How to find cellular access when traveling (without international roaming)

A short trip from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., shows how thin our conduit is to connectivity—and how expensive an international pipe remains.

iphone data hog turn off cellular access for facetime 2

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

My wife, two kids, and I just took a three-day trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, from our home in Seattle. Joining us were three laptops, two iPod touches, three Kindles, and two iPhones. We remembered to bring clothes and sunscreen, too.

Traveling to Canada is just like going to another country—they have different currency and units of measurement, they spell “center” as “centre,” and they have different telecommunications companies. The variety of potato chips almost makes up for it.

Before we left, I did my usual research into how we’d keep online. We knew the Airbnb rental to which we were going had Wi-Fi, and I assumed that the profusion of free Internet service I was used to in the States would be as abundant. We were staying near Stanley Park, and there are hundreds of shops, grocery stores, and restaurants within a few blocks.

My wife and I hardly make phone calls: most of our cellular usage is for data. Even text messages make up a fraction of our activities. I have Skype on my iPhone, and we mostly use iMessage for “texting.” Surely this would all work out.

It wasn’t nearly as easy as I’d hoped.

Cellular cost calculations

We’re AT&T customers, and our carrier does have a simple plan called Passport for over 150 countries, including Canada. Rates for a month are $30 for 120MB, $60 for 300MB, and $120 for 800MB of cellular data. Overages are $0.25, $0.20, and $0.15 a megabyte—yes, that’s $250, $200, and $150 per gigabyte. The plan includes unlimited texting, unlimited Wi-Fi through partner networks where available, and discounted per-minute calling for two higher-priced plans.

This seemed a bit lousy. We thought we might need to make no calls and maybe only exchange a few texts with our host, which turned out to be the case.

We were also concerned about overages—120MB isn’t that much data. And, while iOS has allowed flipping on and off cellular data while roaming (with the Data Roaming switch) and on a per-app basis, as well as many apps featuring internal cell data options, the reliability of whether those app-specific controls work is a question. Airplane Mode is the most reliable mode of all. I wrote an extensive explanation of iOS 8’s switches and options for enabling and managing usage earlier this year.

Airplane mode is the most reliable way of making sure you don't use cellular data when outside the country.

(A side note: Until iOS 8.3, Airplane Mode disabled the GPS receiver on iPhones and cellular-equipped iPads. This made it impossible to use track offline map data reliably, even with Wi-Fi turned on, as Wi-Fi positioning typically requires a live data connection. With iOS 8.3 and later, you can use a fully offline navigation app or download an offline map in Google Maps and still get GPS positioning.)

I have the podcast app Overcast set to download over cellular, as I’m at home most of the time or on an Wi-Fi hotspot; as much as a few hundred megabytes of podcasts per month (from a 10GB allotment) come in that way. In Canada, that might have accidentally cost me a couple hundred bucks. (AT&T reputedly will let you change your plan within the same billing period and re-rate the cost. Several people on Twitter said they had called and had that adjustment made after a trip.)

Verizon has a far better deal for Canada and Mexico: $10 per monthly period including 100MB with $10 per 100MB overages ($100 per gigabyte); for $5 additional, 100 calling minutes, 100 outgoing texts, and unlimited incoming texts are included. Internationally, in over 140 countries, the same deal is $25 per month and $15 extra for the calling and texting options. It also includes unlimited partner Wi-Fi where they have deals.

T-Mobile and Sprint opted for a different approach. Both carriers offer or include unlimited international data usage with a twist: your data uses 2G networks (including 2.5G EDGE), which top out in the low hundreds of kilobits per second. Unlimited texting is included, and calls to anywhere are $0.20 per minute. T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan includes this option at no cost; Sprint offers International Value Roaming as an add-on or included with its top-tier plan. Sprint also has paid daily, weekly, and monthly high-speed data plans for its included countries: $15 for up to 100MB in a day through $50 for up to 500MB across 14 days. The plans run out of data rather than incur overage fees.

The big difference between T-Mobile and Sprint? Covered areas. Sprint has just a handful of countries, including Mexico but not Canada. T-Mobile’s deal spans 120 countries, which includes most of the developed world and beyond.

(Update: Starting July 15, T-Mobile's Simple Choice Plan will include unlimited calling and up to a given plan's limit for 4G LTE data in Canada and Mexico as well as in the United States. That is, if you have a 1GB plan, you can use that 1GB in all three countries at 4G LTE rates until you've used it up, at which point you revert to the slower rate for the rest of the billing period.)

Google’s Project Fi has T-Mobile’s footprint and the same parameters as Sprint and T-Mobile for calls and texts, but includes 3G data at up to 256 Kbps. Project Fi charges $10 per GB for all data, including international. The service remains invitation-only, however.

One of these plans may suit, but an alternate is to unhitch yourself from your American carrier’s wagon and find another.

Get a local SIM for your phone

The vast majority of iPhones now in use support GSM roaming in most or all of the world. While two cell standards, GSM and CDMA, are in use in the U.S., Apple began making dual-mode GSM/CDMA phones for Sprint and Verizon, our domestic CDMA carriers, in 2011. Over time, the phones expanded to support more frequencies in use for 3G and 4G LTE worldwide.

But whether your carrier uses CDMA or GSM, you still need to unlock your phone—a software operation, not hardware—to swap in a different SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) card. A SIM is used to authenticate you to a cellular network and contains information that lets carriers sort out whom to bill.

Carriers in America are required to unlock phones promptly since the passage of a bill last year by a frustrated Congress—the House voted 69 percent in favor and the Senate was unanimous!—and rapidly signed by the president. However, with AT&T and T-Mobile, you need to have paid off the cost of the phone under contract or by paying termination fees. Apple provides general instructions on unlocking. You can visit unlocking pages at AT&T and T-Mobile to check requirements and complete the process. Verizon says it doesn’t lock iPhones nor most other phones. Sprint has some requirements for unlocking with non-U.S. networks, but is generally amenable.

Once unlocked, you need to find a SIM that works in a country you’re visiting. You can purchase SIMs from several firms that will deliver them to your U.S. address, and which you can swap in when you travel. Some come with a local phone number in the country you’ve visiting; others can be restricted for data-only use. For quick and infrequent travel, like ours to Canada, it’s not a great deal, as the SIM costs $20 to $30, sometimes including credit.

For instance, Telestial will sell you a European-only SIM for $19 with $10 of credit or an international one (55 countries for data) for $29 with $20 of credit and both US and UK phone numbers. Data is $0.25 per MB ($250 per GB) for the European card and $0.35 per MB ($350 per GB) for the international one. They also offer a card preloaded with 1GB of usage that expires in 30 days after activation for $99.

You might also check OneSimCard, which has $0.25 per MB data, but also data packages between $25 for 250MB (used within 14 days) to $99 for 2GB (used within 30 days). Cellhire has various fixed-usage, no-overage data bundles, while the National Geographic Society (yes, them) has a branded SIM via CellularAbroad that bundles data, text, and calling in units of $29 with data about $0.50 per MB in most locations.

There are a lot of combinations, and I haven’t yet tested any, so I suggest reading online reviews and asking colleagues and friends. You can also look into whether a carrier in the country you’re visiting will sell a SIM and prepaid service, which many do; Three in Ireland has a €20 ($22) per month prepaid unlimited data usage plan, for instance. Again, this is more worthwhile for longer or repeat visits than one-off or short trips.

The newest iPad models come with an Apple SIM that makes it easy to jump on another country's network.

iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 users who just want mobile data (and could conceivably use Skype or other services for handling phone calls) can use an Apple SIM for roaming. On July 1, GigSky expanded a partnership with Apple that provides services in 90 countries. Its pricing varies from competitive with SIM providers to much better. A 250MB data plan (30-day expiration) costs $50 in Canada, or $0.20 a MB. In the UK, $50 buys 3GB ($0.02 a MB).

Find Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi wasn’t scarce in Vancouver, but it’s locked down to a remarkable degree. And Wi-Fi gets you access to data and iMessage, but not SMS/MMS messaging, which passes only over cellular networks.

Much of what I found were personal hotspots connected to national ISPs, or business networks that weren’t open to customers. In some cases, such as at a Whole Foods location, I could bring up the portal page, but no matter how many times I clicked “I Agree,” I was still out of luck while sipping my kale smoothie.

Had I opted for AT&T’s deal, I would have had…no Wi-Fi at all in British Columbia. AT&T’s listing for hotspots across all of the Great North says, “Available in Winnipeg, and some smaller airports including Abbotsford International.” Uh, OK. Other carriers have Wi-Fi partnerships, too, but they don’t seem much better in Canada or elsewhere.

Finding fast-food and coffee chains and individuals shops is often a winning solution. But you can also tap into on-demand and subscription Wi-Fi. Skype can recognize when you connect to a supported hotspot—it claims it has deals with 2 million worldwide. You have to pre-purchase Skype credit, and it’s charged at per-minute rates which seem to be about $0.03 to $0.06 (roughly $2 to $4 per hour).

Both Boingo Wireless and iPass offer extremely large international hotspot network access at fixed monthly prices. Boingo charges $5 a month for unlimited hotspot use in the Americas for up to two Wi-Fi devices at a time on the same plan. They have other regional plans, or $5 a month globally on up two mobile devices. A $39-a-month worldwide laptop and mobile plans includes 2,000 minutes of use a month. Some American Express cardholders even qualify for free service.

iPass’s core market is corporations, but they offer an individual plan that’s only sold as an annual subscription rate of $468 ($39 per month), but includes unlimited service at what it counts as 19 million hotspots.

Vancouver turns out to be an odd city: the above three services only include access at 13, 26, and 17 hotspots, respectively, across the entire town. Most other cities of the same scale I’ve checked in Canada and elsewhere have far more included hotspots.

Unplug, tune out, charge up

On our Vancouver trip, we hit the perfect storm. Our Airbnb host didn’t text information about how to check in until after we crossed the border, though we’d told her in advance that we’d have no cell access. I wound up having to turn on cell access to receive a couple of messages, which led me to a nearby coffeeshop that handles key exchanges, and their Wi-Fi network, which let me onto Airbnb’s app, which provided the rest of the details I needed.

We only spent a couple of dollars extra to be as connected as we wanted to be on the trip, but we’ll plan more wisely next time, so that we don’t feel ourselves adrift on a sea with mobile, mobile everywhere, and not a bit to drink—except at a high price.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon