Canada’s communications infrastructure is what one would expect from an industrialised country.
Canada is part of the North American numbering plan (along with the United States and most of the Caribbean) and uses the country code +1. Area codes and local phone numbers follow the same format as in the US: 1 – three-digit area code – seven-digit local phone number. The first “1” is omitted for local landline calls and is optional for local mobile calls. For long distance calls, dial the entire number, including the “1”.
Due to inefficient local number allocation policies, most areas (including remote places like James Bay) now have multiple overlapping area codes. This means that even the most innocuous local calls require all ten digits. In the few territories that still have only one area code (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, a corner of northwestern Ontario and the three Arctic territories), only seven digits are required.
Canada currently obtains its toll-free numbers from a common pool based in the United States. These numbers are dialled using the full eleven-digit international format: +1-800-234-5678. Mobile numbers are usually assigned from the same area codes as landlines; the recipient of the call pays for the talk time.
The prefix for an outgoing international call from North America is 011-. This prefix does not apply to countries that share the Canadian +1 prefix, such as the United States.
There are a few payphones in busy places like shopping malls, supermarkets and local and long-distance train stations where you can call toll-free numbers (+1-800 and their overlays) and make local calls for 50 cents, but long-distance calls paid for with coins by the incumbents are prohibitively expensive: almost $5 for the first few minutes for the most mundane long-distance call. A few payphones are operated by obscure competing companies where the price for local calls is the same, but long-distance calls usually cost a little less, $1 per three-minute interval. Most payphones block incoming calls. Canadians usually avoid coin-operated long-distance calls by using prepaid cards or have stopped using payphones in favour of mobile phones or (where Wi-Fi is available) voice over IP.
Unbundled internet telephony usually costs one or two cents per minute, although some operators can sell at a lower price.
Canada is one of the few countries (along with China, Hong Kong and the United States) where mobile phone users must pay to receive calls. Mobile phones use the same local geographic codes as landline phones; all numbers are transferable. Call time and long distance charges apply when receiving an incoming call outside the phone’s local area.
Three operators (Bell, Telus and Rogers) control 97% of the market and use multiple brands (Fido and Chatr are Rogers, Koodo and Public Mobile are Telus, Virgin and Solo are Bell) to create the illusion of competition while Canadians continue to pay some of the highest rates in the world.
Network coverage is good in cities and along busy transport corridors, but non-existent in many remote areas. Some places on the Trans-Canada Highway have no signal at all. In the High Arctic, mobile phones only work in a small area around the territorial capitals.
There are a few regional operators: MTS in Manitoba, SaskTel in Saskatchewan and Videotron in Quebec (including Ottawa-Hull). With the incumbents having a three-decade head start in building their networks, a 2010 attempt to invite new entrants (Wind, Mobilicity, Public Mobile) proved too little, too late. While nearly a million users switched to one of the new operators, Mobilicity was eventually bought out by Rogers, Telus bought Public Mobile’s customer list and shut down the network (devices make good paperweights) and the fourth network, Wind, was bought out by Shaw.
The three major operators operate UMTS (WCDMA/HSPA) on the North American 850 MHz/1900 MHz bands (which are not standard frequencies in Europe) and offer LTE in some major cities. Analogue cellular service (AMPS) has been switched off; GSM is still available at Rogers (but not at Bell and Telus, which support CDMA). Wind Mobile operates a limited footprint in half a dozen metropolitan areas on non-standard frequencies (a 1700/2100 MHz AWS/UMTS network).
Various “virtual mobile” operators buy access to the big three operators to resell phones (or SIM cards) under their own brand; Loblaws’ prepaid service “PC Mobile” uses Bell’s network, while ZtarMobile (“7-Eleven”, “Quickie” and “Petro-Canada”) uses Rogers.
Anyone can get a Canadian prepaid mobile number; even clearly fictitious people (such as “Pierre Poutine, Rue des Séparatistes, Joliette”) have already subscribed to a prepaid number, no questions asked. Mobile data is typically expensive on these plans (one cent per megabyte is typical, with a minimum of $2/day for data on PC Mobile or a minimum of $10/month on Petro-Canada) and prepaid long-distance mobile calls cost up to 40 cents/minute on top of the 20-25 cents/minute for local calls. Ice Wireless offers a SugarMobile prepaid SIM card with 200 MB for $19/month and offers VoIP instead of including mobile voice in the plan. Many carriers offer “night and weekend” rates for local calls for a monthly fee.
Some operators offer postpaid wireless services to nonresident Americans if a Canadian mailing address is provided and a credit card is pre-authorised for bill payment. For iPad-type tablets, another option is to get a prepaid Visa or MasterCard from a supermarket or post office that can be registered to any Canadian address (as opposed to vanilla cards that only allow registration of a postal code) and used for 30-day subscriptions to Bell or Telus data services (both of which require a Visa/MasterCard with a Canadian address for activation, even if they are prepaid). Activation is done on the device itself; you need to provide your billing information and then select a plan: usually $35 for 5GB, with one or two smaller options.
Fido, Virgin Mobile and Koodo offer cheaper rates for postpaid services than for prepaid services; Fido, for example, charges $30 for 1 GB on its prepaid service. Wind offers exactly the same rates to both prepaid and postpaid users.
In Canada, most mobile phones are sold by the network operators (or their resellers) and SIM cards are blocked to limit competition. A small number of computer/electronics shops (e.g. Factory Direct and Canada Computers in Ontario) offer non-proprietary devices at a higher price (check compatibility; a GSM-only device will only work with Rogers, a device on the wrong frequencies will not work at all). Third-party websites sell unlock codes for many popular devices for $10-20; if possible, this is the cheapest option, as network operators can charge $50 to unlock a device at the end of a contract.
For travellers with unlocked smartphones that meet local standards and frequencies, prepaid SIM cards are available from all major carriers. A prepaid SIM card with a set quota of talk time usually costs $40. Some major Loblaws supermarkets offer a $10 SIM card and some Petro-Canada gas stations offer a $15 SIM card (shop brands on the Bell and Rogers networks, respectively), but prepaid talk time must be purchased separately. Wind charges $25 for a SIM card (AWS band) with no minutes; this card may be more economical for intensive data users, as it offers 5GB of 3G data (within Wind’s coverage area) and unlimited calls and texts for $35 per month. Generally, a free call is required to activate the prepaid SIM card (issuing a local Canadian number in a selected city).
New CDMA handsets will no longer be sold as Telus and TBayTel have already switched off their CDMA networks and Bell is expected to follow at the end of 2016.
Prepaid tariffs usually do not allow international roaming. Since most plans that do allow roaming charge exorbitant rates (typically $1.50/minute for the top three plans), it’s best to disable roaming in the phone’s menus when using a Canadian device near the US border to avoid an expensive surprise. Wind is an exception: for an extra $15 per month (on top of its unlimited Canada plan for $35), it offers unlimited talk and text in the US and 5GB of 3G data.
Internet in Canada
There are many ways to access the internet, including a number of terminals in most public libraries.
Most large and medium-sized cities have internet cafés and gaming cafés, although the latter are becoming increasingly rare as wi-fi is widely available in public places such as libraries, cafés and hotels in most cities.
While some charge an exorbitant price for use, others offer free Wi-Fi, including Blenz’s, McDonalds, Second Cup, some Tim Horton’s and Starbucks. You are expected to purchase the establishment’s product, even if they charge for internet access. Buying a small coffee or tea usually fulfils this requirement.
Most airports and some Via Rail stations offer free Wi-Fi in passenger areas. Commercial mailrooms (e.g. The UPS Store) rent computer time for a fee and offer fax, copy, print and mail services. Ontario offers free Wi-Fi at rest areas on highways 400/401. Chapters/Indigo bookstores usually offer Wi-Fi for a fee (many have a Starbucks).
See wififreespot.com for a partial list of establishments that offer free Wi-Fi.
Post Offices in Canada
Although delivery times vary depending on the shipping option and the size of the parcel or package, Canada Post is very reliable. As of April 2014, it costs 85 cents to a dollar to send a domestic letter. International parcel post services can be expensive. Post offices can usually be identified by the red and white Canada Post signs. Some pharmacies, including many of the Shoppers Drug Mart, IDA, Pharmaplus, Jean Coutu and Uniprix chains, offer smaller full-service branches. These branches are often open later and on weekends, while post offices are usually open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
For incoming mail, “general delivery” (poste restante) is available for a fee at all larger post offices, but not at post offices such as pharmacies. It is rarely used because it offers no financial advantage over renting a post office box.
There are also courier services across the country, such as Purolator. The US companies UPS and FedEx also serve Canada. Some (but certainly not all) intercity bus companies accept domestic packages for delivery to other cities on the same bus route. Courier packages cannot be sent to post office boxes or held as general delivery, but can be held for collection by some commercial receiving offices.
Some post offices and commercial receiving offices offer fax transmission services, but availability may vary by location.
Canadian addresses generally follow the following format, which is very similar to that used in the United States and Australia.
Name of the recipient
House number and street name
(If required) Suite or flat number or building number.
City or town, two-letter provincial abbreviation, postcode
Note that in Canada, postal codes are based on the UK’s alphanumeric method.