One of the biggest concerns for many Canadian snowbirds is this: how will I be able to access the Internet while I am traveling down south? Here are the solutions we came up with. I hope they will be helpful for other Canadians traveling in the USA and Mexico.
Before we headed down south, we were concerned about how we would be able to access the Internet during the months we planned to be in the USA and Mexico. We knew we would not be able to set up a cable account for Wi-Fi, as of course cable is not an option in an RV!
Some RV Parks Offer Free Wi-Fi
Of course, some RV parks offer free Wi-Fi. Well, immediately you start traveling, you realize that is not a reliable option. In most state parks in the USA, for example, there is no Wi-Fi at all. And in many of the private parks that advertise themselves as having Wi-Fi, you will find the Wi-Fi to be very weak, or even completely useless. Or, it can only be used in a limited space. For example, when we were staying at Dogwood RV Park near Vancouver: they had excellent Wi-Fi – but only in their laundry! For that reason, I spent many hours trying to do my work in a noisy laundry room!
So, if you want to have a reliable way to access the Internet regularly while traveling, you have find a viable cellular option so that you can access the Internet with your own device – usually, your phone. Which you can then set up as a hotspot to connect your other devices, such as your laptop.
What is a Hotspot?
Basically, you can set up a device such as a phone or a Jetpack (read more about that below) as a hotspot. This means that it creates a personal network that your other devices can join. Usually this is done in a non-physical way. For example, you use your phone to create a Hotspot, by going to Settings and Enabling Personal Hotspot. Then, you open your network settings on your computer, look for your phone, and click on it. The first time, you then have to put in a password that will appear on your phone settings. Your phone will also tell you about other options for connecting, as you can see below.
Another way to connect two devices is called tethering (referred to in the picture above as connecting using USB). This is a physical connection, and sometimes works better. To do this, for example, you would plug a lightning cable into your laptop, and then plug your iPhone into the other end of the cable. We sometimes find that a hotspot on our phones just refuses to work unless it is physically connected. We have never had this problem with our Jetpack, but it does have options for tethering.
Our Canadian Cellular Phone Plans
Of course, we both had cellular data on our cell phones in Canada, but our data came from Fido, a Canadian company. Our plans gave us 10 GB of data each, per month. Fido would let us roam internationally, but that would cost us each an extra $100 a month, on top of the $110 we were already paying for our plans. Plus, this would only give us 10 GB of data a month, which is not really enough to run an online business. Or to supply entertainment. For example, a single evening of streaming movies will burn through about 7 GB of data.
So, a total of 20 GB of cellular data would cost us a whopping $420 per month (Canadian dollars). And it would not be nearly enough to meet either our business needs or our entertainment needs.
Roaming Charges Outside of Canada
As soon as you use your Canadian cell phone in a different country, roaming charges will automatically kick in. This applies whether you use it for phone calls, texts, or browsing the Internet. The charges will vary, depending on your provider and the country you are in. Right now, Fido charges $10 per day, to a maximum of $100 per month, for the USA.
If you don’t want to be hit with unexpected charges, put your phone into Airplane mode before you cross the border! (You can toggle Airplane mode on and off near the top of your Settings screen, if you have an iPhone.)
Travel Packs for Traveling Outside of Canada
Canadian providers offer international cellular data plans, called travel packs. They usually include a limited amount of data, plus a limited number of phone minutes and text messages. Sometimes the text messages are unlimited.
You can purchase these travel packs for a short vacation, but in our experience, these are very expensive for what you get. However, if you don’t use the Internet very much, but you want to be able to make a few phone calls while traveling, it is worth checking out the price of this with your provider before you travel. Compare it to the price of roaming, to assess what is cheaper for you.
Can Canadians Get Cellular Plans in the USA?
We had been given conflicting information about whether we could get a cellular plan in the USA. Some people thought we could do it in a mall, others thought it was pretty much impossible without a US address. Google gave us similarly confusing advice, so we decided to just wait and see what we could do once we got there.
The Verizon Prepaid Option for Canadians in the USA
Once we were in the USA, we simply went into the nearest Verizon store. It was in Warrenton, close to Fort Stevens State Park, where we were staying. We explained our situation to a helpful young man. It turned out that yes, Canadians could get a data plan in the USA, as long as it was a Pre-Paid Plan. About 30 minutes later we walked out of the store, with Maggie fully set up. She already owned an unlocked iPhone, and she bought a prepaid Verizon plan for US$75 per month that gives her unlimited cellular data, plus unlimited telephone calls and texting in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. She also has access to her cellular data in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
This was achieved very simply: the Verizon salesman put a new sim card into her phone, activated it, and then called a number to make the first monthly payment. To keep this plan going, we were told that all she had to do was to call in once a month to pay with a credit card. Also, she could buy another month at participating stores, such as Fred Myer. She tucked her own chip away, for use in the future when we return to Canada.
Problems with Paying for Prepaid Plans with the Automated Systems in the USA
We later found that there is one very big catch for Canadians. This catch applies to both Verizon and AT&T. When you try to phone in to renew your monthly plan, the automated system will not accept your credit card if it is not associated with an American Zip code. Which of course it is not, as your permanent residence is in Canada.
You will then be in for a world of frustration as you attempt to get hold of a real human being. (And if you are like me, you will end up screaming at your phone.) For that reason, we ended up prepaying our plans for several months, at a store, with a real human being, rather than trying to deal once a month with a phone system that is not set up for Canadians.
Using Your Phone as a Hotspot
Crucially, Maggie’s Verizon plan also allows her to use her phone as a hotspot. This means she can connect her laptop to the phone (wirelessly with Bluetooth, or with a USB cable), so that she can access the Internet on her laptop and get her work done in the comfort of our Fifth Wheel. And of course, watch Survivor on her laptop! And I can connect my phone to hers, and my laptop, so that I can also access the Internet via her account.
So, Maggie ended up with unlimited cellular data (as opposed to 10 GB), plus she will have the use of her phone in Canada and the USA, without having to pay international calling charges. All this for less than half the price she would pay for a much lesser plan from Canada! She did have to pay a one-time $35 activation fee to Verizon.
Catches with Verizon and Why You Should Use Free Wi-Fi Whenever Possible
Note: There are a couple of catches that no one tells you about with the Verizon plan. When we bought Maggie’s Verizon plan, we thought we were buying an unlimited plan. We thought this because it is called “Unlimited”!
However, it is not really unlimited. Although the data is unlimited, it will slow down after you surpass a certain amount of data in one month, which I believe is 22 GB. We have never got to that point, so I don’t know how much of an impact the slowdown would have. But for that reason, we do continue to use free Wi-Fi whenever we can.
You might think that 22 GB is plenty for anyone, but once you start to stream videos, you can eat through that in no time. We once used 8 GB in one evening, when we thought we were connected to Wi-Fi, but were actually connected to my cellular plan. That led to extra charges on my account, just for a few hours of streaming Netflix.
Also, what no one in the store told us is that when it comes to hotspotting, it is not unlimited at all. Instead, after 10 GB (which is basically one day of streaming videos), hotspotting will slow right down. If you are about to buy a plan, take the time to go online to the provider and read all the details first (which is what we should have done).
Also, there is a serious catch when it comes to using Verizon in Mexico – see further below in this post.
Even with that said, we still think the Verizon unlimited plan is great value for money for Canadians. Even though it is annoying when it slows down.
Note: We have since discovered that AT&T’s “unlimited” prepaid plan has similar limitations. For example, here is what happened to me during my second month with AT&T. I got the first message about 15 days through the month I had paid for, and then the second message two days later. After that, hotspotting became almost unbearably slow.
For these reasons, even if you have an unlimited data plan, be sure to try and use free Wi-Fi whenever possible. We are constantly on the lookout for free Wi-Fi opportunities.
Accessing the Internet at Starbucks and Other Businesses
All Starbucks shops have excellent Wi-Fi, and they don’t seem to care how much time you spend there, or how much or how little money you spend. Once you have logged in for the first time at one Starbucks, your devices will be immediately recognized at other Starbucks shops. Just make sure that each time you go into a Starbucks, you open your settings and select the Starbucks Wi-Fi.
Also, we have noticed that most businesses have free Wi-Fi in the USA. For example, Fred Meyers has excellent free Wi-Fi, so you can be downloading your favorite podcasts while you shop. You just have to look at your Settings and select the relevant Wi-Fi network.
Usually restaurants have free Wi-Fi as well, but you have to ask for the password. Again, your device should remember it in future.
Suspending Our Canadian Cellular Plans
Before I could buy a prepaid cellular plan in the USA, I needed to get my smart phone unlocked, which was achieved with a quick call to Fido. By law, Canadian providers must unlock your phone if you ask them to, without charging you. The technician was efficient, although he did try to get me to stay with Fido instead. However, that would have been far too expensive.
Note that you can only get your phone unlocked if you own your phone, that is, you are not still on a contract with Fido. The contract is essentially the time when you are paying off the phone, and you cannot unlock the phone during this time, unless you pay a cancellation fee. This can be very expensive. If I was in that situation, I would buy a cheap phone in the USA. However, you would still need to keep paying your contract fees in Canada. You could call your provider and try to switch to the cheapest plan possible, as you would not be using it anyway.
What I did with our Fido plans was to call them before we left Canada and suspend the accounts for a few months. We have to pay $7 per month to suspend them, and we can re-activate them any time we want. The only reason I did this is because over years of being good customers and having three lines (the other one is for our daughter), we have managed to get pretty excellent plans (by Canadian standards, anyway). So, I did not want to lose them.
However, if you own your phone, and your plan is nothing special, you could just as easily cancel your plan, and buy a new one when you return to Canada.
Note: I did not suspend the accounts from the date we left Canada, because I did not know whether and when we could get US providers, and I did not want us to be stranded without phones or data. I allowed two weeks of overlap to figure out a US option, which turned out to be more than enough.
Can You Keep Your Canadian Phone Number with Your US Plan?
We were told that this was an option, but would be a lot more complicated. We elected to simply get a US telephone number for Maggie’s phone.
The AT&T Option
At first, we thought we would both just use Maggie’s phone for a hotspot, but after about two hours with her having data on her phone and me not, I wanted my own plan too! I have just become too dependent on the constant stream of information from my phone to do without it. Also, we thought it would be safer to have two phones. If we are doing separate activities and one of us has a problem, we need to be able to contact each other. I would not want to leave Maggie alone in a campground with no way to get hold of me.
This was the point where I got too clever for my own good!
I researched which provider was better, and found contradictory information on the Internet (of course). What did seem clear was that the top two choices were Verizon and AT&T. And also, it seemed that there would be some places where we could only get a Verizon signal, and other places where we could only get an AT&T signal.
Based on that, I thought it would be smart for me to go with AT&T, so that there would be more chance that at least one of us would be able to access cellular data.
I went into an AT&T store. I went through the same process as Maggie, except that I did not have to pay a $35 activation fee. Also, I got an unlimited prepaid plan for just US$65 per month. I was pretty pleased with myself, thinking I had managed to get an even better deal than she had.
However, there turned out to be one huge catch!
Make Sure Your Plan has Hotspot Capabilities!
When I tried to hotspot to my phone, I found that my AT&T plan did not allow me to make a hotspot. I phoned AT&T support, and was told that the plan I had just bought did not allow hotspots. To enable that, I would have to pay $85 per month. So, not such a good deal after all. To make things much worse, I was told that even though I had only bought the plan the day before, I was stuck with it for a month. I could not simply upgrade it by paying another $20. If I wanted to be able to hotspot right away, my only option was to pay the full $85, so that I would effectively have paid $150 to AT&T to get what Maggie got for $75 from Verizon. What is a good word for the opposite of good customer service?
So yes, I messed up.
I was not happy with AT&T at all, and resolved that after using up the month I had paid for, I would get myself a Verizon plan instead. Especially since Maggie seemed to often pick up a stronger signal with Verizon than I did with AT&T.
But Wait … Sometimes it IS Better to Have Two Providers!
I had just made up my mind to switch to Verizon, when there was a further twist. We moved on to Beverley Beach State Park near Newport, also on the Oregon coast. In that park, we were surprised to find that I was able to pick up a really strong cellular signal from AT&T – so strong that I could stream movies on my phone. On the other hand, Maggie got no signal at all from Verizon.
So I realized that even though I messed up when I bought my plan (because I did not ask about hotspot capabilities), I had actually been right about my theory of having two different service providers. There are places where Verizon is stronger, and places where AT&T is stronger. While we were at Beverley Beach, we would have been totally without Internet if we did not have different plans.
So, in short, I decided to stick with AT&T for while, even though it will cost me $10 per month more than if I moved to Verizon. That decision turned out to be a lifesaver when we went to Mexico, as I explain in the next section.
Special Considerations While Traveling in Mexico
When we bought Maggie’s unlimited Verizon plan, we were told that it could be used in Canada, the USA, and Mexico. We were told the same when we bought my unlimited AT&T plan. This turned out to be true about AT&T, but not true about Verizon. I don’t think the sales people deliberately lied – my experience of Verizon staff in some small cities was that they are simply under-trained young people who are not very competent. For example, Verizon in Crescent City, California, charged me over $300 for six month’s cell phone service in advance, then found out they could not activate my iPhone 6. The salesman then took two hours to process a refund, and finally assured me it would be back in my account in about four days’ time. It is now four months’ later, and I am still fighting with them to get a refund. Calls to the manager are not returned. Verizon has basically stolen my money, and left me with no recourse but to file a fraud claim with my bank. And of course, because of this, I stuck with AT&T, which turned out to be a very good thing.
In any event, when we were just about to go into Mexico, we double-checked with Verizon about using their services in Mexico. They had to research it (again, pretty clueless), and then came back with: “Yes you can, but you have to pay an extra $5 per day.” Note that this only applies to prepaid plans, not to contracts. Well, we knew that most days in Mexico we would not even be near a cell signal, so most days we would be paying the monthly fee plus $5 for nothing at all. So, we decided to make do with my AT&T phone.
Note that unlike Verizon, AT&T does not charge you extra to use your phone in Mexico. Also, all of my research indicated that AT&T has a much stronger signal throughout Mexico than does Verizon. So, if your plans include Mexico, you will likely be better off getting an AT&T cell phone.
And if you do choose Verizon, do not pay them anything until they have succeeded in activating your phone!
Some Camp Sites Don’t Have Any Signals
Bear in mind that getting a US-based cellular plan will not mean you can be online all the time, anywhere you go. As we have found at several state parks, the tall trees prevent all signals from coming in. This is what my phone looks like in those situations!
As you can see, it has no AT&T bars, and it is detecting no Wi-Fi networks at all. I might as well be on Mars! If you travel to more isolated spots, you will also encounter this problem. For example, we expect to have no connectivity at all when we get to Bahia Concepcion in Mexico. So, although we will have the fun of camping on a beach, we will have to travel into a town to pick up some signals. For this reason, I am now investigating cell phone boosters.
Update: An Even Better Option – a Prepaid Verizon Jetpack
A jetpack is a gadget you can buy from Verizon. The top-of-the-range model is $200 US. (Or sometimes cheaper if you buy it from Amazon.) It is a portable mobile hotspot device that you can use to share your Verizon Wireless network connection with multiple devices. It is not a phone, and it does nothing except create your own private little Wi-Fi network in your RV (or in your car, or wherever you take it).
Apart from buying the Jetpack, you also have to pay for some data for it every month. That’s where the really good news comes in. In November 2018 Verizon made a lot of plan changes, and among those was some incredibly good news for nomads. You can now get an unlimited Verizon prepaid Jetpack plan for $75. You can even get it for $20 less per month if you already have a Verizon phone plan, so it is basically an add-on. This is undoubtedly the best data deal currently available in the world, anywhere.
Just a few days ago, both Maggie and I reached our hotspotting limits on our “unlimited” plans, and were both throttled back to such a slow speed that working on our computers became unbearable. So we printed out the page from the Verizon web site where the plan is explained, and went down to a Verizon shop. Sadly, the reason we took the page is that we have found that the Verizon staff often don’t know much about prepaid plans. Sure enough, the friendly young man who helped us had never heard of the deal, and he whistled with astonishment at how good it was. However, he happily sold it to us. We walked out of the store feeling like we had just got the deal of the century.
So far, so good. The Verizon Jetpack has us working at full speed again. Plus, we can now stream YouTube and Amazon Prime in the evening. Joy.
Note that although there really are no limitations on this plan, it is subject to network management. That means that if the Verizon network is under heavy pressure, you may slow down. Verizon favors its contract customers over prepaid customers, so prepaid customers will feel a slow down more than contract customers.
You can find the plan on this Verizon page. Be sure to scroll down to the part where they talk about Tablet and Jetpack Plans, not cell phones. Then save the page as a PDF, and print out page 8 of the PDF to take with you to the store.
Cellular Signal Boosters
If being online is really important to you, consider buying a cellular booster. This will boost a weak cell signal and enable you to use the Internet and make calls in situations when this would usually be impossible. There is of course a catch: a great booster is advanced technology and is not cheap. The most highly rated cellular booster for RV living is the the weBoost Drive 4G-X OTR. I think we might have to invest in one of these, as being online is so important to us. There’s not much point having an “unlimited” plan if I cannot use it because we are out in wilderness!
If you are a Canadian snowbird, I hope this post helps you to access the Internet while you are traveling in the USA and Mexico!
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