What’s the Best Cell Phone Plan for Travelling in the U.S.

I travel to the USA several times a year – to go camping, sightseeing, and of course shopping! Many of us do. And when we go we take our mobile phones with us. But even though using your Canadian mobile phone in the USA is as easy as it is when you’re on home soil; the price of doing so can be quite shocking!

So as I plan my next trip the USA it was quite a nice coincidence that Mobile Syrup published an article about a new promotion from Roam Mobility. This got me thinking about some of the alternatives we have to the obvious choices and what I should do on my next trip south.

The Obvious Choices

We have three obvious choices: do nothing; turn-off the phone; and buy a travel bundle.

Do Nothing
By doing nothing you’re basically calculating that you won’t need your phone much and if you use it you’re just going to pay what it cost and that’s it. Hopefully you’re right. Or maybe you’re one of those idiots who streams YouTube to get to sleep at night and didn’t realise the phone companies were going to make you pay for the service you used.
Turn Off the Phone
Ah yes, the glory days, when only truckers, cops, and taxis had radios. The rest of us planned our days ahead of time, organized rendez-vous points, and inflicted the last to arrive with a stern “Where the hell were you!? We’ve been waiting like for-e-v-e-r for you!” As warm and fuzzy as nostalgia is in our minds the reality is we’re not going back there.
Travel Bundle
This one’s a toughy! Is the travel bundle worth it? Are you going to use that many minutes or messages? Would it be cheaper to Do Nothing? What if you go over? This is essentially what I did a few a years ago and then decided the next year I would do nothing – which worked out well the first year but came out even the year after.

These are the choices the Canadian telcos have presented us with.

The Alternatives

Enter the alternatives! In the USA there are many more mobile phone providers than we have here, most are MVNO’s (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) who run on one of the Big Networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.). Provided you’re only there for a short period (a few days to a couple weeks) you can get some pretty amazing deals!

There are also some Canadian and international MVNO’s that sell service to travelers to the USA. In fact, what got me going was the Canadian company Roam Mobility and their SIM Swap promotion.

Essentially what you’re going to be doing in this case is getting a new, US-based, mobile phone service. Whether you bring your own device and simply insert their SIM card in-place of the one you have now or buy a device from them too you are getting a new phone service, and this has some considerations:

  • Using your existing device requires it to be unlocked. This can cost anywhere from $5 to upwards of $50 depending on the device and whether you go through your carrier or a third-party.
  • If you use your existing device and swap SIM cards then your existing line (voice and messages) go into limbo. Your calls will go to voice mail (assuming you have) and your SMS messages will pile-up in your inbox. Of course voice mails you can check from another line but text messages you generally can’t.
  • You will have to let people know what your new US number is if you expect them to call you.
    • Your friends will have to pay long-distance charges to reach you; or
    • You could forward your Canadian number to your US number but you’ll probably pay extra for the forwarding service (by the minute or for the month) and the long-distance charge.

Consider too if you’ll only be making calls to US numbers, or if you’ll be calling home egularly too. And how often you’ll be using the plan since some have relatively short (i.e.: 30 days) expiry limits.

NOT For Your Consideration

There are a lot of alternatives really, depending on your requirements and objectives. I’ve mentioned Fongo here, and will again later, because they offer number portability, true phone service with SMS, and their basic service is FREE. But there’s no reason to ignore popular messaging services like Google Talk/Hangouts, LINE, Viber or even BBM if those suit your needs. There’s also providers from comWave to Vonage to Voip.ms to consider. And nothing wrong with the grand-daddy of them all: Skype! All of these could be factored into the mix here, but that’s another article!

Some Comparisons

There are far too many choices in the USA to compare them all here, and finding them isn’t always easy either. Pay-as-you-go and Pay-per-day plans are getting rarer and rarer it seems. Some aren’t even officially listed anymore!

AT&T GoPhone
This is their prepaid service and they have a variety of smartphone and basic plans, but the one I’ll focus on are the $2/day unlimited minutes & messages that is only charged when you use it.
T-Mobile Pay by the Day
They have two flavours of pre-paid service: for $3 a day (on the days you use it) you get unlimited minutes and messages and unlimited data with first 200MB on 4G (and the rest on 2G); for $2 a day you get the same all-you-can-eat buffet but you’re stuck on 2G the whole time.
Roam Mobility
A Canadian company reselling T-Mobile with a twist: $4/day gets you unlimited talk & text in the US and to Canada and 100MB on 4G; while for $3/day you loose the data but keep the unlimited talk & texting.

The biggest difference between these three plans is that AT&T and T-Mobile expire after 30-days whereas Roam Mobility keeps your account active for a whole year. Another difference is that AT&T seems to require the purchase of a GoPhone whereas T-Mobile and Roam offer SIM cards (allowing you to bring your current device).

Buy the Numbers

So here’s some cold hard numbers to compare, taking into account the considerations I mentioned earlier. To start with let’s see The Obvious Choices.

Do Nothing
According to Bell’s web site you’ll pay $1.45 minute and 75c per text message, data will clock in at $6 per megabyte. If you’re calling some one you’re travelling with then they’re probably paying as well.
Travel Bundle
Again with Bell, For the $50 Travel Bundle you’ll get 50 minutes, 50 MB, and 200 text messages. Beyond that you’ll pay 50c a minute, $1 per megabyte, and 25c a message.

Before pricing The Alternatives there’s a few things to consider. Some are one time costs but you still need to pay them so they’re worth considering.

  • Unlocking: Approximately $40 so you can use another network’s SIM card in your phone.
  • SIM card: For $10 to $20 you get a US SIM card with a US network.

If you’re going to forward your Canadian number to your new US number so friends can keep calling you there’s a couple more costs to consider too.

  • Call Forwarding: For $5 a month (with Bell) you can forward your Canadian number to your new US number.
  • US Long Distance: For $35 a month all that forwarding to a US number is covered.

On top of that you have the daily rates as detailed in previous section. So for example, if you take the Roam Mobility $4/day plan for seven days that’s $28. Add that to all the other charges here and it’s $128 the first time you use their service!!! Admittedly that drops to $68 the next time you use it. And you can easily chop $40 off the top if you avoid forwarding your number to drop down to the promised $28.

Here’s a table comparing some of the choices.

More Complicated Scenarios

To alleviate the issue of having to leave your Canadian number at home and missing out on all those calls and text messages from home here’s a couple ideas.

Fongo
Fongo, previously Dell Voice, is a Canadian VoIP service with apps for Android, iPhone and a home phone service. If you get one of the aforementioned plans with sufficient data (100MB = 200 minutes) you could forward your Canadian number to your Canadian Fongo number and use their app on your phone to receive and make calls home. They charge $3/month for outgoing Canadian & US text messages though, and you’d have to find a way to forward your text messages to your Fongo number.
Dual-SIM
You could get a Dual-SIM phone so you could still receive calls and text messages on your Canadian number, but instead of answering you would call back using your US number (assuming the plan you choose includes free or low-cost calls back to Canada).

There are other alternatives to Fongo, like ePhone from comWave.

An Extreme Solution

If you really want to set yourself up to roam then one solution would be to simply get a data-only (or tablet) plan and use a VoIP service (like Fongo, or Google Voice if they ever come to Canada – c’mon Google!!!) for calls and messages. When you travel to the States pick-up something like the T-Mobile $3-a-day plan and keep using your VoIP service to make & receive calls to Canada. This way there’s no difference for your friends back home who can always reach you at the same number and convoluted forwarding to avoid missing calls. Bell, Rogers, and Telus all offer flexible data plans so the month you’re travelling (and paying for a US service) you would probably be billed less for your Canadian service. Just be wary of the 30-day expiry on many US offerings.

Cross-posted on 2FatDads

Advertisements

Arc the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Sony Ericsson!

Yes, I know, I’m going straight to hell. But then Lord Jobs probably wasn’t going to let me in to heaven anyways!

It’s been over a week now that I’m using a Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and I still always try to spell it Experia! Unlocking the phone to use on my network was the most frustrating part of the experience so far – not the phone’s fault or FastGSM.com‘s fault either, like usual Windows had driver issues!

(Future rant: more vendor support for Linux)

If you want to know what I went through, FastGSM.com has an excellent video on their YouTube site.

This phone is sleek, like so sleek the fanboy’s here are going to wish the iPhone 5 looks like this! The concave back of the phone sits nicely in the hand; and the 4.3-inch touch-screen goes almost edge-to-edge making it feel like you’re in that Corning Glass commercial. The display uses Sony’s Bravia technology so it’s crystal clear. The other thing you notice looking at the front of the phone is there are only three buttons, not the usual four – Sony Ericsson has done away with the Search button, as they should. The right side of the phone holds the camera and volume buttons, and the top holds a diminutive – but functional – power button.

The only downside to the phone’s concave design is it leaves the excellent Exmor R 8-megapixel camera taking the brunt the contact when you put the phone down. A case would alleviate this problem but also destroy the aesthetics of the phone.

Speaking of the camera

It goes up to 8-megapixels with pre-sets for 2-megapixel and 6-megapixel in 4:3 and 16:9 formats (no 4-megapixel preset which is unfortunate since that’s the free limit at Picasa). It can also do sweep-panorama and 3D sweep-panorama.

To see the 3D photos though you need to hookup to a 3D TV using the HDMI connector. Sony has once again demonstrated they can build a phone with an excellent camera – or is it a camera with an excellent phone?!

Gingerbread Sandwiches

The Xperia Arc runs the latest version of Android: 2.3 Gingerbread. And includes some interesting applications out of the box (I’ll be honest, the first thing I did after un-locking it was de-branding my phone – I’m sure it originally had some bearable applications but I’m really not interested). And Sony Ericsson has confirmed they will be upgrading all their Xperia phones to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Schnapps

Taking the prize for most interesting and the prize for most frustrating is Sony’s own Timescape application and widget. This displays a timeline of events (tweets, messages, calls, etc.) on your home page. The display is beautiful and scrolls nicely forward and back. But that’s it, it’s read-only! For example, you can’t reply to or re-tweet an interesting tweet! You have to open your Twitter app, find the tweet again, and deal with it there. So what’s the point!? Sony has released the Timescape API so better implementations may be forthcoming but the precedent is not good.

Happily Sony Ericsson allows anyone to unlock the boot loader. Although it comes locked a quick visit to their web site will provide the instructions for unlocking it – after the requisite, repeated, acknowledgements that if you FUBAR your phone you’re on your own, no help from Sony if ye enter here!

Since I’ve got the phone I’ve installed a few apps that I seem to use regularly:

Android Terminal Emulator
‘Cuz this is the way real unix works – no matter how small the package!
Angry Birds
What more do I need to say!?
Bitdefender Carrier IQ Finder
And I’m happy to report that Carrier IQ was NOT found on my phone!
BusyBox
Real Linux in a real small package!
Data Monitor
Not sure why this one isn’t in there out of the box, but it’s good to know.
Finance
Unfortunately it doesn’t support my Canadian stocks, but hopefully it will be updated soon.
Foursquare
I’m going for Emperor of the World badge now!!!
Google Books
This ought be easier than carrying around the actual Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Google+
Instant photo uploads is a pretty cool feature, then I just have to get them organized in PicasaWeb (auto-organization would be the coolest feature ever).
Solitaire
Ever since the first computer the first thing you look for is Solitaire!
Superuser
What fun is linux without a little su action?!
TimmyMe
Gotta have my mocha!
Titanium Backup
So I can keep what I want and blast the rest to oblivion!
Twitter
Once a twit, always a twit!

What I’m missing at this point though is a good note keeping app and an official Google Tasks app. The note keeping app may end-up being Evernote, but I’m keeping an open mind for now.

My only complaint is there seems to be a quirk of the market that it doesn’t synchronize with what’s actually installed on the phone! So when I de-branded my phone I got rid of all the carrier installed cruft but it’s still in My Library in the Android Market – I’m never going to install it again so I really wish it would disappear! But there’s doesn’t seem to be any way to re-synchronize what’s on the phone with what’s in your library?!

A thousand monkeys

This is the first phone I’ve had without a physical keyboard, and though I was dreading it the default keyboard is very quick to use. My finger never leaves the surface, I just slide back and forth, changing direction (or pausing) over the key I want to type. Of course, it’s not the same as 10-finger touch-typing and occasionally my other digits want to get in on the action!

Cuppa Java

Every now and then I get the itch to develop something like a powerful spreadsheet macro or a funky iGoogle gadget. Now I’ve got a phone I can really develop for, but unfortunately the development environment is based on Java! Now, I was Java Ninja – 10 years ago! The year 2000 called, they want their programming language back!!! It’s not real Java since it’s actually running on an alternate virtual machine called Dalvik but you’ve still got to deal with everything that is Java while developing (like Eclipse). We know that inside the Googleplex they’ve got some Go apps running natively on the ARM processors of their Nexus phones, but nothing’s public yet (and Go is targeted at server-side, there’s no UI in the core packages, so I’m not even sure what they’re running on those Nexuses).

Conclusion

Awesome phone!

Cross-posted on 2FatDads at Arc the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Sony Ericsson!