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How to find cellular access when traveling (without international roaming)

Glenn Fleishman | July 8, 2015
A short trip from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., shows how thin our conduit is to connectivity—and how expensive an international pipe remains.

iphone data hog turn off cellular access for facetime 2

My wife, two kids, and I just took a three-day trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, from our home in Seattle. Joining us were three laptops, two iPod touches, three Kindles, and two iPhones. We remembered to bring clothes and sunscreen, too.

Traveling to Canada is just like going to another country--they have different currency and units of measurement, they spell "center" as "centre," and they have different telecommunications companies. The variety of potato chips almost makes up for it.

Before we left, I did my usual research into how we'd keep online. We knew the Airbnb rental to which we were going had Wi-Fi, and I assumed that the profusion of free Internet service I was used to in the States would be as abundant. We were staying near Stanley Park, and there are hundreds of shops, grocery stores, and restaurants within a few blocks.

My wife and I hardly make phone calls: most of our cellular usage is for data. Even text messages make up a fraction of our activities. I have Skype on my iPhone, and we mostly use iMessage for "texting." Surely this would all work out.

It wasn't nearly as easy as I'd hoped.

Cellular cost calculations

We're AT&T customers, and our carrier does have a simple plan called Passport for over 150 countries, including Canada. Rates for a month are $30 for 120MB, $60 for 300MB, and $120 for 800MB of cellular data. Overages are $0.25, $0.20, and $0.15 a megabyte--yes, that's $250, $200, and $150 per gigabyte. The plan includes unlimited texting, unlimited Wi-Fi through partner networks where available, and discounted per-minute calling for two higher-priced plans.

This seemed a bit lousy. We thought we might need to make no calls and maybe only exchange a few texts with our host, which turned out to be the case.

We were also concerned about overages--120MB isn't that much data. And, while iOS has allowed flipping on and off cellular data on a per-app basis, as well as many apps featuring internal cell data options, the reliability of whether those controls work is a question. Airplane Mode is the most reliable mode of all. I wrote an extensive explanation of iOS 8's switches and options for enabling and managing usage earlier this year.

(A side note: Until iOS 8.3, Airplane Mode disabled the GPS receiver on iPhones and cellular-equipped iPads. This made it impossible to use track offline map data reliably, even with Wi-Fi turned on, as Wi-Fi positioning typically requires a live data connection. With iOS 8.3 and later, you can use a fully offline navigation app or download an offline map in Google Maps and still get GPS positioning.)


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