Home > Contemplations > Visiting A Border City? Watch Out! Your Phone Might “Cross The Border” Even If You Don’t!

Visiting A Border City? Watch Out! Your Phone Might “Cross The Border” Even If You Don’t!


Queenston Lewiston Bridge from Canadian Side 14000-14004 Niagara Pkwy in GoogleMaps Street View

A problem that people have been having with over the air transmissions since they first started using them is that they refuse to respect international boundaries. Be they radio waves, satellite signals, TV broadcasts, or cell phone signals/networks they just don’t seem to like the idea of abiding by the imaginary lines that humanity has drawn up on maps to indicate where one territory ends and another begins. This worked out quite well for many Canadians in the 1990s when they would be able to pick up American satellite TV signals using gray market boxes beyond American legal jurisdiction and the Canadian government would do next to nothing to stop it from happening because as far as they were concerned they Americans shouldn’t have been broadcasting their signal into Canada. Of course, the Americans had no control over how far that signal bled into Canada because if they could control it they definitely would have!

Today though, I’m referring to a different kind of situation, one that works out way less advantageously for Canadians and Americans alike as well as anyone else in any other country who is visiting a border city/area. The situation is cellular network signals bleeding from one country into another and causing one to roam even when you’re in your home country. I have seen it happen numerous times when in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada which I often end up visiting during the summer months. You’re walking along on vacation without a care in your mind and suddenly your phone notifies you of an incoming text message that look something like these:

Fido US Roaming Notification Text

“Roaming? I’m roaming?!?!” is probably your reaction when you unsuspectingly see this message appear on your phone’s screen. As your brain tries to process this new, strange, and unexpected information your mind races at what kind of Twilight Zone you just unwittingly dropped into. You’re sure you haven’t been drinking and heck, you don’t even have your passport on you! How can you possibly have crossed an international border without noticing? Not to worry, you haven’t done anything of the sort! You have just become victim of those darn radio waves not respecting human lines on a map. The first time it happened to me was when I was walking in the pedestrian skywalk between Niagara Fallsview Casino and the Hilton Hotel and Suites Niagara Falls/Fallsview.

Hilton to Fallsview Bridge Niagara Falls Ontario via GoogleMaps Street View

So now what? Well if you’re a gambler you can just hope and pray that your phone switches back to its regular network and you don’t incur any roaming charges for data or phone calls or incoming text messages while your phone jumps international borders without you. If you’re rich you can decide you don’t care and you’ll just pay whatever charges your provider says you’ve incurred for your “travels.” For the rest of us we have three other choices:

  1. In your phone’s network settings there is likely an option to tell it how to select a network. Most phones are factory set to “Automatic” mode and you want to set it to “Manual” instead. When it is on Automatic mode your phone decides which is the best network to connect to. This is why it is jumping to the other network because for whatever reason that network is sending a stronger signal (maybe it has more towers in range or they’re physically closer). Once you set your phone to Manual mode it will start searching for networks and give you the option of which you would like to connect to as a one off choice (until it loses that network entirely). Choose your provider’s network (don’t worry, the networks in the list are going to be named and won’t be a bunch of numbers) and you’re golden. Even if you did go over the border and out of range of your home network your phone would simply not connect to another network until you told it to. (This is my experience over the course of years and with numerous phones by many different manufacturers. I cannot, however, guarantee this and don’t hold me responsible if your phone reacts differently.)
  2. Incur the charges and when you get your monthly bill call your cellular service provider and swear up and down that you have not been across the border and that these charges should be reversed. These things happen and the service provider will most likely reverse the charges. However, eventually if this keeps happening your provider may start fighting you over the charges and be less likely to believe in the charges’ accidental nature based solely on your word.
  3. Get your phone back on its home network – you should probably walk further away from the border just to be sure. Call your cellular provider. Tell them about the message you received and how you have no intention of crossing the border. They will, at your request, put a block on your account which should stop our phone from roaming. Of course, this isn’t foolproof but the fact that you called and had a conversation about the issue (know who you spoke to and when) will make things way easier if you have to call back and have charges reversed later.

You also have a fourth option – one that I took advantage of today – PLAN AHEAD. Do ‘Option 3′ in advance and save yourself the hassle. I am going to the Windsor area on Thursday and Friday for an historical tour courtesy of the good folks over at Canadian Club Whisky. In preparation for this, while I had some free time today (I was waiting for my coffee to brew) I called my cellular provider, Fido, to inform them of my trip and to put that roaming block on effective March 22-24. I spoke to a nice guy named Carl and he set everything up for me in under 3 minutes.

Phones doing their own border hopping and roaming is actually such a regular occurrence that there are many posts about it on many forums from HowardForums.com (which I found four different threads about this at a glance: one each for Rogers, Fido, TELUS Mobility, and Bell Mobility) and to RedFlagDeals.ca. In fact, seems this issue has caused different providers to create their own special SOC codes (Subscriber Optional Component codes) for people who live in places like Windsor or Niagara Falls or Vancouver. An SOC code is an add-on to cellular accounts which indicate special rate plans or conditions for the account. In this case, the SOC codes that are added on indicate to the computer to treat certain American cellular towers as if they are Canadian so the customer doesn’t get charged roaming when their phone accidentally hops the border without them physically crossing the border. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the answer is no. No, you cannot just add on one of these SOC codes to your account if you’re going to be heading to a border city for a few days. As far as I know these are special codes that can only be added on to people who have phone numbers within certain exchanges of certain area codes. (Exchanges are the three digits after your area code. As an example, in the phone number 416-341-1234, the number for Toronto Blue Jays tickets, is ‘341.’)

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  1. Danah
    March 21, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Growing up in Niagara this has always been an issue. You have to make sure you have your roaming setting turned off. You don’t necessarily have to have it on manual network, but have roaming set to no and that should keep you on your own network.

    Really annoying when you don’t even have service in your house.

    • March 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      As far as I know the settings I have seen like that on phones are for data roaming not voice/text roaming so if you received a call or text you can still possibly be roaming and find yourself with a large bill. However, from what I have read – linked above – people living in border areas now automatically get special SOC codes added to their accounts so they don’t have to worry about voice roaming. What’s interesting is that these codes don’t help the people of the border with data or text.

  2. November 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

    With smartphones all having in-built GPS, I’m not sure if the Telcos would really an excuse anymore as cell signals can travel for kilometres, whereas GPS, assuming you can get a GPS signal, is accurate to within a few metres. Now you don’t have to jump up & down, swearing black and blue that you didn’t cross the border as the GPS records that the Telco probably has will add weight and validity to that point

    • November 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

      @Paul: I am fairly certain that the Telcos do not have your GPS records as I think that would be a massive invasion of privacy. If you have different information and the facts to back it up I would love to be better informed so please share!

      • November 20, 2012 at 8:16 am

        No, I don’t have any hard evidence. Maybe I just watch too much TV. But with websites that leave cookies on our computers, ‘recommendation engines’ on online stores like Amazon, ‘Checking in’ on social media, and geo-tagging of photos, you’ve got that somebody, somewhere has your phone’s GPS records. I, personally, usually get my GPS off unless I need to use it for, like, Google Maps or something

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