What iPhone plan should a frequent Canada-US traveler get?
July 1, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

I currently live in Toronto. From September to April, I'll live in Boston, with regular short trips back to Canada during that period. After that I'll come back to Canada. I am, alas, a total iPhone newb and I'm looking for advice on what someone in my position should do.

To give you a sense of how little a clue I've got, I've never actually had a smartphone before. I use an ancient dinky Samsung with no contract on WIND Mobile, whose network doesn't support the iPhone. So please assume I know nothing. (For example, I only sort of get the idea of unlocking a phone.)

What I'd like to do: get an iPhone and ideally be able to use it with a minimum of fuss and worry regardless of which city I'm in. I would mostly be using apps, checking email, and texting (less calling). However, I don't have a lot of money to burn, and certainly can't afford one of those legendary five-figure bills for watching a YouTube clip in the wrong place.

What would you do? Are there any plans that are tailored to this situation? Can I somehow take advantage of the (reputed) relative cheapness of US plans? Should I be swapping SIM cards or some other Jason Bourne business?

posted by Beardman to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd have a serious talk with Verizon about your needs and if they can give you a good plan, get an Iphone 5 through them. The phone comes "unlocked," meaning you can switch out sim cards when you cross the border. So if Verizon doesn't have a great plan for you, you have the alternative of getting a good U.S. plan from Verizon and a plan from a Canadian company for whenever you are over the border.

I find Verizon's phone customer service people are phenomenal. Talk to them, then order online. I would avoid any of their stores, which is where they seem to dump the much less phenomenal employees who know little but how to waste your time.
posted by bearwife at 11:52 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, it's not exactly what you want, but:

My wife got cheap Android phone from T-Mobile when we lived in Boston and unlocked it before we moved to Toronto. It works fine on both the WIND and T-Mobile networks. She keeps SIMs for both networks and switches them whenever we go back to Boston.

The T-Mobile plan is a cheap pay-as-you-go that can be switched from per-minute to (IIRC) $2-3 a day. She normally makes that switch when visiting the US and switches back when she returns. (See here for details; scroll to the bottom.)

If you're willing to deal with Android instead of an iPhone, you might want to consider getting one from WIND, getting them to unlock it (it cost me about $10 for my Android phone) and then getting a T-Mobile SIM and switching them when you cross the border.

Alternately, you could try for an unlocked iPhone (maybe used off EBay) that's known to work with T-Mobile network; it will probably work on the WIND network as well. My suspicion is that WIND's network will work fine with an iPhone; it's just that they won't sell you one.
posted by suetanvil at 12:17 PM on July 1, 2013

Unlocked iphone in the US with a pay as you go Canadian plan (and swap out SIM cards as you cross) would seem to be the best way of doing it. There is no such thing as a plan (in either country) that is at all cost effective once you cross the border.

Get the phone in the US (to get an unlocked one) with a year contract and just let it run out after you get back would be my first look for cost effectiveness.
posted by Brockles at 2:16 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two different SIMs that are only ever in your phone in their native country and don't have international roaming capability is the only way to make sure you don't rack up a huge bill through some mistake. T-Mobile in the US is the most convenient for this, but only works (with high speed data, voice and slow data will work) with the iPhones in some cities at present.

The convenience there is that you can switch not only between the per minute and per day PAYG deals, but can also switch back and forth between PAYG monthly plans and the others. And the PAYG monthly plans are the same price as postpaid, although the "high speed" data allowance is slightly less generous. (they throttle you if you go over rather than charging you or cutting you off entirely)

Alternatively, you can get a SIM from an at&t MVNO (Net10, Pure Talk, and a few others have reasonable data plans), which will have better iPhone compatibility (and more coverage in rural areas and smaller markets), but you'll have to pay them their $40-60 a month regardless of which country you're in if you want to keep your number.

With T-Mobile, if you put $100 on the new PAYG account up front, you'll have Gold Rewards status for the lifetime of the account, which means the account doesn't expire for an entire year after the last recharge, so you pay them $60 a month while you're in the US and nothing at all while you're in Canada. Also, there are websites where you can buy top up cards for T-Mobile at less than face value. Typically you can get a 5% discount.

I'll have to defer to someone else on what your best option is while in Canada.
posted by wierdo at 4:56 PM on July 1, 2013

When I was a Torontonian who spent time working in the US, I had an unlocked iPhone and I used Rogers in Canada, then I used this AT&T pay as you go service called "GoPhone", switching out the Sim cards. It was kind of a pain to use it because they didn't really want you to use it with iPhone so you had to do some hacking about. (this might have gotten easier since).

Rogers does have cross border US and Canada plans; I once looked into them and they seemed somewhat reasonably priced if you do a lot of traveling.
posted by pravit at 6:00 PM on July 1, 2013

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