Which phones will work when traveling in USA and Canada?

Another guest post, by Nicholas, tries to answer some questions about what kind of mobile phone is needed if one plans to travel to North America. Click here if you’re looking for the HK/Asia post.

Due to the complexity of the US Continental mobile phone markets, I divide this subject into two posts: the first post deals with “which phone will work in US/Canada”, the second post deals with “which SIM card to use (aka which carrier) when traveling to US/Canada”.

  • Background:

Browsing through Amazon and eBay phone sections, you will notice there are two kinds of unlocked phones: “US GSM” and “Global GSM”. In this context, Global means everywhere except North America.

The reason for this mess is, historically, T-Mobile USA uses a 3G frequency band called Band 4, also called AWS (Advanced Wireless Service), also called 1700 MHz (more accurately it is 1700 MHz upload, 2100 MHz download). Unfortunately 1700/2100 MHz is sometimes confused with Asia/Europe 3G 2100 MHz (Band 1), that confusion caused a lot of disappointment and grief for travelers.

In Canada, WIND and Mobilicity also use AWS (and nothing else), but their market share is only 2% each and they do not have coverage (i.e. cell towers) outside major cities hence they server a niche domestic market.

Phone manufactures decided to make two kinds of unlocked GSM phones, US GSM and “Global GSM” (which really means non-US). Also very unfortunate is that almost all US GSM models (except high end US$500+ phones) have the mainstream 3G 850 MHz and 3G 1900 MHz, plus the 1700 MHz AWS band 4 but in doing so they ripped out 3G 2100 MHz which means you cannot use US GSM models outside of North America (you can still use 2G-EDGE if you can tolerate waiting 5 minutes or eternity for a Google Map screen to load; emails still flow because it is much less time sensitive).

T-Mobile USA decided to clean up this mess a few years ago and they aggressively upgraded their network to use mainstream 3G 1900 MHz. For tourists visiting USA today, unless you want to venture to rural area or the Oregon Coast, you get strong T-Mobile signal in the mainstream 3G 1900 MHz band.

With the T-Mobile USA network upgrade, it is not necessary to even bother with the “US GSM” phones, any unlocked phone with 3G 1900 MHz will work with AT&T, T-Mobile and in Canada, Rogers, Bell, Telus. 3G 850 MHz is typically included with 1900 MHz phones because in rural areas, 850 MHz is still used instead of the mainstream 1900 MHz.

In summary, any unlocked phones with 3G 850 MHz and 3G 1900 MHz work in USA and Canada, with the following exception:
“Global GSM” unlocked phone will not work with T-Mobile USA in rural areas and in Canada WIND and Mobilicity will not work. Sprint and Verizon use CDMA which is incompatible with GSM. For typical tourists visiting North America, these restrictions are of no concerns.

If your phone has 3G 1900 MHz and is unlocked then you are good to go in USA/Canada. My next post deals with the SIM card issues, which is a lot more difficult than just buying a SIM card at the arriving airport.


  • What about LTE ?

Most tourists travel in another country with zero G (i.e, no mobile data, unless they are rich and turn on the roaming data and pay enormous data roaming charges). Getting basic 2G-EDGE or 3G mobile data would seem to be heaven compared to zero.

However, since the world is steadily adding LTE to their networks, I finally decided to look at the LTE situation while traveling in another country.

LTE typically uses Band numbers instead of frequency, which is an improvement to reduce confusion, I list them both for completeness.

Below is a summary, or birds eye view, of the evolving LTE deployment.

AT&T Band 4 (1700 MHz) Band 2 (1900 MHz) Band 17 (700 MHz)
T-Mobile Band 4 (1700 MHz) Band 2 (1900 MHz) Band 12 (700 MHz lower blocks)

Rogers and Fido Band 4 (1700 MHz) Band 7 (2600 MHz) Band 17 (700 MHz)
Telus Band 4 (1700 MHz)
Bell Canada Band 4 (1700 MHz) Band 7 (2600 MHz) Band 12 (700 MHz)


Band 1 (2100 MHz) Band 3 (1800 MHz) Band 5 (850 MHz) Band 7 (2600 MHz) Band 8 (900 MHz) and Band 20 (800 MHz)

Once again, there is little overlap of LTE bands between North America and Asia/Europe. High end phones (US $500+) usually have several LTE bands for travel.

To complicated matter more, China Mobile uses TDD (Time Domain Duplex) as opposed to the rest of the world using FDD (Frequency Doman Duplex). TDD and FDD technologies are incompatible with each other. China Mobile TDD-LTE use bands 38, 39, 40, 41

Huawei and Qualcomm are working on new technologies called Huawei’s One LTE solution (TDD/FDD CA) which may (or may not) result in future LTE convergence of a unified 4G network. Only time will tell.

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