Using Canadian 3G iPad in the U.S.?

It’s been about three years since the iPad came into my life, and if I told you it’s jokingly referred to as The Precious you’d have some idea how much I use it. As an avid reader, having Kindle, Flipboard and Evernote apps has brought books, documents, and news to one source. Add in email, browser, camera and music, and it becomes a device that I can reach for to record, bookmark and clip everything that merits saving.

iPad MapsAnother tool that has proven useful for road trips is Google Maps. Back in the old days when I’d planned a road trip across the U.S., the best approach was to call up CAA and detail the destination and whether a scenic or direct route was planned. In a few days a box would show up in my mailbox with travel books providing accommodation & dining rated by their partner AAA (American Automobile Association), along with maps highlighted by an actual person. The whole exercise now seems quaint and required planning to put in a timely request. Nevertheless, it was an invaluable and reliable resource when driving where I’d never been before, and the iPad now serves that purpose with apps such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, Maps and the like.

The Precious has both WiFi and 3G and the latter is great when travelling, whether it’s within Canada or in the U.S. When we took a recent road trip to Nova Scotia, having ready access to maps and checking out roadside attractions until we could find a Visitor Info site made the drive carefree. Of course, ongoing road construction, detours and recently completed highway extensions made the online maps more amusing fiction than useful sometimes, but so would an outdated paper map. It goes without saying when travelling anywhere, anytime: pay attention.

If you have an iPad with 3G, you know when it was purchased there was the option of including a SIM card for either the Bell network or Rogers, and I chose Bell. Mainly because it was a network of choice when I bought a prepaid cellphone and signed up with Virgin Mobile (which used the Bell network and was later acquired by Bell). I hate paying for monthly plans so both my phone and iPad are prepaid plans and I make good use of WiFi.

When making a trip cross-border to the U.S., the Bell coverage drops and it’s necessary to set up the iPad with a carrier in the U.S. unless you want to use the WiFi only. Fortunately it’s easy to do; once you have a SIM card from a U.S. carrier and U.S. VISA gift card it’s a simple matter of exchanging the SIM for your Canadian network provider for the U.S. whenever you cross the border. It is not necessary to sign up for a monthly plan; the experience described here is with AT&T which is the U.S. carrier I use.

  • Confirm you have an iPad with 3G
    Seems obvious I know: in Settings you should have Cellular Data in the menu, or turn your iPad over: on the top right side should be a little slot for the SIM card tray (view the Youtube video below for instructions on accessing the SIM card tray)
  • In the U.S. stop at a Walgreens or grocery store that sells VISA gift cards (you cannot use a Canadian credit card); depending on the length of your stay and data usage you will want to purchase a minimum $50 card
  • Visit a AT&T store and purchase a microSIM card for an iPad–some stores may charge and others may not. 
    While you’re there, snag one of their business cards–you can use this as a U.S. address for setting up & renewing the account
  • Remove the Canadian SIM card with the tool that came with your iPad and replace with AT&T SIM card
    A paperclip can be a substitute for the SIM card removal tool or the store may have one handy; carefully store your Canadian SIM to install when you return to Canada
  • While at the AT&T store, have them activate the SIM card and set up an account for a tablet plan using the VISA gift card and the store address
  • Setting up an account and paying for a tablet or data plan is done by going to Settings=>Cellular Data=>View Account; you will be prompted for an email address and a password for your AT&T account: enter the email address you want to be notified regarding this account (confirmations, your plan updates)
    The plan you choose will depend on how much you will use the 3G versus WiFi; when I get to a hotel with the latter I turn off Cellular Data in the settings and turn the WiFi back on
  • You will be prompted for your payment information–use the VISA gift card number and the store address and telephone number
  • It will take a few minutes, but if all works you should receive an email confirming the payment went through and the account is set up. Do a little happy dance: you’re wireless in the U.S. 
  • You can go into View Account in Settings=>Cellular Data anytime to see how much data is left on your account and top up from a gift card
  • When you’re ready to return to Canada, go into View Account in Settings=>Cellular Data and cancel (but do not delete) the plan so AT&T does not auto-renew on the gift card. Remove the AT&T SIM card and replace with your Canadian card.
  • For your next visit to the U.S., carefully store the AT&T SIM, VISA gift card, and AT&T store business card.–you will not have to activate the SIM next time you use it; however you will have to top up the account. Installing the AT&T SIM and adding data in Settings with a gift card is all that’s necessary.

The thing most people struggle with is ejecting the SIM card tray on the side of the iPad; Apple did not make this easy but then, I think they didn’t intend that users would regularly be changing the SIM card. The little tool provided in the box looks just useless enough that it would readily be tossed when opening the package. This video will give you a basic understanding of how to open the tray; I keep everything to do with SIM card changes in an envelope, including the tool, SIM, VISA gift card, and business card.

There are numerous 3G tablets and devices available now and there’s a good chance changing the SIM card when crossing the border may enable those to work in the U.S. In addition, Americans visiting & travelling in Canada can likely try a similar approach since there are providers of prepaid plans here.

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About Leslie

Trying a little bit of everything: writing, learning Wordpress & basic coding, cooking, playing with grandkids, travelling, gardening, making soap & body treats, and getting older. Not necessarily in that order.