By Greg Illes
When we began planning our Canada-Alaska trip, we knew we’d need to have Internet now and then — checking emails, paying occasional bills, tending to the various surprises that can come up when leaving home for many weeks.
Normally when we travel we use our cell phones and a 3G/4G hotspot, pay Verizon some extra bucks and we’re able to get Internet anywhere there’s cell coverage. But for reasons I have yet to understand, Verizon wants 100 times more money for the same service in Canada. Yes, that’s correct. Instead of $20 for a GB of data, Verizon charges $2 per megabyte of data. Simple arithmetic, that’s $2,000 per GB. No exceptions, take it or leave it. We left it.
So what about Canadian data/hotspot plans? All of the checking that I could do from the U.S. seemed to indicate that only Canadians can have Canadian data plans. I simply couldn’t get any other answer (but see below)
Okay, what about public Wi-Fi? Aha!!! We were assured by many people “in the know,” Canadians and travelers both, that public Wi-Fi was very common in Canada — at restaurants, libraries, visitor’s centers and so on. With nothing else to go on, we launched our trip with the intention of using only public Wi-Fi while in Canada.
Well, it worked okay at visitor’s centers for sure — when we could find them, when they were open. There weren’t many, and some closed at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., often before we arrived at the location. We found one library in the far north — they had a one-hour limit per day. Eventually, we gave up on the “public” part except for the rare visitor’s center. I think that if you’re wandering around in Vancouver or Prince George, public Wi-Fi might be pretty usable. But out in the remote areas where we like to travel, it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.
Private Wi-Fi was a dismal disappointment. RV park managers generally have no clue about electronics or Internet details. They install a router, maybe put a high-gain antenna on it (maybe), done. RV park Wi-Fi just universally sucks. Only on rare occasions were we even able to do Web browsing. Usually it was email, and headers and text only. Horrible. And some we paid extra for, as well!
So, after going from Canada to Alaska and enjoying our U.S. 3G/4G hotspot again, I vowed to try to find a solution after we went back into Canada on our return home. It took several visits, many questions, and some phone calls, but eventually I did find the magic formula. Turns out, nonresidents can have cell plans in Canada, but there are some limitations and some caveats.
First, what didn’t work: Telus and Bell had deal-breakers of one kind or another. For example, Telus had an upper data limit of 1GB for only $30, but additional data overages were charged at $500 per GB. No expansion possible. Another thing that doesn’t work is trying to pay for cell service in Canada with a U.S. credit card. Sorry, no can do.
The SOLUTION: Virgin Mobile has a prepaid plan for either 1GB or 2GB, $60 or $70 (Canadian) respectively, with an overage charge of $20/GB. So how to pay for it? They won’t take a U.S. credit card, remember. I had to buy a “top-up” code, available from any Canada Post office (and other places, too). I also had to buy a SIM card, and I had to have a compatible device (smartphone or hotspot) to plug it in.
Then it gets really simple: I called Virgin, asked to activate a new account, and gave them the SIM card number. That got the device activated a couple of hours later. Then I called Virgin again and gave them the top-up code. Presto: About 15 minutes later I had 3G/4G data for all my computers, tablets and phones.
I did decide to buy a Virgin-compatible device. They didn’t have hotspots at the store, so I bought a low-end smartphone for $150 (Canadian). I used the hotspot feature of the smartphone to feed data to my other devices. And because it’s a smartphone, I downloaded some of my frequently used apps to use them direct.
It’s possible to use a compatible or unlocked device and just plug in the SIM card — but I was not sure about the status of the phones or hotspot that we already owned, so I elected to spend the extra bucks. Total cost for a month’s data, about US$180.
This isn’t a solution that’s very attractive if you’re only visiting Canada for a week or two (too expensive). But if it’s a month or longer, it can make sense. It did for us, and we have a data connection anywhere there’s a cell signal. Not that THAT is all that common way up north, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
photo: public domain