Guide: Will my cell phone work with a carrier in Canada?

Please feel free to comment here or on my Google+ post if there is anything you think I should add. I simplified much of this in hopes to avoid confusion.

Step 1: Which phone do you have?

This might seem like a silly question, but a lot of people don’t know anything about the phone they are holding in their hand. I’ve heard enough people say “an android” or “iPhone 4G” to know that this is a real issue for many.

The best site I have found to assist with identifying a phone is http://www.gsmarena.com/. To find your phone, do a search on their site (top right corner) with what you know about your phone (like the model name and manufacturer).

If their search doesn’t help, try using a site search with google, like this:

site:gsmarena.com <brand> <model> <any other information>

Example:
site:gsmarena.com htc desire bravo

(Bravo is an alternative name)

Now check out the full phone specifications from the results. Does the picture look like your phone? If so, you probably have the right device. If not, try to refine your search. Going to the site of the carrier you purchased your phone from may help you identify.

Once you have found your phone, the important part to take note of is the 2G, 3G, and 4G network protocols (like GSM, CDMA, HSPDA, etc) and frequencies. This is what we will need to determine if your phone will work on a carrier.

Remember that where you bought your phone can have an impact on which frequencies it supports. European and North American versions of a phone may look exactly the same and support the same protocols, but use different and incompatible frequencies.

Step 2: Which carriers support my phone?

Here is a chart with a general overview of the three major carriers and what they support. Notice Bell and Telus practically use the same network. The 4G stuff may change a lot in the next little while. I have a special note of LTE later in this guide.

Bell

including
Virgin Mobile
PC Mobility

2G

CDMA 850/1900
EVDO 850/1900

3G (and fake 4G)

HSDPA 850/1900
HSPA+ 850/1900
UMTS 850/1900
WCDMA 850/1900
1x EV-DO CDMA2000

4G

LTE 1700

Telus

including
Koodo

2G

CDMA 850/1900
EVDO 850/1900

3G (and fake 4G)

HSDPA 850/1900
HSPA+ 850/1900
UMTS 850/1900
WCDMA 850/1900
1x EV-DO CDMA2000

4G (called 4G+)

LTE 1700/2100

Rogers

including
Fido
Petro-Canada Mobility

2G

GSM 850/1900
GPRS 850/1900
EDGE 850/1900

3G (and fake 4G)

HSDPA 850/1900
HSPA+ 850/1900
UMTS 850/1900
WCDMA 850/1900

4G

LTE 1700

Some quick history:

During 2G adoption, Bell/Telus used CDMA while Rogers went GSM. This makes phones between the two carriers often incompatible in 2G, unless the phone is dual-band (supports both CDMA and GSM). These phones are often referred to as “world phones” and this feature can be kind of rare.

When developing their 3G networks, Bell/Telus decided to switch their protocol to GSM. So, Bell/Telus and Rogers have technically compatible 3G networks. Therefore, if you by a phone on Bell/Telus and want to use it on Rogers (or vice versa), the 3G connectivity should technically work fine. I say technically, because there is another issue you may run into…

Step 3: Is your phone unlocked?

Even if your phone is compatible with a network, that still doesn’t mean it will work. Many carriers (mostly North American carriers) will sim lock their phones. This means that the phone should only be able to use sim cards from the carrier you purchased it through. However, sometimes carrier subsidiaries can be compatible even with a sim lock (like a Bell phone working on Koodo, or a Fido phone working Rogers). Many carriers will unlock a phone for you, but often at a price. Some carriers can charge up to $50 for this privilege. Often you can find unlock codes online for much cheaper, but sites that provide these services can be sketchy at best.

Sometimes unlocking can be done purchase-free with a bit of hacking. The quickest way I have found to determine if a phone can be unlocked without buying a code is actually to search Youtube. Just search <your phone name> with the words “how to unlock”. If the person in the video points you to a site to buy an unlock code, it probably does not have a method to unlock without a code (yet). Otherwise, if it describes a process to root or jailbreak your device, then a free way to unlock may be possible.

The ability to unlock a phone with a free method is often determined by how “hackable” the phone is and if it has a strong hacking community behind it. iPhones and popular Android phones usually have free ways of unlocking. It will usually involve rooting, jailbreaking, flashing a ROM, installing a different baseband, and/or running weird apps. There are lots of guides for lots of phones, but it is usually not for the faint of heart. It will also often void your warranty. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, find someone that can.

 

Example of how to use this guide

As an example, I’m going to use a scenario that I ran into recently. It should give you a good idea of how confusing determining compatibility can be.

My friend came from Russia with her HTC Desire that she pruchased in Russia. She already knew the phone was unlocked (this is common in other parts of the world that are not North America). Let’s try to figure out if it will work for any of these Canadian carriers.

First, let’s search GSM Arena for the phone: http://www.gsmarena.com/htc_desire-3077.php

Note the 2G networks. It uses GSM 850/900/1800/1900. Since Rogers uses 850/1900, then this phone is compatible with Rogers 2G network for 2G.

But what about 3G? Well, it would seem that this phone uses HSDPA 900/2100 but HSDPA 850/1900 for the North American version. Since this phone was bought Russia, it uses the 900/2100 frequencies. Since none of these Canadian carriers support the 900 or 2100 frequencies, this phone will not work on any of these 3G networks in Canada.

Therefore, the only option for her to use this phone in Canada is on Rogers. She would also be limited to 2G only. Painful, but at least we know.

 

Note on HSPA+ and “4G”

I use the term “fake 4G” in the chart for a reason. All the major carriers have gotten into the bad habit of giving HSPA+ the “4G” name. While under international naming standards this is not a false statement, it certainly misleading. 4G networks where originally meant to be defined by having a service that works at over 100Mbit/s. While LTE is still not that fast yet, it is a standard that can get us to these 4G speeds. HSPA+ will not get that fast and it is rarely as fast as its advertised speeds. Most consider LTE to be a real 4G standard. However, the telecom companies do not seem too concerned about confusing customers. Telus has even started giving LTE the name “4G+”, adding even more confusion.

Note on 4G LTE

Here is where things get weirder and I hope to fill out more on this section as information becomes available. Currently, Rogers and Bell/Telus supports LTE in a few select areas on a 1700 spectrum. This should make phones that run LTE on the same frequency (like ATT LTE) technically compatible, but there doesn’t seem to be much information on this.

If you have an LTE device running on a 700MHz frequency (like Verizon in the US) then it flat out will not work in Canada on LTE at this time. The 700MHz spectrum has not been auctioned to Canadian carriers yet. You can be sure that LTE will be running on 700MHz in Canada once carriers start using this frequency. Whether 700MHz LTE phones from other countries and carriers will be compatible may be harder to figure out.

Determine compatibility using IMEI number

Bell and Telus also have a way to figure out compatibility using your phone’s unique IMEI number. This can usually be found on the phone once you remove the battery.

Bell IMEI Checker: https://www.bell.ca/shopping/jsp/pageblock_styles/ToolBox/imeitool/imeitool.jsp
Telus IMEI Checker: http://www.telusmobility.com/en/NS/phones_and_devices/devicecompatibility.shtml

Coverage:
This guide isn’t meant to help with figuring out your coverage, but compatibility. However, here are the coverage maps for the major carriers:
Rogers: http://www.rogers.com/coverage/
Bell: http://www.bell.ca/shopping/PrsShpWls_Coverage.page
Telus: http://www.telusmobility.com/en/coverage/index.shtml

Note: I see this guide as a living document that I want to try to keep updated.

Changes:
Jan12, 2012
-Removed part of intro
-Added 1x EV-DO to Bell and Telus 3G
-IMEI number check for Bell and Telus
Oct27, 2011
-Edited for grammar

Links that helped me create this guide:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4G
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telus
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_Mobility
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_Wireless
http://forum.xda-developers.com/archive/index.php/t-1090183.html
http://www.howardforums.com/showthread.php/1594910-Guide-Will-It-Work-on-the-New-Network
http://mobilesyrup.com/forum/showthread.php?t=10244

 

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