First published on May 9, 2008
Because I write a lot of posts related to phones, especially Canadian cell phones, I often get asked about SIM card options for people travelling to Canada. Here is the little that I know Please feel free to correct me if I’ve made any errors!
First of all, if you have an unlocked GSM phone, make sure that it runs on the North America 850 and/or 1900 bands (unlike the 900 and 1800 bands in Europe and many other places). If you have a tri-band or quad-band phone, you are OK.
Unlike many other places in the world, SIM cards don’t hang on popular Canadian retailers’ racks. Not only that, but the per minute and entry costs are relatively bad. So get ready to spend more than you would elsewhere and note that getting a SIM card isn’t exactly easy as pie.
Incoming calls on prepaid plans in Canada are not free. This is different from many other countries.
Also, Rogers owns the entire GSM network, so only Rogers, Fido, and many small players (some to be mentioned later) that rent Rogers bandwidth have SIM cards. Telus, Bell, Virgin, Koodo, and many others use a different network without SIM cards and thus force you to use their phones. Update: This changed in late 2009, as the major carriers Telus and Bell now offer SIM cards.
Your options to buy just a SIM card include:
- As of August 2011, walk into a 7-Eleven store and buy a Speak Out Wireless SIM card for $10.
- Walk into a Rogers retail location (if there is one near where you are going in Canada) and ask to buy a SIM card for $10. They might not advertise this.
- Find a SIM card for Rogers or Fido pay as you go / prepaid on eBay or Craigslist. You will pay between $10 and $30 CAD for the SIM card, but sometimes they have some airtime included. Remember to either leave enough time for shipping or be prepared to meet up with someone in person. Note that if you try to activate a Rogers or Fido card over the Internet, it might require a Canadian address and perhaps even a Canadian credit card.
- Look for a Speak Out Wireless or Petro Canada SIM card from someone else in Canada on this forum.
Note that with all options above, airtime is extra unless stated. In Canada, local pay as you go airtime costs between 20 and 40 cents per minute.
If you do not already have a cell phone, your best bet is to buy a phone + SIM combination (which dominates Canada) not from the big guy Rogers, but from the 7-Eleven convenience store or the Petro Canada gas station. You still have to pay at least $39 for the lowest priced phone, plus airtime. Having an existing phone and buying a SIM is much better. If you must go this route, try and find some Canadian friends who could use your phone + SIM after you’re done with it. 7-Eleven and Petro Canada’s services do have the best per minute rates, and their airtime lasts the longest before expiring, so take some solace.
Travelling to both the USA and Canada? Consider getting one SIM card for each country. Canadian SIM cards have awful US roaming prices. US SIM cards have slightly better Canada roaming prices, but they’re still quite steep
Making long distance calls while in Canada? National long distance call rates in Canada are not much more than the local per minute rates, but if you are doing much national calling or making international cards, buy a phone card (where you dial a local number and then the service prompts you to enter the long distance number) from a grocery or convenience store or sign up with an online service like justdial.ca. The reason for this is that international rates on Canadian cell phones are usually much worse than paying local per minute charges + the phone card charges.