A SIM Card Primer for Canadians Traveling in the USA

These days the go-to solution for a Canadian traveling to the USA and needing a short-term prepaid SIM card for their mobile phone is Roam Mobility. They’re a Canadian company in the business of providing SIM cards to Canadians traveling in the US and Mexico. They’re flexible, cheap (compared the the high cost of roaming on your Canadian mobile account) and, in my experience, everything just works as it should.

Except if your travel to the US happens to be to southern New Hampshire and, specifically, to a Roam Mobility dead zone between Milford and Marlborough along Route 101, a dead zone that my client, Yankee Publishing, happens to be exactly in the middle of:

Roam Mobility Dead Zone in New Hampshire

Roam Mobility doesn’t actually operate its own mobile network in the US, they resell service from T-Mobile, so it’s really a T-Mobile dead zone that they’re inheriting. But, regardless, it means that Roam Mobility is useless to me if I want to have mobile coverage while visiting Yankee.

Plan B, in my case, is based on a scheme well-documented by Dan James back in 2011 involving an AT&T GoPhone SIM.

AT&T’s coverage of southern New Hampshire is, in theory, much more complete and dead-zone-free than T-Mobile’s:

AT&T Coverage Map of Southern New Hampshire

Armed with this knowledge, I stopped in at the Burlington Mall AT&T store (note that there are two in the mall and the upstairs one, by the food court, is smaller and less well-known so you might get quicker service there). I explained my situation to the helpful clerk there, and once she’d established that I knew exactly what I was looking for, she happily dispensed with any attempt to up-sell me to a lifetime mobile contract and a new phone. She went into the back room and emerged with a SIM, activated it while standing in front of me using a tablet, and I was up and ready to go. Before I left, she made sure I had service; we shook hands, and I was off.

I purchased $20 of credit on the SIM, and the SIM itself was free.  I signed up for the “$2/day” plan, which debits $2 on any day in which I make a phone call or send a text (and debits nothing on days that I don’t). There’s a handy $1/day data package add-on that provides 100MB of data; it’s a little clunky because you have to sign up for it every day but that sign-up process is something that can be done on the phone itself, before signing up for the package; and the “day” lasts until midnight on the next day, so it’s effectively a 48 hour window (compared that to Virgin Mobile’s $20/100 MB US Travel Data Pass – 20 times the price for the same data).

I was in the US for 7 days, and when I left I still had $9 of my original $20 in credit. I consumed the $11 as:

  • 5 days worth of $1/day data package for a total of $5.
  • 3 days worth of $2/day voice/text for a total of $6.

I ran out of data once, somewhat inconveniently while using Waze to navigate in Massachusetts on Saturday, but I was able to pull over and top-up without issue.

The coverage in southern New Hampshire wasn’t quite as rosy as AT&T’s coverage map makes it out to be: I had no signal at all from the Jack Daniels Motor Inn in Peterborough, which was inconvenient as that’s one of the places I wanted to be able to receive calls and texts. And the coverage up the hill at Yankee was spotty: there was signal in some parts of the building and not others.

Otherwise, though, I had coverage throughout my trip, from Burlington across southern New Hampshire to Brattleboro, Vermont, down to Chicopee, Massachusetts, over to Hillsdale, New York and back through to Boston. I navigated using Waze and Google Maps. I used Google Now to control my phone in the car hands-free, a checked in on Foursquare, I updated Twitter and Instagram, I used Google Hangouts to talk to home. And I sent and received a couple of text messages.

Dan pointed out a few downsides of the AT&T GoPhone system in his original post:

  • Topping up the account for Canadians was difficult: AT&T now points to prepaid.com directly from its own site as the solution to this. I didn’t need to use this, as I never extinguished my credit. I also found that AT&T top-up cards were for sale in almost every gas station and convenience store I stopped at while I was traveling.
  • The SIM expires: depending on how much credit you purchase, the SIM will expire anywhere between 30 days (< $25 credit) to a year ($100+ credit). Once it expires, your telephone number expires with it. So in my case, unless I top the SIM up in the next 20 days, it will expire in late August and the next time I visit the USA I’ll need to go through the same SIM purchase process as though it was a new day.

The really good coverage in southern New Hampshire, my colleagues tell me, is from Verizon; unfortunately Verizon uses the older CDMA network which doesn’t work with my Canadian GSM phone, so I can’t take advantage of that.

All that being said, AT&T GoPhone proved an inexpensive, mostly-working way of staying online and in touch on this trip, and I’m likely to use the same solution again when I return in the autumn.

Three States

Last night, having concluded my business with my comrades at Yankee Publishing in Dublin, NH, I headed west to Brattleboro, Vermont for the evening.

My Timeline via Google

Brattleboro is one of my favourite towns: it’s so palpably Vermont, and yet so New Hampshire-proximal – you need merely look east to see New Hampshire rising up across the river. The Brattleboro Food Co-op is a model for how groceries should be sourced, arranged, managed and sold (and is an excellent place to grab a quick meal to boot). Mocha Joe’s makes a very good cup of coffee. The Latchis Theatre is a gem of a cinema. And the Latchis Hotel, which sits astride the theatre, turns out to be a well-run, scrupulously clean, gem of an art deco hotel. I could live there, easily.

After enjoying the fruits of all of the above – supper at the Co-op, Inside Out at the movies, a night in the hotel and a morning coffee at Mocha Joe’s – I hopped back in my Fiat 500 and turned onto Interstate 91 south toward Chicopee, Massachusetts, home of Letterpress Things, one of the few stops on the North American letterpress printing trail I’d yet to visit.  I pulled into Chicopee around 10:00 a.m. and emerged, 2 hours later, equipped with two new fonts of type and various other bits of printing ephemera, happier and wiser for having spent time with John Barrett, personable owner. John has created a wonderful showcase of all things letterpress, a showcase targeted directly at the hobby printer demographic that I fall in the middle of.  He’s kind and patient and in it for the joy more than the money. Stock is carefully and helpfully arranged, and John is ready with advice and counsel. I’m so happy I arranged to stay an extra day to be able to make the trip.

Shortly after Noon I loaded up the Fiat with my purchases and headed even farther west, arriving in the hamlet of Hillsdale, New York at 2:00 p.m. where I found my way to the home of Tessa Blake and Ian Williams, friends I see all-too-seldomly (the last time was at Zap Your PRAM in 2008). Ian and Tessa and I caught up over lunch at CrossRoads Food Shop and then, back at their house, I got to finally meet their long-rumoured daughter and a coterie of other Williams and associated acolytes, young and old. Many interesting conversations were shared over cups of tea, and then, as darkness fell and still others started to arrive for supper around their impossibly large table, I bid all adieu and headed back the way I came, toward Boston.

Through darkness and rain I drove for just under 3 hours, finally arriving here in Burlington, Massachusetts around 10:30 p.m., exhausted after a longer day of driving than I’ve had in years.

Three states in twelve hours. Much ground covered. A good way to segue out of New England and back to Prince Edward Island, where I’ll land tomorrow afternoon by way of Halifax. Flying, fortunately, not driving.

The Fiat 500 I rented, by the way, was a replacement for the Prius I originally reserved: the Prius I was offered ended up being a tired, old, dirty, smelly one with many miles on the odometer; when I spied a 500 on the lot I saw my way out, and, happily, one was available. It was a perfect little car for a week of solo motoring: peppy, nimble, and very fun to drive. I’d rent one again in a heartbeat.

I navigated my way around using my Moto G Android phone, using a combination of Waze (helpful, but alas prone to crashing) and Google Maps (less helpful, but rock solid), getting data via a AT&T GoPhone SIM I purchased at the Burlington Mall on the way up to Dublin on Tuesday, using Dan James’s helpful 2011 instructions as a guide. It cost me $2/day on days I made one or more phone calls or sent one or more texts and $1/day on days I only used data (100MB/day, which served me just fine). Coverage was excellent everywhere except in the many dead zones in and around Peterborough and Dublin, NH.


We Are the Walrus: A Summer Day for Father and Son

Here’s where life took Oliver and I yesterday, a roughtly-walrus-shaped track from Charlottetown up the spine of the Island, down to Borden, across to Summerside, back to New Glasgow and then home:

Here’s what we did along the way:

  1. We had breakfast at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market, as we usually do.
  2. We headed out the Kinkora Road and then took a jog down to Lady Fane, ending up at Gateway Village in Borden-Carleton where we had an excellent, fresh lunch at Scapes (pulled-pork sandwich and potato salad for Oliver; fish cakes and green salad for me).
  3. We took Rte. 10 toward the Bedeques, ending up at Bishop’s Machine Shop in Summerside, recommended to us by Olle and Luisa, who visited last year. It’s a perfectly preserved “like the day he left” machine shop just east of downtown; we had a tour from a sprightly young lad who knew his stuff.
  4. Coffee and cake at Samuel’s Coffee House downtown.
  5. Watched the film Ant Man at the Cineplex in uptown Summerside.
  6. Across to Kensington for supper at the Frosty Treat.
  7. Along (very) scenic Rte. 6 from Kensington to Stanley Bridge and then down Rte. 224 to New Glasgow for iced tea at the PEI Preserve Company and a walk through the Gardens of Hope.

About 12 hours from start to finish: a good father and son day.

Off to New England

I’m off to New England tomorrow afternoon for the first time since January.

I’ll be spending Monday night through Friday in southern New Hampshire, working with my colleagues at Yankee Publishing on Almanac.com and YankeeMagazine.com.

On Friday night I’m spending the night in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont – one of my favourite towns – staying at the Latchis Hotel for the first time. It’s part of a complex that includes a movie theatre, so what’s not to like?

Early Saturday morning I’ll head down I-91 to Chicopee, Massachusetts to visit Letterpress Things for the first time – “unique store for type and tools, supplies and materials, presses and other items for the letterpress printer.”

And then I’ll head west to Hillsdale, New York to visit our friends Ian and Tessa who I haven’t seen since the last Zap Your PRAM 7 years ago (!).

Saturday night I’m whizzling back to the Boston area, staying overnight in Burlington, and Sunday morning I fly back to the Island.

Perhaps our paths will cross?