For American’s cruising in Canada, staying in touch via cell phone quickly becomes expensive. I’ve heard many horror stories of cruisers returning home to cell phone bills of thousands of dollars. Planning ahead and purchasing Canadian add-on plans through your cell phone provider can reduce roaming costs. But there’s another option: buying a Canadian SIM card.

A SIM card, or subscriber identity module, identifies your device on a cell phone network. This is the chip that contains your phone number. In short, it makes a phone into your phone.

iPhone with SIM

My iPhone 5 with SIM card removed

SIM cards are interchangeable. International travelers have long purchased local SIM cards when traveling. This gives them a local phone number and allows them to make calls at local rates.

I’ve been experimenting with a Canadian SIM card during this summers cruise. When I arrived in Vancouver I went to the nearest Koodo store and purchased a SIM card with 100 minutes of talk time, unlimited text messaging, and 1 GB of data for $60. I pulled the Verizon SIM card out of my iPhone 5 and put the Koodo SIM card in. Voila! My phone is now a Canadian phone, complete with a Vancouver phone number. Calls to my Verizon number go directly to voicemail, which I can dial into from my Canadian number as needed.

Koodo, I should note, is a subsidiary of Telus. Koodo uses the exact same network as Telus, which is, in my experience, the best network when cruising in British Columbia.

Two types of cell phone plans exist: prepaid and postpaid. With a postpaid plan, you get billed for the previous months use. Postpaid plans are most common in the United States. With a prepaid plan, you buy minutes, texts, or data in advance, and then top them off as needed. No contracts are typically involved. This is the best option for visitors to Canada.

Using a Canadian SIM card rather than roaming with my Verizon plan saves considerable money, particularly for data. Verizon charges $2.05 per megabyte when roaming in Canada. That means the one-gigabyte of data that I purchased from Koodo for $35 would cost over $2,000 from Verizon!

Savings for voice calling isn’t quite as dramatic. Verizon charges $0.89 per minute when roaming in Canada. Koodo charges $10 for 100 minutes (or $5 for 25 minutes or $25 for 500 minutes). Phone calls to or from U.S. numbers, however use double minutes. Still, the savings are significant, and even the most expensive calls can be made for $0.40 per minute (and if you buy 100 or 500 minute chunks, much less).

What are the caveats? For one thing, you won’t get phone calls or texts on your normal phone number. Perhaps a bigger issue is that your phone must be “unlocked.” Many carriers “lock” your SIM card to your individual handset for the entire duration of your cell phone contract. This makes it impossible to insert another carrier’s SIM card into your handset. Check with your carrier for specifics about your device and account.

So far the coverage has been quite good, aided by a Wilson Mobile Pro cell phone booster. From Anacortes to Port Hardy I’ve had 3G service the majority of the time underway. Quite a few marinas in Desolation Sound and the Broughtons don’t have service, but they typically have WiFi available instead.

I’ll continue reporting how this is working as I make my way south on the outside of Vancouver Island.

For Koodo pricing details, go to koodomobile.com.

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