I just returned from the UK, and employed my skills to obtain a SIM card in advance.  I had pre-purchased a Vodafone SIM card through eBay that had been pre-activated and pre-loaded with £10 of credit, however upon arrival, this had proven unnecessary.

After clearing customs at Terminal 3 at Heathrow, and before you even get to the luggage carousel, the very first thing you see after leaving the customs area is a vending machine that sells SIM cards for several carriers.  I don’t know if there is a process involved in activating them, but I imagine if they make it this easy for travellers to obtain a SIM, it must be easy to activate it.

You can also visit a Vodafone store (all over the place in London) and get a free SIM card and they’ll activate it for you.  Vodafone also has several special offers whereby they’ll give you a free bonus every time you top up your account.  In my case, when adding a £10 top-up, I received 500MB of UK Web Access valid for 30 Days, and 300 UK texts.  While in the UK, I didn’t actually use any of my account balance because my freebies covered my needs.  This free 500MB of data would have cost me $15,000 if roaming on my home SIM card.  Incidentally, a regular 250MB data pack sells for £5.

So why is this worthy of a post when it’s so easy?  Well, it’s actually not very well documented online.  It’s so easy, nobody bothers to write about it.

I did only run in to one problem when using Vodafone.  When arriving in a different country, I always use the unlockit service to download an APN script for that country.  For some reason, the Vodafone UK unlockit scripts didn’t work for me.  Fortunately, enlightened Vodafone recognized that I was using an iPhone (probably because I set up my account to tell them that was my ‘device’) and I eventually received an unsolicited text, informing me that “iPhone settings can be retrieved via network or WiFi at” https://vdms-prd.sp.vodafone.com/skywalker-subscriptions-2.0.0/provisioning/UK/c9rxqhszmjsb41812y5w4sxii_PAYT+WAP+without+proxy

So download that particular script upon arrival in the UK after installing your Vodafone SIM, and you’ll be ready to go.

I have spent the past year blogging about ways to avoid roaming charges, with a concentration on obtaining SIM cards in various countries to avoid data roaming charges.

Roaming charges associated with voice calling and texting/SMSing have also been discussed, although to a lesser degree.  The advent of the Dell Voice some time ago finally brought inbound Canadian calling to an iPhone app, and for some time there have been a number of apps available that allow you to avoid the 75¢-or-so charge levied by the Canadian carriers to send a text from outside of Canada.

The main wrinkle in using apps to avoid voice and text message roaming fees is that the apps were produced by unique companies that each assigned their own phone number to your account.  Nobody had yet written an app to allow you to consolidate in-app inbound voice calling and texting in to one phone number. This week that problem has been solved.

textPlus+ is an app I have been using for several months to send and receive text messages when outside of Canada.  It assigns you a free inbound Canadian phone number in most of the metropolitan areas, that anybody can text you on (and you can respond through, for free).

This week the same company released textPlus Free Calls to Canadian users.  It’s a separate app but integrates with your existing textPlus+ account to allow you to receive inbound phone calls on the same number you are currently using to receive inbound text messages.  Inbound calls are free, outbound calls are free to other textPlus+ phone numbers, and calls to the rest of the US and Canada can be purchased in bulk lots within the app.  75 minutes are $1.99, 400 minutes are $9.99 and 1000 minutes are $19.99 (which calculates out to between 2¢ and 2.6¢ per minute).  This is competitive with most other offerings, but the free inbound Canadian phone number for voice AND text is the kicker.

The only drawback with textPlus Free Calls is that it does not include voicemail.  Since other voice-only offerings, such as Dell Voice, do include voicemail, hopefully they will eventually add that feature.  textPlus Free Calls does provide a history of inbound calls that were not answered though, so at least you’ll have the caller ID from missed calls.

We can now replicate all of the features of our voice plan, in-app on the iPhone, so it’s time to start switching over to data-only carrier plans & avoid all the unnecessary domestic voice airtime and feature fees, not to mention roaming fees!

Apple touts the iPad as the ultimate data roaming device.  No iPad has ever been locked to an individual mobile phone carrier, so you can simply pop any SIM card in, from any carrier in any country, and start surfing.  Sounds easy, but the reality is quite different unfortunately, and the level of difficulty varies from country to country.

It’s problematic for a non-US resident in particular to activate an AT&T SIM card on an iPad, and my blog post from last year outlined a method that a foreign visitor can employ to circumvent AT&T’s processes to establish an account.

Since that post, and after receiving comments and messages from others regarding the process, I felt it was time for an update, as there is a simpler method than the convoluted one I originally outlined.

The crux of the problem is that AT&T requires its iPad Data Plan subscribers to use a US address and a US issued credit card.  This is a problem for those of us who have no permanent footprint in the US, but travel to the US often.  Here’s a quick synopsis of how to bypass both of these controls:

Credit Card: Buy a prepaid Visa, Mastercard or American Express (also referred to as a Gift Card) card at any store in the US that sells them.  The “reloadable” versions of these cards are generally preferred, but check the fine print as many reloadable cards require a US Social Security Number, which those of us who are not Americans will of course not possess.

Address: Prepaid credit cards generally don’t have a billing address associated with them, so they typically pass credit card processor’s billing address verification controls.  (AT&T does run a billing address verification in real-time when you set up an account, which is why you can’t use your foreign credit card with a bogus US address)  Therefore, you can use any address you want when filling in AT&T’s form, although it’s best to use the address of a friend or family member in the US.

If you would prefer to use your regular, foreign credit card, perhaps for proper organization of business expenses, my original blog post outlines a method to accomplish this.  American Express is the best card to use in this case.

The challenge of using a non-reloadable prepaid credit card is, if you’re planning on maintaining your AT&T account on a month-by-month basis, you’ll also need to buy new (American) credit cards and update your AT&T account details regularly.  It’s a hassle, especially if you have to buy up enough gift cards to last until you return to the US again, but much less of a hassle than paying an enormous data roaming bill to your home carrier!

The whole point of my blog is to inform Canadians on how to save unnecessary mobile phone costs.  In prior posts I have discussed using Skype as an alternative to traditional mobile phone voice calling.  Skype works very well for outbound voice calling over either 3G or WiFi networks, and they have very competitively priced outbound calling packages.  The package I use is approximately $30 per year for unlimited calling to Canada and the US.  The one missing feature for Canadians, which restricts people from eliminating the voice aspect of their mobile phone plan and going purely data (like an iPad plan), has been Skype-In.  While there is the option, for an additional fee, for you to add an inbound telephone number where traditional phone callers can reach you, Canada is not one of the supported countries.  I had been plugging that hole for the past few months by using a service provided by Virtufon, which charges approximately $7/mo for a Canadian inbound phone number that they bridge to your Skype account.

Dell Voice App for iPhone

Enter Fongo, sponsored by Dell Voice.  The new Dell Voice app for iPhone and iPad released today provides users with free long distance calling to 30 centres in Canada, along with free Caller ID and voicemail.  The most compelling feature for me, however, is the free inbound Canadian phone number.  Finally, this is a true replacement for the voice side of your mobile phone plan (or landline for that matter), and is perfect for iPad users who would otherwise have no traditional mobile voice option.

If you’re on vacation outside of Canada, but still want to receive phone calls while you’re away, and especially if your hotel has free WiFi, this is an amazing service.  It won’t cost you a cent to receive WiFi calls on your Dell Voice number, regardless of where in the world you are.  And, if you have followed my instructions on how to obtain inexpensive local SIM cards in foreign countries, it should cost you next-to-nothing to receive Dell Voice calls over 3G.  It also won’t cost callers a cent to phone you, because they’re calling a phone number that is local to them.

Outside of Canada’s free calling zones, and also to the USA, calls are charged at the rate of 2¢ per minute.  So if you make 125 minutes or less of outbound calls each month, paying Dell Voice on an a-la-carte basis for calls is a better option than the Unlimited North America (at $2,50/mo on an annual subscription) that I use.

I’m an Apple fanboy, so the idea of using any App sponsored by Dell is a bit unnerving.  Finally being able to tie all of my inbound and outbound voice calling seamlessly into one iPhone app is something I’ve been looking for though, for quite a while.  I’m happy to just hold my nose and garner the savings.

The original narrative in my first blog entry described how a trip to Mexico in 2011 with a slight amount of data usage, resulted in a $900 data bill through my home carrier Fido.  I’m heading to Mexico again, but this time I have managed to arrange a Mexican SIM card in advance.  Thanks to my preparation, the data that I was charged $900 for through my home carrier Fido, will cost me $2.22 through Mexican carrier Telcel.

Mexico is one of the countries where the local equivalent of a Social Security or Social Insurance Number (a CURP) is required to obtain a mobile phone SIM, which means if you’re a tourist, it will likely be a big hassle or simply impossible to find a Mexican citizen to vouch for you.  And if you don’t speak Spanish, this problem is further compounded.  Fortunately I discovered a service that will provide you with a Telcel Mexican SIM card in advance, and will take care of its activation for you.

Travelers Telecom (also on eBay at travelers_telecom) is a US-based company that provides SIM cards for a variety of countries.  Through their eBay page, I purchased a Telcel SIM card for Mexico for $29.95.  Their Telecel SIM provides you with a Mexico City-based phone number.  Travelers Telecom provides detailed instructions on how to activate the card (along with some handy tips for using different Internet-based services to eliminate long distance charges) including an English translation of the Spanish Telcel web site (which you may utilize to add credit to the prepaid SIM).  If you are using an iPhone 4, iPad, or other device that requires a microSIM, be sure to mention this when you order, otherwise you’ll need to perform the delicate job of cutting your SIM card down to the smaller size yourself.

The SIM will be accompanied by some instructions, including some activation codes.  To activate the SIM, you will need to SMS a message formatted something like “ALTA.JTJ48342HABH2881718” to 2877.  This can be done from outside of Mexico so you can ensure it works prior to arrival.  You’ll receive some messages in Spanish confirming activation and you’ll also receive an SMS welcoming you to Telcel.  If you don’t speak Spanish, just use Google Translate to translate it.

Before using the SIM card, you need to add some airtime/credit to it.  Technically you can wait until you get to Mexico to do this, since you can just buy an airtime card from any corner store, however I like to prepare everything in advance so I wanted to add airtime prior to my trip.  Credit is valid for either 30 or 60 days depending on the amount (larger amounts are valid for longer periods).  When you add your first airtime top-up, you will also receive an additional bonus of approximately US$10 of airtime.

The Telcel web site supposedly accepts Visa and MasterCard from all International customers through its SIM recharge site, however I ran into great difficulty with it accepting either my Canadian or US credit cards.  It wouldn’t accept the format of a Canadian Postal Code and thus my Canadian credit cards wouldn’t pass the address verification test.  For my US card, it said that I had to wait for someone to phone me as a security check, but the call never came & the credit was never charged or added.  Luckily I found another service that I could use to eliminate that problem.

Pinzoo.com is a web-based service that sells wireless minutes and long distance calling cards.  While they primarily sell airtime for the gamut of US carriers, they do sell wireless airtime for carriers in India, Indonesia, Russia – and Telcel in Mexico.  They accept a variety of payment methods, including PayPal.  You can add airtime in denominations of US$10, $20, $30 or $50.  Upon my first order with Pinzoo, they needed to phone me as a security verification, so it’s best for you to add airtime to your Mexican SIM card before you leave your home country, so it’s easier for them to do this.  Since returning from Mexico, I have also discovered http://www.babblebug.com which appears to be a one-stop shop for international airtime top-ups.  In either case, the minimum order for Telcel airtime is US$10.

Since the purpose of my blog is primarily to assist people with data roaming, it’s important to know the data roaming rates so you can buy the appropriate amount of credit.  As of January 2012, there were a number of data packages available under the “Internet Telcel Amigo” plan.

MB/GB Code Price (Pesos) Duration
15MB BAT0 $15.00(USD1.15) 1 Day
100MB BAT1 $49.00(USD3.80) 1 Day
200MB BAT2 $79.00(USD6.00) 2 Days
700MB BAT7 $199.00(USD15.30) 7 Days
1.5GB BAT15 $299.00(USD23.00) 15 Days
3.0GB BAT30 $499.00(USD38.00) 30 Days

Adding a data package is as simple as texting the corresponding “code” via SMS to 5050 on your Telcel phone.  Incidentally, the 3GB data that costs USD38.00 through Telcel would cost $90,000 if roaming on a Fido SIM card.

Upon arriving in Mexico, I did however have trouble using the SMS method in choosing a data plan (I just kept receiving an error when SMSing my BATxx codes) and discovered in the process that the data plans noted above just became outdated.  Luckily I had my laptop with me & wifi at my hotel, so I was able to register and log in to the Telcel web site to manage my account.  To register with the Telcel web site, navigate to https://www.atencionenlinea.telcel.com/atencion_clientes/index.jsp  In the section entitled “Registrate Mi Telcel” key your 10 digit telephone number and press “Enviar”.  You will then receive a text message with a code, this code can be entered into the screen you have been sent to on the Telcel web site to vaidate your access.

In the bottom-left corner of the screen, you will see your available balance beneath the heading “Ahora consulta tu saldo sin costo.” (in Mexican Pesos of course – just move the decimal place one spot to the left to approximate Canadian or US dollars).  Clicking the link will show you details of the balance, as well as when it’s valid to (“Podrás utilizarlo antes del…”).  Make sure you have enough credit to add the data plan you want.

Back on the main portal screen, around the centre, and under the heading “Consumo de Internet”, you can add a data package by clicking the link “Activa el Paquete que mejor se adapte a tus necesidades de navegación aquí.”  As of January 2012, there were new plans listed.  I have also noted the appropriate code you would SMS to 5050 to activate a given plan, so you don’t have to use the Telcel web site:

Low Consumption (Bajo):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

 

1 hour

10 MB

BAJO1H

$5.00/38¢

1 day

30 MB

BAJO1

$19.00/$1.46

2 days

50 MB

BAJO2

$39.00/$3.00

7 days

200 MB

BAJO7

$59.00/$4.64

15 days

600 MB

BAJO15

$199.00/$15.30

30 days

1 GB

BAJO30

$299.00/$23.00

Medium Consumption (Medio):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

1 hour

30 MB

MEDIO1H

$9.00/69¢

1 day

50 MB

MEDIO1

$29.00/$2.23

2 days

100 MB

MEDIO2

$59.00/$4.54

7 days

400 MB

MEDIO7

$99.00/$7.62

15 days

1 GB

MEDIO15

$229.00/$17.62

30 days

2 GB

MEDIO30

$399.00/$30.69

High Consumption (Alto):

Validity

MB/GB Included

SMS to 5050

Price (Pesos/USD)

1 hour

100 MB

ALTO1H

$12.00/92¢

1 day

150 MB

ALTO1

$49.00/$3.77

2 days

200 MB

ALTO2

$79.00/$6.08

7 days

1 GB

ALTO7

$199.00/$15.31

15 days

2 GB

ALTO15

$299.00/$23.00

30 days

3 GB

ALTO30

$499.00/$38.38

If you travel to Mexico often, it’s a good idea to keep your SIM active so you don’t have to buy a new one for each trip (and so you can keep the same local phone number).  After 60 days, your airtime is “frozen” and unusable but it takes 6-12 months for your phone to actually become disconnected if you don’t top it up, so as long as you add some airtime every few months (the minimum through the online airtime top-up sites is US$10) you can keep your SIM active.  And any airtime that has been “frozen” is un-frozen each time you top up, so you won’t lose any credits, for applying to future data packs.

Carrier-unlocked iPhones have been progressively extended to more countries in recent months, including the United States.  For those who want to pay the added price, this brings the ability to roam internationally using local SIM cards (eliminating the perils of jailbreaking & unlocking via hacking) within reach of more people.  With the advent of iOS 5 however, Apple has taken a confusing turn by making us jump through more hoops to use our non-home SIM.

One important element of using a SIM card with a given network is the configuration of the APN or Access Point Name.  This is a simple domain name that helps your phone connect to the network associated with the SIM, helps it obtain an IP address, what security methods should be employed, etc.  It’s usually very simply formatted – the AT&T iPad plan APN, for instance, is simply “broadband”.  With a non-home network, it always needs to be configured manually, and in iOS 4 and prior, it was easily keyed from the Settings > General > Network.  With iOS 5 however, this option has completely disappeared.  I have tried roaming with my foreign SIM cards, and this setting is not downloaded automatically from the new network – you do have to set it manually.

So, here’s an easy solution (although not as easy as manually typing the APN).  Navigate to the site http://www.unlockit.co.nz from your iPhone.  After selecting Continue, then Custom APN, you will be presented with a couple pop-up menus – one for the country, the other for the carrier/APN options.  Choose your Country (it should auto-fill the country you are currently in) and the Carrier name that matches the SIM you wish to use.  Incidentally, if you roam to the US using the AT&T iPad plan like me, the choice is AT&T (Broadband).  Hit Create Profile and it will bring up an Install Profile window, on which you will need to hit the Install button.  It will then verify your identity by asking you to type your iPhone unlock code, then it’s done.  Note that this will overwrite any existing APN settings in your iPhone, so you will want to do this only once you have arrived in your destination country.  The catch-22 is that you do need WiFi access to do this, unless you’re willing to spend $$ data-roaming on your home SIM card.  The settings files only seem to be about 14kb, so the cost is minimal, however any data-roaming defeats the whole purpose of my blog posts…

To remove the APN, once you return to your home region/SIM, just navigate to Settings > General > Profile (near bottom of screen) and hit the Remove button.  The additional APN script will then be removed and your standard settings reapplied.

While this process does introduce the catch-22 of having to have Internet access in your roaming region to install the APN required for your foreign SIM, it does eliminate the hassle of having to Google around forum sites for APN settings for a multitude of carriers.  Bear in mind as well that there may be multiple settings for one carrier (as there are for AT&T) and there may be some legacy data mixed in as well due to mergers and acquisitions (some of AT&T’s APNs have Cingular domain names within, as Cingular merged with AT&T some time ago) so there may be some trial and error involved in getting it right.

The unlockit site does also allow you to email any given APN script, rather than installing it directly, so another workaround would be to email yourself a variety of scripts, which you can then install by clicking on the email attachment within the Mail app.  Neither the email nor the attachment are named in relation to the country or carrier though (although the APN name does appear in the “Description” field when you click the settings file and link to the Install Profile window), so it may be confusing to keep track of a variety of these files.

 

Skype isn’t exactly an obscure company.  For years, computer users have been using Skype to online chat, talk, and most recently, video-conference.  Everyone knows that Skype-to-Skype communications have always been free.   Skype has had its own app on the iPhone for quite some time now too, and to be honest I had really not considered it as a replacement for my mobile phone voice plan, because my past experience found it to be somewhat unreliable and very sensitive to the consistency of bandwidth.  I was still stuck in the mindset that Skype was primarily used to call other Skype users.  Having to “phone” my mom to tell her to launch the Skype app every time I wanted to talk to her wasn’t very efficient.

After being burned by my mobile phone carrier when international data roaming, I set out to discover whether there was a way to replace my voice plan altogether with something Internet-based, that could be carried by my data plan, using the local SIM cards that I now buy when traveling to a new country.  I have built VoIP-based PBX/phone systems for years, and knew that I could build my own solution, but Iwanted to stay away from something I would have to manage my own server for.  I decided to give Skype a try once again.

When I’ve used Skype in the past to call landlines, it operated much the same way as a traditional call from a landline or mobile phone – they charged a per-minute fee, which was simply discounted, relative to what the traditional phone company would charge you.  The trade-off though was typically poorer call quality, because it was traversing the Internet and thus subject to the ebbs and flows of bandwidth/traffic.   After digging through Skype’s web site, while you can pay on an a-la-carte per minute basis, I discovered that Skype now has some very competitive “unlimited” bundles on offer.

Being in Canada, and primarily looking for a plan that would make sense for me to call home from out-of-the-country, I was astonished to discover their $2.99/mo Unlimited US and Canada plan.  For $2.99 per month, you can make an unlimited number of calls within the US and Canada.  They also have other unlimited plans entailing increasing numbers of countries (culminating in $13.99/mo for Unlimited World, which includes North America plus 40 other countries) but for my purposes, the US/Canada plan was just fine.

Since $2.99/mo is a bit of a no-brainer (phoning home from the US while roaming on my mobile phone plan costs me ~$1.50/min) I started through the registration process, only to find that you can garner an additional 15% discount by paying for a full year in advance.  So for basically about $30 (the cost of about 20 minutes of regular roaming long distance on my voice plan) you can call landlines with abandon for a year.  I opted for the annual discount and clicked buy.

Piggy-backing my new Skype subscription on my 250MB/2GB data plan from AT&T meant that I no longer had to subject myself to outrageous Fido data roaming OR voice roaming costs while phoning home from the US.  My AT&T subscription combined with my Skype subscription replaced both.

In practice, Skype has been a great alternative to long distance (mobile phone) voice calling.  Functionally, Skype accesses the same Contacts database on your iPhone that you see when using the “Phone” app, so there’s no managing of conflicting contacts lists.  The dialing process is almost identical to that of the “Phone” app, so there’s no learning curve.  And while it works fine via WiFi, every network is different and many hotels’ networks can become quickly overburdened, or simply inconsistent, grossly impacting Skype’s usability.  The ability to switch to 3G (which I use with Skype more often than WiFi) has been the key to Skype’s reliability for me.  In many cases my call quality via Skype, whether carried over WiFi or 3G, has been superior to that of a traditional mobile phone call.  Skype has definitely come of age as a viable alternative to mobile and landline calling.

Skype also includes Voicemail at no additional charge, so if your app is offline (you are out of range) callers will be presented with a traditional “unavailable” message, and voicemail will be sent to you as an audio file in an email attachment.

One of the add-ons that rounds out the feature set, and truly makes the Skype and a data plan combination a replacement for your mobile phone voice plan is their “Online Number” or “Skype-In” feature.  This add-on allows you to add an inbound phone number to your account, so those calling from landlines can reach you.  An Online Number can be added from among 23 countries, including Australia, the US, UK and Mexico, but alas Canada is not on the list.  One viable workaround may be to establish a US-based Online Number, and simply Call Forward your regular mobile phone voice plan to that number when you’re out of your locale.  While you would have to pay long distance charges to forward your local number to the long distance Skype-In number, those charges would be less than accepting a call while roaming, and paying both the long distance and roaming airtime elements of the call.  You may also be subject to airtime charges for checking your voicemail (which through Skype would come via free email) when roaming, depending on whether or not you use Visual Voicemail.

If you’re staying in a locale for a while and need an easy way for locals to reach you (without incurring the crazy long distance charges of them phoning your home number, and then you having to pay the airtime & return long distance from your home locale to accept the call!), a Skype Online Number is a great option.  Unfortunately you can’t establish an Online Number for a period less than 3 months.

A Skype Online Number costs $20 for 3 Months or $70 for 12 months, and you can chose from a selection offered in every area code of the Continental US.

For some Canadians, it may be viable to obtain a US-based Online Number, however we don’t necessarily want to incur long distance charges, since that defeats the purpose of trying to bypass the traditional mobile phone network when traveling.  Thus, for Canadians, we are left lacking a true replacement for our mobile phone plans.  While there are some services that charge $10/mo to bridge a Canadian phone number with your Skype account, I can shed light on yet another solution for inbound calling through a Canadian phone number in a future blog post.

UPDATE: Dec 13, 2011.  I stumbled across a service from Virtufon that forwards from an assigned landline number from one of dozens of countries, to a Skype account.  A Canadian number costs $5.95 per month and numbers are available in most areas.  I can’t advocate for them, I just discovered them.

I was in Spain this month, and after my nasty data roaming experience in Mexico earlier in the year, coupled with my obsession to no longer provide any data roaming income to Rogers/Fido, I went about finding a mechanism to purchase a local Spanish SIM card for my trip.  Many countries, including those in Europe, make it easy to purchase a prepaid SIM locally – the problem I was faced with was that I was only going to be in Spain for 4 days, and I don’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t really have time to waste scouting out a local cell phone shop.

Vodafone microSIM

Vodafone microSIM

Googling “spanish SIM card” gave me a few different options, but the one I chose to go with was spainsim.com.  I have an iPhone/iPad and they had a specific section on their web site regarding microSIM cards for those devices, so I felt comfortable dealing with a company that was i-aware.

SpainSIM had a number of data bundles available, starting at 500MB, valid for 3 Days, for €19 (~USD27.00), and going up to 2GB, valid for 30 Days, for €49 (~USD70.00).  They all offered good value relative to what it would cost to roam natively using your home SIM card.  I ended up chosing a 1GB package for €25 (~USD35.00) which was valid for 7 days.  SpainSIM also has a basic charge for the SIM card of €59.95, which includes €12 in voice/sms credit.  With freight, my total order came to €104.95 (~USD150.00) for 1GB of data that my home carrier would have charged me $30,000 in roaming fees for.

SpainSIM doesn’t just drop a SIM card in the mail and hope for the best.  When you place your order, they time your SIM card’s arrival at your hotel perfectly, so it’s there waiting for you.  My hotel was particularly troublesome – they apparently don’t accept packages for guests that have not yet checked in.  Even though I was due to arrive the next weekday, they would not accept delivery of my package.  SpainSIM however was very conscientious about ensuring that my delivery arrived on time.  They phoned me, phoned my hotel and phoned the courier to ensure everything was worked out.  Sure enough, my SIM card was indeed waiting for me at check-in thanks to the efforts of the proprietors of SpainSIM.com.  I was amazed by their service, which is an important thing to consider when digesting my next point.

While the price of SpainSIM’s services are very reasonable relative to what your home carrier would charge you for roaming, you can actually still get more reasonable prices than this if you have the time to spend seeking out a cell phone shop.  The SIM card I purchased was on the Vodafone network, and upon arrival in Spain I discovered that one of my Spanish friends actually worked for Vodafone.  She informed me that the SIM card I paid €59.95 for at SpainSIM actually cost €15 in their shops (and still includes the €12 initial credit) and that the €25 1GB Data Bundle I purchased, went for €6.50.  So, rather than spending €104.95, I could have visited a Vodafone store in Spain and obtained the same for €21.50 (+ 18% VAT I presume).  So, if you have time to spare, you speak Spanish, and you know you’ll be in an area that is likely to have mobile phone stores, just go straight to the Vodafone store.  Having done it all over again, I would still personally go through SpainSIM because of the excellent service I obtained from them.  The €80 or so savings I could have realized by doing it myself could very easily have been eaten up if I were forced to roam on my home SIM for even just a few minutes (perhaps looking up the local Vodafone store on Google Maps) or by the round-trip taxi fare from my hotel to the nearest Vodafone store 10 km away.  I also neglected to ask my Spanish friend if there were any residency requirements when setting up an account directly with Vodafone, so it’s quite possible that using a third-party service such as SpainSIM may be the only option for foreigners.

In my last post, I described how Canadians can avoid outrageous data roaming charges in the United States by establishing a domestic US data-only plan via the competitive iPad plan offerings from AT&T.  While Canadians can save an enormous amount of money by establishing one of these plans, they can also be used to garner more competitive data rates outside of Canada and the US.

Using the Canadian carrier Fido as my point of comparison (I presume all Canadian carriers will have similar offerings) here are their International Data Travel Pack offerings as of 25/06/11:

10MB: $50 + $5 for each additional MB, valid for 30 days

25MB: $100 + $4 for each additional MB, valid for 30 days

75MB: $225 + $3 for each additional MB, valid for 30 days

AT&T International Data Plans

AT&T International Data Plans

AT&T’s rates as of the same date, as based upon the data displayed in the “Add International Plan” menu from their data account manager integrated in the iPad’s iOS, start at USD24.99 for 20MB and top out at USD199.99 for 200MB.  Both Fido’s and AT&T’s packages are a one-time fee and the data is valid for 30 days and does not roll over.  While Fido does not cut off data usage once the initial package has been consumed, AT&T does, which is a good feature so that the user may have more control over their usage.

If we compare this on a pure cost-per-MB basis, AT&T rates range from $1 to $1.25 per MB, whereas Fido is $3 to $5 per MB.  While Fido’s International bundles garner a savings of around 85-90% off of their basic roaming rates, they’re still 300 to 500% higher than AT&T’s.  Clearly another cash grab since AT&T likely pays a similar wholesale cost for data in foreign countries as Canadian carriers do.  So, even if you primarily travel outside of Canada and the US, you’re still better off establishing a US-based data account.

One other nice aspect of AT&T’s process (and I presume it’s the same with every carrier who offers an iPad plan) is that additional data bundles can be added to the account on the fly, as long as you have an Internet connection (i.e. WiFi).  For Fido, you need to make a phone call and go through the usual call trees to ask them to add a block of data to your account.

If you are spending a long period of time in countries other than the US and Canada, it’s naturally better to obtain a domestic SIM card within that country.  I’m on my way to Spain next week and have pre-purchased a Vodafone MicroSIM with 1GB of data valid for 30 days, at a cost of about $140 including postage.  Even with AT&T’s far more competitive offering, as an International roamer, that amount of data would still cost $1,000 through them (but $30,000 through Fido at their a-la-carte rate!).  The other nice part about buying a domestic SIM, is that you can also get a local phone number to make less expensive local phone calls while you’re in that country.

In my last post, I described my recent experience and resultant frustration with a data roaming bill incurred while using my iPhone during a trip to Mexico.  I was a dedicated Fido customer for over 12 years, but due to the way in which they handled my complaint, I vowed to do whatever I could to reduce the amount of future revenue I sent their way.

The solution I discovered entails taking advantage of cheap iPad-specific data-only plans, activating the account with an iPad, then using the activated SIM card in an unlocked iPhone.  This process is necessary because the iPhone’s OS lacks the data carrier account setup structure that exists in the iPad 3G line, and you don’t really want to carry a bulky iPad out to a nightclub.  At the moment you also cannot use an iPad 2 as a Personal Hotspot (to act as an Internet bridge or tether for other WiFi devices) the way you can use an iPhone.

This article also presumes the user has an iPhone that is not carrier-locked.  Factory-unlocked iPhones have been available in Canada and other countries for some time, but are not the norm in all markets.  I’ll talk a little bit about SIM-unlocking in a future post.  I also presume you’ll spend $650+ to buy an iPad with 3G if you don’t already have one.  This may seem like a silly request, but not only is it easy to make a financial case for buying a seemingly expensive handheld computer to access cheaper data plans, but they’re pretty damned cool devices.  (You can also borrow one off of one of your friends simply for the purpose of activating a foreign data account, or buy one and sell it on eBay when the account is set up)

The first step was to investigate the possibility of obtaining a domestic data plan in the foreign countries I travel to.  There is a huge gap in data rates between domestic and foreign/roaming users, and the only reason this exists is clearly because roaming users have no choice but to use a local network as a foreign roaming client, and pay whatever their home carrier feels like charging them.   My $10/mo U.S. Data Roaming Add-On plan through Fido gives me a lower roaming rate of $1/mb when traveling in the U.S., but this is still a very significant premium over what domestic US users pay.  It’s also crazy to consider that even after going through that, I would still have to potentially pay several dollars to do a single benign action, like post a picture to Facebook.

When I investigated the possibility of signing on as a local customer of a foreign carrier in the past, I was always presented with insurmountable obstacles.  North American carriers, with few exceptions, highly subsidize the sale of mobile phones in order to tie users in to longer-term contracts.  To sign a contract, you typically have to be a resident of that country with an active credit history in that country, along with local ID.

The introduction of the iPad changed the landscape.  Since the iPad (with 3G) was sold without a carrier SIM lock, and was primarily sold through channels other than mobile phone carriers (i.e. Apple Retail Stores), the mobile phone carriers are all on a level playing field and don’t have to worry about recovering their subsidy investment.  As a result they have made it much easier to establish a relationship with them.

Since Mexico is where I experienced the highest charge for data on a per-MB basis, I began researching the options for foreigners there.  Telcel seems to be one of the primary carriers, and they have a special plan called Amigo, which is data-only.  (Other carriers offering iPad plans are Iusacell and Movistar.  Telcel’s least expensive plan provides 15MB of data with 1 day of validity, for 15 pesos (about $1.25 in US or Canadian) and their most expensive provides 3GB of data, valid for 30 days, for 499 pesos (about $42 US or Canadian).  Based on the research I have done so far though, and even though Apple Mexico’s iPad 2 web site states that you can get an iPad 3G data plan without a contract, it seems as though this plan and others are only available to residents of Mexico.  If anyone has any experience obtaining an Amigo plan, or any other iPad 3G plan in Mexico as a foreigner, I’d love to hear your experience so I might share that (and take advantage of it myself).  As an aside, you can see the huge disparity between the $900 that Fido charged me for my 30MB of data usage while roaming on Telcel’s network, when a local customer would have paid roughly $2.50 for the same amount of data.

AT&T MicroSIM Card

AT&T MicroSIM Card

In the US, buying an iPad-specific data plan is as simple as buying a $15 Micro-SIM card at your local AT&T store or online, popping it in to your iPad and punching in your particulars + credit card info.  You don’t have to set up an “account” while you are in the AT&T store as that is done through the device.  Currently there are two data plan options – 250MB for $14.99 per month or 2GB for $25.00 per month.  This is charged automatically to your credit card each month, and when you hit your usage quota, data access is shut off until the next 30 day period commences.  Unused data does not roll over.  The math is fairly obvious, but even at my highly-discounted $1/mb rate, Fido would charge me $250 for what AT&T would charge $14.99.  The regular roaming rate would be $750 for that $14.99 of data.

Considering that I currently pay Fido $10/mo just for the “privilege” of paying $1/mb for US data roaming, these plans look pretty attractive.  Even if I only visit the US two or three times each year, keeping the plan active on an ongoing basis still pays for itself.  Plus I don’t have to worry about being a data miser, I don’t have to run between WiFi hotspots, and I don’t have to worry about whether the hotel’s network connection has enough bandwidth for me to do my work.  (Have you ever attended a technology conference?  The hotels are filled with bandwidth-sucking nerds, often bringing a hotel’s Internet connection to its knees and therefore unusable.  Having the AT&T option even as a backup adds greatly to one’s productivity.)

Activating a Micro-SIM through the iPad interface is dead-easy.  Apple has created a simple interface, integrated into iOS, to allow the carrier to collect your billing info and activate the account.  You are typically up and running within minutes of starting the process.  AT&T is only targeting US residents with their service however, so there are some challenges associated with setting up an account if you are a non-US resident.

iPad AT&T Signup Screen

iPad AT&T Signup Screen

When the form appears to activate the account, non-US residents are faced with a number of obstacles.  The interface is rigid, and requires a US-based mailing and billing address.  The billing address also needs to match that which your credit card issuer has on file.  There is no way to spoof a foreign address in to the fields (Zip Code forces a 5 digit numeric and won’t accept alphanumeric postal codes, for example).  There are ways to overcome these controls however.

Credit card fraud is, and always has been, a widespread problem.  Internet-based merchants combat the problem by performing a billing address verification, which confirms whether a user-provided address (generally where goods are being shipped) is the same as that which is on file with the credit card issuer.  For many merchants, if a billing address cannot be reconciled to a credit card, the transaction is not approved.  This check is typically done in real-time, presenting a physical obstacle to the customer.

What a lot of credit card customers do not know, however, is that multiple “authorized alternate billing addresses” can be put on file with your credit card issuer.  These are addresses to which the cardholder authorizes goods to be shipped to.  My personal experience is with American Express, so my experience cannot necessarily be duplicated with each card or issuer.

So, I used my Canadian American Express card, and provided the US street address (as the billing address) of my package-receiving depot in the US (on file with AmEx).  Voilà, this was accepted by AT&T’s system and my AmEx was successfully charged for the first month of service, and subsequent months thereafter.

Since few people have the need for a US-based package-receiving service, how would someone else get around the US street address requirement?  It’s a lot easier than you might think!  Since this is really just a placeholder address on file with your credit card issuer, and since they would never have any need to send physical mail to that address, just pick an address out of thin air.  It could be a friend or relative who lives in the US, a vacation property, or it could be a package receiving depot with which you have no relationship (The UPS Store has hundreds of locations all over the US).  Or you could even just pick any address at random.  AT&T does all of its billing-related communication via email, and anything they might send to the mailing address will be junk anyway, so just pick any address and use it!  Provide “your” US-based street address to your credit card issuer as an “alternate authorized billing address” then key that same address in to the Payment & Billing Information section of the Cellular Data Account setup screen of your iPad.  It worked for me, and hopefully it works for you.  (One aside though – some online billing address verification systems only cross-reference to the primary billing address and not to additional “alternate” billing addresses.  While the “alternate” addresses can be verified by the merchant (a human) manually phoning in for verification, AT&T’s signup system is fully automated, so this is not a possible remedy).

The other thing you can try – talk to a rep at an AT&T store and see if they can manually set up and activate your account in the store using a non-US billing address.  One of the companies I own is a dealer for a Canadian mobile phone carrier, and their system does allow us to set up a non-Canadian as an iPad data plan user manually – this process may work at an AT&T dealer for setting up non-US customers as well.  If someone has encountered this, I’d love to hear about it.  This would also negate the need for using an iPad w/3G for setting up the account if you don’t already have one, since you can pop the activated Micro-SIM into your unlocked iPhone 4 and just start using it.

My next blog post will discuss ways to avoid high long distance and roaming charges for voice calls, using your new, cheap, 3G data plan in a foreign country.

*UPDATE July 15, 2011*  After some additional legwork, I have discovered that if you can’t get around the US billing address verification problem when signing up for an AT&T iPad Data Plan, a workaround is to buy a reloadable prepaid Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card in the US.  When using one of these cards online, a billing address verification is not performed and thus you don’t have to spoof the address.  I haven’t found out yet whether this is a valid workaround on AT&T’s network, but US residents have successfully used the same process to sign up for a Canadian iPad Data Plan in Canada, so odds are it will work.