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Cell phones Canada – What you need to know

We all know that mobile phones (called cell phones in Canada, or cell) are the best way to keep in touch when you’re on the road. What you might not know as a tourist is, that cell phone rates in Canada are shockingly expensive and rank as some of the highest in the world. Therefore, I suggest you decide on your phone strategy way before you leave home.

I have put together a basic cell phone guide for Canada to save you frustration, time and money and to make your Canada visit a good one.

Will Your Cell Phone Work In Canada?

Different countries and cell companies use different technologies and frequencies and your phone has to be compatible with them to work. Most cell phones are on GSM (Global System Mobile) technology on 3G and 4G/LTE. If this is the case for your phone it should be no problem to use your phone in Canada. If your cell phone company uses CDMA (Code Division Mobile Access) you will be out of luck and your phone will not work. Call your local cell phone service provider and get the details.

Is Roaming Truly That Bad?

Yes, it actually is. When using your cell phone plan from home you will be charged high rates for every call you make, every call you receive, every text you send and for the data you use. Check with your cell phone provider at home to find out what type of international plan they offer.

Be advised that even special international plans might be expensive and of poor value. Many of these plans are targeted towards those travellers with corporate expense accounts. I’ve had a few European guests over the years that paid hundreds of dollars in monthly cell phone fees while they enjoyed the Canadian backcountry life.

Do You Have An Unlocked Or Locked Cell Phone?

For quite some time I didn’t have a clue what it was all about, having a locked or unlocked phone. Travelling to other Countries made me learn fast.

If you decide to take your mobile phone to Canada, you better make sure that it is unlocked.  With a locked phone, you will be stuck paying your cell phone company’s roaming rates as soon as you land in Canada until you arrive at home again. This could break your bank account!

Canada just passed a new law that all cell phones sold in Canada must be unlocked and no unlocking fees can be charged. But that’s just in Canada; find out about the policies in your country.

Contact your provider about your phone, whether it’s locked and if it is locked, how you can get it unlocked.

An unlocked phone can be used anywhere in the world. It enables you to replace your home SIM card with a local SIM card of the country you are travelling in. Don’t panic, these days most cell phones are built to work in most countries, and therefore your phone will probably work in Canada just fine.

How To Unlock Cell Phones

The process on how to unlock a phone varies with each cell phone provider. There is a good chance that your phone can get unlocked without any problems. Policies differ in each country. In some countries, cell companies are required to unlock prepaid phones after a year and contract phones after they are paid off. In any case, your first step is to contact your cell phone provider.

If your cell phone provider refuses to unlock our phone, the best way is to contact a third-party service that specializes in unlocking cell phones; you can find them all over the world. You can also locate unlocking services online. It’s smart to research the service before paying out any cash.

Your phone is unlocked, what now?

When you land in Canada with an unlocked phone, acquiring a SIM card is a cheap and simple process. The cost of a SIM card in Canada is around $10 and you pay approximately $50/month for a useful amount of calls, texts and data.

Best Cell Phone Plan from all Canadian Service Providers:


The major national providers in Canada are Rogers, Bell and TELUS and you can find their stores at every shopping mall and often at airports. Each provider has slightly different rate plans.

What you want to look for are the discounted Brands:

Instead of going to a mobile phone store where they will try to sell you their brand, drop in at Walmart or, Best Buy Canada. Both stores offer all the various brands; they will try to get you the best deal and usually are helpful and knowledgeable.

Chatr is a hassle-free provider, especially recommended for travellers. They offer affordable, flat fee prepaid plans with no surprises, no credit checks and no term contracts. I suggest you check them out.

What If Your Cell Phone Doesn’t Work In Canada

If your cell phone isn’t going to work in Canada, or you can’t get it unlocked, you still have a few options:

  • Only use free Wi-Fi – Your cell phone will still connect to Wi-Fi without a SIM card.
  • Use apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype to communicate with everyone when WiFi is available.
  • Buy a cheap cell phone – If you’re in Canada for a while and you only want a phone for emergencies, for texting, and maybe some light web browsing, just buy the cheapest prepaid phone you can find at Walmart or any other store and it will do just fine.

Cell Phone Reception In Canada

Don’t depend on having cell phone reception outside of major centres. Canada is sparsely populated, especially the northern part of the country. In many areas, cell service is non-existent once you’re out of town, and definitely not when you’re in the middle of nowhere. You will find dead spots even in populated areas, so never totally depend on your cell phone.

More Tips For You!

  • Using your cell phone from home without adjusting your data settings will add enormous roaming costs as soon as you arrive in Canada. You will know that you’re connected when you see one of the Canadian carriers, such as Telus, Bell or Rogers at the top of your screen. That means you are roaming and the charges will be transferred to your home cell phone bill.
  • To avoid a big cell phone bill, turn off your cellular data before you arrive in Canada which automatically turns off data roaming as well.
  • Do your homework before leaving home and avoid bad surprises.
  • Look out for WiFi hotspots in Canada, Coffeeshops, Restaurants, Visitor Information Centres. Switch off your data to WiFi and use their network.
  • Buy a local prepaid phone and don’t worry about large bills.

Don’t Text And Drive In Canada

Please note that in Canada it is prohibited by law to use a cell phone, texting or surfing the web while driving a motor vehicle.

Other Travel Tips

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Yrene Dee

Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.

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