Trying to pick a cell phone provider in Canada is a bit like trying to predict the end of winter in Canada. The days start getting longer, the sun feels warmer, and you’re feeling confident the cold season is behind you, then — BAM! — an unexpected snowstorm hits. When you’re researching Canadian phone companies, you might feel like you’ve found the best offer, then — CLICK! — you’ve discovered yet another phone provider!? With another 10 different phone plans to sift through?!
Hold up — don’t stress! We’ve put together this guide to empower you to find the best phone plan and phone provider for your needs — updated for 2021. And that’s the first important thing to understand: there is no single Canadian phone provider, or phone plan, that is the best for everyone. You have to do some research to figure out the options and figure out which phone plan fits your needs as a new arrival in Canada.
If you’re completely new to the market in Canada, there are a few things you need to know before comparing phone providers. Do you know the difference between a Bring Your Own device (BYO) plan vs. purchasing through your provider? What about the benefits of a prepaid phone plan vs. a monthly contract? If not, check out these articles before reading any further:
- Getting a Canadian phone: A newcomer’s guide to understanding Canadian cell phones
- Prepaid or Contract: What is the best type of phone plan for newcomers to Canada?
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Who are the major cell phone providers in Canada, and who’s the best?
Canada is known for having very expensive phone plans, especially when it comes to data. One of the reasons Canadian phone plans are so expensive is that there is not much competition between phone providers on the market. In most European countries, there are many telecom providers competing with one another for customers, and this competition drives down prices.
In Canada, there are only three big players on the market: Rogers, Telus, and Bell. These companies are known as the Big Three in Canadian telecom services.
But, if you’ve done your research, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! I’ve definitely heard of other cell phone providers. What about Fido, Virgin, Koodo, or Public Mobile?”
Well, as it turns out, most of the smaller, younger cell phone providers are actually owned by the Big Three. They are what are referred to as “flanker brands,” usually branded and marketed to appeal to a younger demographic than their parent brands.
Canadian cell phone plans are expensive because these three phone providers own the market, more or less, and while they do provide competition to one another, it is not at the level needed to drive the prices down to those seen in other countries. Canada also has strict laws preventing foreign companies from entering the market, further entrenching the hold of the Big Three over mobile prices.
The easiest way to understand Canada’s phone provider options is to understand them in three groupings:
Generally, each of the phone providers in each of these groupings provides almost identical services for almost identical prices. If one provider in one grouping changes their options, there’s a good chance that the other two will follow suit.
Each grouping is aimed at a different type of customer. We’ve taken the time to compare each grouping based on the factors that are important to you: coverage area, BYO options, phone purchasing options, family options, prepaid vs. postpaid options, and affordability of data.
- A note on coverage area: As Canada’s three telecom giants, Rogers, Telus, and Bell operate on the most wide-reaching networks the country has to offer. If you live in an urban area in Canada, you’ll be within the coverage area for these companies. This also includes the flanker brands. Since the coverage area is so similar among all nine of these companies, we won’t include that in our comparison.
That said, Canada is a massive country and so if you’ll be living in a rural area or smaller town, away from a city, you’ll want to check the networks before buying a phone plan. Telus and Bell actually share the same mobile network and, as such, are able to provide coverage to more rural areas than Rogers. But, again, if you’ll be living in a rural area, ask about coverage before you buy.
In a select few Canadian provinces, other provincial telecom and phone providers are on the market, providing residents with extra options. Be sure to check out the province-specific options if your plans involve Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, or British Columbia.
In the past couple of years, a handful of independent phone providers have been cropping up, often piggy-backing off the networks of the Big Three, allowing them to offer great coverage while cutting costs. One example is the Vancouver-based, PhoneBox, who have managed to offer some of the lowest rates on the market. Their rates are so low, in fact, that Moving2Canada has partnered with them to offer an exclusive promotion to our community.
Now, are you ready to learn the details of the Big Three and their flankers?
The “Big Three”: Rogers, Telus, and Bell
In addition to being the companies that own the flanker brands, Rogers, Telus, and Bell also offer their own distinct telecom services. In each province, the Big Three offer a different range of telecom services, including phone services, internet, and television. The flanker brands are phone providers exclusively and do not offer home internet or cable services. In this article, we are only focusing on mobile phone services.
Remember these three companies offer nearly identical services for nearly identical prices.
Big (and unlimited) data: The Big Three phone providers are the only ones to offer mobile plans with “unlimited” data in Canada. These plans give customers a limit of high speed data per month: usually somewhere between 20GB and 100GB, and once that limit has been reached, the customer can still use data, but the speed is throttled to a much slower rate.
These plans are on the pricier end. As of April 2021, all three companies offered a promotion for 30GB at a cost of $80/month for BYO device, plus an additional cost distributed monthly if you choose to purchase a phone (please note that exact pricing may vary from province to province). For plans with higher amounts of unlimited data, you can expect to pay more. If you’ll be blasting through 30+GB of data per month, these plans might make sense — otherwise, the flanker brands might offer better deals for your needs.
Family options: All Big Three companies offer options for purchasing multiple phone lines and sharing data across multiple lines, so if you’re buying phone plans for your whole family, you’ll want to consider these companies. The discounts vary from company to company, but the flanker brands don’t offer many family options.
In Canada, these family plans often use “shared data,” which isn’t an option in all countries. Data-sharing allows multiple phone lines to be connected to the same shared pool of available monthly data.
However, even if you are purchasing phone plans for yourself and your family, you may be able to find cheaper options for talking, texting, and data. But, if you’re a family with big data needs, there’s a good chance that these are the phone providers to shop with.
Bringing Your Own device: All three of these companies offer BYO options. But, unless you’re looking for an unlimited data plan, the best BYO options lie with the flanker brands.
Prepaid plans: Rogers, Telus, and Bell each offer prepaid plans, but the best prepaid plans are with the 2nd Level Flanker Brands. With the Big Three, you’ll pay more and get less if you decide to go the prepaid route.
1st Level Flanker Brands: Koodo, Virgin Mobile, and Fido
The 1st Level flanker brands are Koodo, Virgin Mobile, and Fido. A quick glance at the websites of each of these companies will show you a young, sleek design: marketing designed to appeal to younger buyers in the market (maybe that’s you!).
These three companies are owned by the Big Three:
- Koodo is owned by Telus
- Virgin is owned by Bell
- Fido is owned by Rogers
Again, the services provided by each of these phone providers are very similar and are priced at nearly identical levels. Let’s look at how the 1st level flankers compare to the Big Three and the 2nd level flankers:
Mid-size data: All three of these phone providers offer competitive plans when it comes to mid-size amounts of monthly data. From 2GB-15GB, it’s worth checking out the offers available in your province. As of April 2021, our research showed plans available for 3GB of data at as little as $40/month and 15GB for as little as $65/month — but pricing may change with time and could differ from province to province. As the Big Three don’t cater to these mid-size amounts of data, the flankers are the place to look.
But, if you’re looking for 2GB-8GB of data per month be careful to also check the 2nd level flankers, as they frequently offer the most competitive rates for these smaller amounts of data (see below).
Customer Service & Rewards: Koodo, Virgin, and Fido are known for their high levels of customer service, allowing you to communicate with a representative in-person, by phone, email, and livechat. In addition, they offer perks and rewards to their customers. Offers on exclusive plans, device upgrades, loyalty data, and deals with other businesses in Canada are common examples of their perks, but you’ll have to check with each provider to see what options they have running now.
Purchasing a phone through your phone provider? We used to rank these 1st level flankers as the best option if you wanted to purchase a phone through your phone provider. But, since 2020, if you want to purchase a new phone through your provider, you’ll pay for that phone with a monthly fee through a financing plan. The financing plans are similarly priced across the brands who offer them (notably, you can’t purchase a new phone through the 2nd level brands).
No Unlimited Data: None of the 1st level flanker brands offer unlimited data plans. If you’re an internet addict with a need for infinite data, your only options are to head to the top and sign up with Rogers, Bell, or Telus, or spend your life jumping from place to place looking for decent WiFi.
No Family Plans: Koodo, Virgin, and Fido are branded for younger, more independent customers, not so much for families. As such, none of these providers offer dedicated options for families. That said, depending on your needs, it may be more affordable to purchase your family individual lines through one of the 1st level flankers, as the majority of family plans offered by Rogers, Bell, and Telus, are expensive plans with lots of features, and maybe everyone in your family doesn’t need a plan that large.
BYO device & Prepaid Plans with 8GB of data or less per month: These phone providers offer BYO options and prepaid plans. However, the BYO and prepaid options for plans with 8GB or fewer of data per month offered by the 2nd level flankers are a little bit cheaper. That said, if you’re a fan of extra perks or you want to be sure about your customer service experience, Fido, Virgin, and Koodo are worth considering.
2nd Level Flanker Brands: Public Mobile, Lucky Mobile, and Chatr Mobile
The last grouping, and the youngest to hit the market, are the 2nd level flanker brands.
Again, each of these brands is owned by one of the Big Three:
- Public Mobile is owned by Telus
- Lucky Mobile is owned by Bell
- Chatr Mobile is owned by Rogers.
As with the other two groupings, services provided by the 2nd level flanker brands are nearly identical and are priced at similar levels. Here’s how the 2nd level flanker brands compare to the others:
Cheapest Bring Your Own (BYO) device options (up to 8GB/month): If you are considering a BYO device option for your phone plan, you should strongly consider these three phone providers. Public, Lucky, and Chatr provide the most affordable BYO options on the market for up to 8GB of data per month. You can expect to pay around $50/month for the 8GB option (exact prices may vary based on province or promos available). As a reference, 8GB plans with the 1st level flanker brands cost approximately $55/month, according to our research in April 2021.
Cheapest prepaid phone plan options: Public, Lucky, and Chatr offer the cheapest options for prepaid phone plans (in fact, they only offer prepaid phone plans!). If you’re looking into prepaid options, either because you prefer the control or because you aren’t prepared for a credit check, you’ll find the most affordable options with Public, Lucky, and Chatr.
Limited options for purchasing a new phone: When we say limited, we mean it. If you want to purchase a phone through any of these phone providers, we’re talking about the most basic models on the market. You have to pay the full price upfront, and don’t expect any fancy features or new technology.
Really, if you want to purchase a new phone, either do it directly from the manufacturer and then bring it to one of these companies, or do it through one of the 1st level flanker brands, and pay it off through a long-term contract.
No unlimited data: If you want a plan without a cap on data, your only options are the Big Three.
No family plans: These phone providers offer the bare bones only. There are no options for family plans, but if you plan right, you can purchase separate plans for each of your family members and still keep it in the affordable range.
No contract phone plans: Some people prefer the monthly contract for their phone plan. There’s no need to worry about topping up your plan if you hit your limit (though watch out for those overage charges!), plus with postpaid plans you often get access to bonus perks and rewards. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
If you live in one of these provinces, you should check out the province-specific competitor who’s on the market.
Saskatchewan: Home of the SaskTel network. SaskTel is government-owned and helps keep the market more competitive with some of the best prices in the country.
Quebec: Home of Videotron, a privately owned telecoms carrier. Though Videotron has limited wireless coverage, mostly in southern Quebec and neighbouring provinces, it does provide some additional options worth pursuing if you’re in the French-speaking province.
Ontario, Alberta, & British Columbia (cities only): Freedom Mobile offers cell phone plans with coverage mostly limited to major cities. West of Ontario, Freedom only has coverage in Edmonton, Calgary, and the Greater Vancouver Area. Freedom Mobile has competitive rates, for those who spend most of their lives in the major cities covered. Freedom also has exclusive deals with public transportation companies in Toronto and Vancouver, allowing users to access data while underground on the subway.