A Guide to Dodgin Cell Phone Roaming Charges in Canada

Avoiding That Surprise Vacation Cost

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One way you can tell whether you're being subjected to roaming charges while traveling in Canada is to check your carrier when you open your phone. It will tell you which carrier you are accessing to make the call. If you see Rogers, beware; it is definitely a Canadian provider and could result in very high-cost calls.

What Is Roaming?

Roaming is continued data service that you get when you travel outside of your mobile operator's coverage area. Cooperative agreements between your cellular provider and other network operators allow you to access the Internet or make calls when traveling outside of the United States, and that includes Canada.

What Do Roaming Charges Cover?

Domestic roaming is usually free, but you could very well be charged fast and furiously for international data roaming, such as sending or receiving emails or downloading Internet content such as web pages as part of a web search, accessing an address with Google Maps, and watching online videos and movies.

How Do You Avoid Roaming Charges?

You do have options:

  • You could buy a minutes card from a Canadian provider. Or you could be vigilant about keeping an eye on your data consumption and keep it low. Be aware that sometimes services and apps we use can keep connecting to the Internet without our knowledge. Learn how to monitor your mobile data usage.
  • You could also contact your cell phone provider before leaving on your trip. While relatively few and far between, there are U.S. providers that include Canada within their service area.
  • Check whether your provider offers international rates plan, essentially a service package for your trip that eliminates or reduces the roaming surcharge. Rates vary according to your destination, your provider, and whether you're texting or calling. With Verizon, for example, you pay domestic US rates if you are texting from Canada. For travel in Canada, At&T offers a low-cost Day Pass for unlimited talk and text for 24 hours; an equally low-cost, 30-day Passport; and relatively low pay-per-use rates. Sprint and T-Mobile also offer lower roaming rates or unlimited data and texting for Canada. 
  • Turn off "data roaming" on your phone. If you want to be able to make and receive phone calls, but you don't need data services on your trip, turn off "data roaming" and "data synchronization" on your device. If you do need some cellular data access (for instance, for GPS or Internet access outside of Wi-Fi hot spots), turn data roaming on only when you use it. 
  • If you just want Wi-Fi access, turn on Airplane Mode, which turns off the cellular and data radio; but on most devices, you can leave Wi-Fi on. So if you know that you'll have wireless Internet access (maybe in your hotel or at a free Wi-Fi hotspot like a coffee shop), you can still go online with your device and avoid the data roaming charges. Virtual phone features found in VoIP software/services and Web apps like Google Voice can be extremely helpful here. They allow you to have a phone number that can be forwarded to voicemail and sent to you as a sound file via email, which you can check via your Wi-Fi access.

    Is Call Forwarding a Solution?

    Stay away from forwarding your calls to your voice mail. This might seem like a good way to avoid answering an incoming call, but your carrier may consider this answering a US-to-Canada call. Worse yet, you may be charged again when the call is forwarded back to the United States, the location of your voice mailbox.