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What cheap prepaid phone is good for travel between USA and Canada?
May 25, 2014 4:22 PM   Subscribe

I need a prepaid "burner" phone for work in the USA later this year. However, I will need one that works in Canada as well, which was not an option the last time I was traveled with one.

I will be in the USA in the fall. When I am in the USA I usually just pick up a cheapo "burner" cell phone like Net-10 or Trac-phone and top up the unit charges as I need.

This trip, however, includes several weeks in Canada. The last time (in 2009) I used an American prepaid phone in Canada my service would not allow me to call or receive outside of the USA. Any suggestions for a semi-disposable cheap phone / plan to be purchased in the New York City area that can work on both sides of the border?

Coming from Europe, I'm a bit confused when researching US prepaid plans. Providers like Verizon and ATT offer monthly prepaid plans for set fees. Are these similar to the "burner" phones I have used, where I just pick up a card at a drug store when I need to top up minutes, or are they bound for a contracted period of time? Can I just buy a cheap unlocked phone and stick in a new SIM card from one of these services, or do I need to buy a phone from them all ready to serve their wireless masters?
posted by zaelic to Technology (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
When we (Canadians) traveled in the US, we just bought a new sim card and paid a $3/day for unlimited talk/text/data from T-Mobile.

The sim card is $10 if you buy online but if you by from Walmart you have to also purchase a minimum of $30 pre-paid on it so it is $40 total. The sim card expires after 90 days unless you put $100 credit on it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:01 PM on May 25


Relevant Ask from April 2013.

But things change, so check for updates.

Specifically, one of the bigger US prepaid providers, Cricket Wireless, was just bought by AT&T's prepaid subsidiary, AIO Wireless, and will move from CDMA (Sprint network) to GSM/LTE on AT&T's network. So things are shaking up a bit.

> Providers like Verizon and ATT offer monthly prepaid plans for set fees. Are these similar to the "burner" phones I have used, where I just pick up a card at a drug store when I need to top up minutes, or are they bound for a contracted period of time?

The whole idea of a prepaid phone plan is that you load some money into the account, and the phone works as long as there's money left. Optionally, this can be charged on a monthly basis - there needs to be $MonthlyFee in your account on the day they bill. Or it can be a by-the-minute plan. Both versions exist.

> Can I just buy a cheap unlocked phone and stick in a new SIM card from one of these services, or do I need to buy a phone from them all ready to serve their wireless masters?

Either. I think most phones in the prepaid market are hand-me-downs from regular plans (e.g., passed on to teenager as Dad upgrades) and so they may be network locked. But if you bring a factory unlocked phone to a prepaid carrier, it will work as long as it is network compatible (CDMA for Sprint or Verizon networks, GSM for AT&T and TMobile, and a situation in flux for LTE and multi-network phones).

In the US, for an unlocked phone and a cheap prepaid plan, TMobile is probably your best bet - but check out AIO, Airvoice, and H2O Wireless too - all these are GSM carriers. Virgin Mobile is on Sprint CDMA, and CDMA networks are in general more fiddly because phones don't (didn't?) use an easily swapped SIM card to identify themselves to the CDMA network.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:04 AM on May 26


I regularly travel back and forth between Canada and the US. I have an unlocked GSM phone and usually switch my sim card at the border. In the US I use an ATT "gophone" sim card and purchase $25 worth of minutes ($0.10/min calling, $0.25 SMS) which last for three months. The sim card is free and can be gotten at an ATT store. They also have a variety of monthly (no contract) plans. In Canada I use a 7-11 Speakout sim ($10) and purchase minutes ($0.25/min calling) which last for a year. Neither ATT/Speakout require you to buy you a phone or place you on a contract.

If you don't want to have a separate phone number while in Canada, the ATT sim card will continue to work there, but your rates will be higher ($0.40/min to US/Canada). That would be fine if you need it infrequently, but would drain your balance quickly if you are using it a lot. BTW, all the rates I have quoted are for within-country calls; I don't have an experience on calling, e.g., Europe on one of these phones, but I imagine it would be pricey. If I were going to make such calls I'd probably use a local skype-to-go phone number and get their rates (plus local mobile airtime).

If you are buying a new/used GSM phone (or if you already have one), check that it is "quad-band" meaning that it works on the European frequencies (900 and 1800MHz) and the North American frequencies (850 and 1900MHz).
posted by pjenks at 5:53 PM on May 26


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