Note: This is a guide aimed at getting a fast, semi-cheap, data/voice/text plan for Americans with unlocked phones traveling in Canada and information is up-to-date as of November 2013.
Whenever I travel to another country, about a week before the trip I hit up the prepaid SIM travel wikia page for info on cheap options with the most bandwidth for my phone. Having a data connection is vital when traveling, especially for parents. It’s not just about getting Instagram sunsets at the beach, I need to be able to find my way back to the hotel with my daughter and connect with my wife whenever we are apart in a different country. Maps, Yelp, and Google have been indispensable while traveling and I can’t imagine being in a strange place without their help.
My Verizion phone plan in the US charges way too much for bandwidth in other countries, even when you pay the extra rates (which, last I checked start at $20/mo extra and bandwidth costs extra on top of that, sometimes totalling hundreds of dollars for less than 1Gb of data). Other countries often have “pay as you go” and “prepaid” SIM card options that are ridiculously cheap compared to almost anything in America (a Gb of data can cost as little as $10). The problem with public wikis is the information gets out of date (some pages of that wikia site haven’t been updated in years) and even recent round-ups like this one on iMore are already more than a year old with pricing that doesn’t reflect current rates. I’m going to describe the exact steps I took to get online.
First step: unlocked?
First you’ll need an unlocked American phone, so that means either a Android Nexus phone purchased from Google or a iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s on Verizon (earlier 4 and 4s models can be unlocked by Verizon but it’s a pain as I found out in early 2012). I’m not sure if Sprint or AT&T iPhones can be unlocked. I had a iPhone 5s for my trip to Toronto, and I also had my wife’s unlocked 4s.
Find a Koodo kiosk or shop
I browsed a bunch of information online and decided that Koodo (a Telus subsidiary) offered the most bang for the buck because 1Gb of data was only $30. They won’t ship SIMs, MicroSIMs, or NanoSIMs to the US, so as soon as I landed, I only had free WiFi at airports or hotels until I could find a shop. Luckily, there was a Koodo kiosk in a mall close to my hotel, which I walked to soon after arriving.
You’ll want to ask for a prepaid SIM, and you can take it home and set it all up yourself on a laptop, tablet, or even your phone, and you might even save some money (there was a $20 credit when I was setting things up). Instead, I got my necessary SIM cards (NanoSIM for the iPhone 5 and up, MicroSIMs for earlier models) and paid for the cheapest unlimited text plan ($15), 100 minutes of talk ($10), and 1Gb of data ($30). With tax, each SIM cost me about $60 Canadian and I was given a special code to apply to the cards during sign up. If I could have gotten the SIMs for free and finished setup at home, it would have been $20 cheaper for each phone.
Activate the SIMs
I fired up my laptop and pointed it at https://activateprepaid.koodomobile.com/. You go through a signup process, and I was sure to pick the same options I already paid for. I applied my PIN from the sales receipt, and everything was complete. Armed with a paperclip from the hotel’s front desk, I opened the SIM door on my phone and slid the Koodo card in. In a few moments it was on the network and a quick test with WiFi turned off revealed that everything was working, and I had a new strange temporary Canadian phone number, which I stored on my wife’s phone (and vice versa) so we could contact each other. iMessage still uses the network, so texting between other iPhone users (including my wife) worked just as it used to.
The bandwidth was impressive for my short trip. In downtown Toronto, I found speeds of 10-15Mb downloads (and even uploads sometimes), faster than my hotel’s WiFi connection. You should monitor your bandwidth use at https://prepaidselfserve.koodomobile.com/ as I found myself using a couple hundred Mb of data each day (mostly Google Maps or looking up operating hours of museums and restaurants while uploading lots of photos along the way). For my short five day visit, a $60 1Gb plan worked out great and was much cheaper than the alternatives. I only ended up using 781Mb of data and made just one test phone call throughout my stay.
I published a little photo gallery of the entire trip on the new Exposure site, featuring photos I took all on my iPhone while out and about.