using a roam plan.
There are of course other products available on the market: I’ve heard of DENT e-SIM, for example, but I found its availability of products to be a bit more lacklustre than those offered by Airalo, which had a very straightforward assignment by country, instead of offering limited availability by a set number of places. DENT also requires you to use their app which may not be to everybody’s liking.
At the same time, only a handful of e-SIM products permit the use of call/text so if that’s important to you, then consider it in your final decision.
In a digitized world, keeping in touch has become more important now more than ever before.
That’s why cell phone service can be such a concern for any would-be globetrotter, and can turn into an unexpected expense if not properly accounted for ahead of catching your flight.
I hope that some of you will get to use a local SIM at a fraction of a price, or jump through the hoops of joining our cousins to the south in using Google Fi.
And if both of those solutions sound even less appealing than using public Wi-Fi, why not just turn on your carrier’s roaming plan for the convenience factor?
Until next time, roam cheaply.