Answer-only (dumb) cell-phone for USA and Canada
April 7, 2015 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm a US resident, looking for a cell-phone I can use both in the USA and Canada to receive phone calls. Any outgoing calls would be a case of a very serious emergency, and I don't particularly care what they cost. Minimal if any texting. No smartphone. Minimal minutes. I'm looking for a way to have a phone on which a few select people can reach me if they need to, and which will work across the widest area possible. Long standby battery life a plus. Suggestions for phone and plan appreciated.

I already have an iPhone on AT&T, but there are areas where I travel where AT&T does not have coverage. For example, just about all of US 2 between Minnesota and Seattle is spotty. I also want to be able to receive calls on the same phone (and same phone number) in Canada, and my iPhone didn't reliably receive calls out in the prairies or in northern Ontario and Quebec.

I've pondered buying a satellite phone from Spot, but if there's a terrestrial solution, that's probably simpler and cheaper. I just can't seem to find it. Thank you in advance, hive-mind.
posted by DaveP to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Considering your very low usage and coverage problems, you're probably better off with the Spot phone (which almost certainly must use the Iridium constellation, since I haven't heard of anything competitive and the specs are similar). Certainly places like prairies and north Canada aren't going to be well served by any terrestrial tower network.

The really cheap plans that used to exist are gone. Case in point, my father had a very old flip phone with a $9.99 plan that had limited minutes and no frills. One day he got a bill that said his rate was $29.99 witha $20 discount. When he called to inquire he was told that this was no their cheapest tier of service, but he had been grandfathered in with a discount that would remain as long as he didn't switch plans. Difficulty: His phone had a fault that caused it to power down randomly on battery power, which changing the battery didn't fix, and if he bought another phone from them BAM! new plan, $30/month please.

So I had to go on eBay and find him a used dumbphone from his carrier which he could and take in to be switched in for "his" phone, which is the only way he could get a new phone on the ten dollar plan. Nobody wants to deal with those cheap plans any more. So if you're only going to be using it ten minutes a month anyway, you might as well spring for the satphone and be able to use it in the middle of nowhere.
posted by localroger at 3:52 PM on April 7, 2015

Have you considered a SpareOne phone?
posted by Cog at 4:03 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: Ting offers basic service for $6/month on Sprint's network, and then adds usage on top of that as needed for minutes, texts, data or roaming in Canada. Perhaps pair with a cheap Dura XT?

US carriers don't distinguish between received and originated calls like European carriers do, so I don't think the "receive only" aspect of this will matter. Minutes are minutes here.

Spot will certainly have better coverage than any terrestrial solution, but also will be very substantially more expensive.
posted by eschatfische at 4:26 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that the only network with substantial coverage in Montana is Verizon. I'd stake a bet that that is true along most of US 2, though I don't actually know.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:32 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

That Ting plan is cheap, but it's not really as cheap as it looks if you use your phone at all. The six bucks is just for your device, 1-100 minutes -- or any usage of the phone at all -- adds $3, and 1-100 messages or any usage for texting at all adds another $3. Add to that 15 cents a minute for using it in Canada and the fact that Sprint's coverage pretty well sucks...

Can't speak for Montana but here in Louisiana, my company Sprint phone loses coverage even on a lot of major highways that are well travelled but not close enough to the Interstate. Our techs complain about it constantly. Meanwhile, it's hard to find a place where Verizon doesn't work, including swamps and industrial boatyards hanging out into the Gulf of Mexico.
posted by localroger at 4:36 PM on April 7, 2015

According to AT&T, you have access to all the major carriers in Canada, so if you aren't getting cell coverage, that's because it doesn't exist where you are in Canada. There is still plenty of Canada, even along major highways, that doesn't have coverage, especially northern areas.

Sounds like the Spot phone is your best option.
posted by ssg at 6:00 PM on April 7, 2015

Response by poster: For reference, the price on a spot is USD780/year (with a free phone on the Galaxy 1200 plan ). Not horrible, but significantly more than $6/month.
posted by DaveP at 6:08 PM on April 7, 2015

I have no experience with them, but what about a pager?
posted by Monochrome at 8:53 PM on April 7, 2015

You could use any phone with wifi and google voice. People with your number could also just leave messages and you could return them when you have internet (either on a computer of phone)...if immediate accessibility isn't a priority? Pretty sure any phone (in the US anyway) can call 911 even without a legitimate phone service).
posted by AnneShirley at 1:54 AM on April 8, 2015

I don't think satellite phones work indoors, which might be a problem.
posted by mskyle at 4:27 AM on April 8, 2015

I think I've recommended this a bunch on Ask Mefi, but it's served me well for the past four years -- a Palm Pixi Plus on Page Plus Cellular. The phone has very solid battery life (about a week on standby for me) and there's an option to buy 100 minutes for $10, which will last 120 days -- a total cost of ~$30/year if you don't go over that. And Page Plus uses the Verizon network, so there shouldn't be coverage issues (plus they have an international calling card option, which also rolls over month-to-month).
posted by littlegreen at 6:32 PM on April 8, 2015

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