How to Avoid Evil Roaming Charges on Cell Phones
On a train between Toronto and Montreal several years ago, I called ahead to confirm my expected arrival time. I spoke with a friend for about 20 minutes. I was prepared to pay long distance charges, which were 25 cents a minute at the time.
When the bill arrived, I gasped to see a $25 charge – $1.25 a minute.
It turned out there was a point near Cornwall, Ontario where Rogers does not have any cell towers. According to my bill, I was roaming on a U.S. network, even though I had not left Canada!
What is roaming, exactly? It's using a cellular network that doesn't belong to your carrier, and apparently you don't have to leave Canada to do it. When you make a call from anywhere outside your carrier's coverage, you are roaming and will pay higher rates on calls. Check your carrier's website for details, as these fees are negotiated with different partners in different countries.
All bets are off if your call is made on the network of a carrier not partnered with yours. Those minutes will be prohibitively expensive – and you usually have to pay for receiving calls, not just making them.So, how do you avoid mega roaming charges? The best way is to turn roaming off, but not all phones allow that. If yours doesn't, you may need a password from your cell provider to activate this feature. Check your manual for details; they are often buried deep inside multiple layers of menus.
Some carriers will send a text message, telling you when you've left Canada. But they may not arrive in a timely manner. I've witnessed a delay of hours.
If you can't turn roaming off, before making a call check to see if you are on the network of one of your carrier's partners. This will appear somewhere on the face of your phone. Most big Canadian carriers have partners that offer their customers a reduced – though still expensive – rate to use their networks.
Bell, Rogers, and Telus sell packages for their U.S. partner's networks that you can buy before you leave. They're not cheap, but far less expensive than roaming.
Text messages and excess Internet usage can cost a king's ransom, even if you have a data plan. Three cents a kilobyte (kb) doesn't sound like much until you consider that even a short email is about five kb and costs 15 cents. And if you happen to use the Web, you can inadvertently end up paying as much as $187 for only 10 minutes, as one Toronto family recently discovered after a day trip to Buffalo.
If you're going to be out of Canada for an extended period, it may be worth the hassle of getting a local cell phone. Or, if you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can buy a SIM card with a local phone number.
Otherwise, restricting usage is the only fool-proof way to avoid roaming charges. Don't casually accept incoming calls. Find an Internet cafe to check email. Turn off data usage on your phone.
Your bill will benefit, big time, from the latter. So will your battery – it will last longer!