ET, phone roam.
June 7, 2010 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Best way for a Canadian to have a cell phone in the US?

I'm a Canadian who travels to the US for about a week every 2-3 months, usually to NYC, Pennsylvania or Los Angeles. The roaming charges on my Canadian cell phone (the name of the specific carrier rhymes with Hell) are exorbitant. I do not understand what SIM cards are or how they work, and my current cell phone is a crappy free one that came with my plan, so I don't know if it's "unlockable" or whatever. I would like to have easy, cheap cell phone access while I'm in the States.

Should I buy a cheap phone and a prepaid plan, then just carry that phone when I travel? I looked at the prepaid options on offer at one company (rhymes with Pee Mobile) and it was about $20 for a phone, then between 10-30 cents / minute for airtime (those minutes expire after 90 days) depending on how many minutes I were to buy at a time, and 5-10 cents per text message.
I have no context; Is this a good deal? Is there a better deal to be had, or a better strategy?

If your advice involves my having to physically open up my phone and tinker with things to switch it, please explain it to me like I'm six years old.
posted by pseudostrabismus to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My parents are snowbirds... they both have cheap pay-as-you-go phones for the winter. (One with Virgin Mobile and one with T-Mobile.) They buy $90 or $100 dollar cards, which don't expire for a full year. They never get through all that credit, but as long as they top up every year, the credit does not expire.... so they look at it as paying about $8/month to maintain US phone numbers -- plus they always have a ton of credit to make long distance calls and they never worry about running out of minutes.
posted by kaudio at 8:01 PM on June 7, 2010

You can do better on the prepay. I have a Tracfone, which I don't think is the best one for me, but the price seems a little better:

- $30 for a phone with "double minutes" (that means you get two minutes for the price of one when buying airtime)
- $100 for a 1-year card (gives you 400 minutes [which becomes 800, see above], and they don't expire for a year. This is a one-off big-purchase to get the year of service, you can start smaller if 3 months is ok). There will also be a promotion code on the website that will add another 200 minutes to that, for a total of 1000 minutes for $100
- When you buy more minutes, the service-time is added to your existing remaining service time. (So if you buy another 60 minutes, you get 120 minutes added to your total airtime and 3 months added to your service time, so your phone service is good for 15 months)
- txt's are .3 minutes. So you're initial costs if you buy the year card are 10c a minute voice and 3.3c a minute text

- if 90 days is ok (ie you don't want to pony up $100 right off the bat), then:
8c/minute, 2.8c/text with an $80 card, or at the other end of the spectrum...
17c/minute, 6c/text with a $20 card

I buy 90-day cards (the $80 cards have the best rate) after a once-off purchase of a 1-year card just to ensure the service would be active until so far in the future that not using my phone often would never result in service expiring before my minutes.

My dislikes with tracfone is that their phones are locked to their service - you can use your own phone, and they only offer cheap phones (ie just the basic functions, plus bluetooth and a crappy cam). I'm planning on moving to a service where I have more phone freedom.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:16 PM on June 7, 2010

Correction: you can't use your own phone
posted by -harlequin- at 8:19 PM on June 7, 2010

With Tracfone, you also have to dial a toll-free number (similar to the way you dial a store-bought calling card) to make a phone call outside of the US. It gets a little annoying when you call home a lot...
posted by kaudio at 8:29 PM on June 7, 2010

T-Mobile-To-Go is the best service price-wise.

Get either a t-mobile phone or an unlocked phone.

This Phone is $30.

This SIM card will get you up and running. The phone will come with instructions on how to install the SIM card - basically you pop the battery out and put the SIM card in underneath the battery.

Once that's done, customer service is 611, and to add minutes dial *233. Follow the prompts (be careful to remain on the to-go plan, they try to scam you into their other pre-paid plan - when they ask "do you want the such-and-such plan?" push the button for "no").

Add $100 to the card. This gives you 1000 minutes (10 cents per minute) and it's $0.05 per text message - incoming or outgoing and the minutes last for 1 year.

The store I linked to is in SoHo, NYC. If you just visit the store next time you're in town, they can set everything up for you.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:40 PM on June 7, 2010

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