An Emergency Only Cell Phone: Pros and Cons of Petro-Canada Mobility

I understand that most of the world now has a fully-featured cell phone capable of accessing the internet, providing GPS coordinates, making phone calls, sending text messages and probably initiating the count-down launch sequence for an asteroid-blasting rocket capable of protecting Earth from another dinosaur-exterminating-scale impact. That didn’t stop me from wanting a cell phone
(a) from which I could call CAA and 911;
(b) that I wouldn’t care (much) if I lost it, destroyed it, or had it stolen; and
(c) that doesn’t cost much to have activated and ready to use.
The US (and most other countries) are full of these types of ‘disposable’ phones with appropriately-priced (read cheap) plans. Canada only offers a few. This is a review of some of the pros and cons of our Petro-Canada Mobility emergency only cell phone.

Why Do We have a PC Mobility Phone?


I’d love to say I did a detailed analysis of every cost, feature and fact about emergency cell phones and selected this one.

I didn’t.

We have a Petro-Canada phone because of a work situation for a family member which resulted in an incredibly huge number of Petro-Points being accumulated. Enough that it was simple to buy a Nokia and a year’s worth of activation plus some air time for “free” by using only a fraction of the points. Add to that an unexpected winter trip and the need for a way to call for help if even new snow tires couldn’t keep a grip and the decision was made.

What’s the Service Been Like with Our Petro-Canada Phone?

We’ve almost always been able to get a signal. Apparently, the carrier is Rogers based on the maps of available range.

We were unable to get a signal in some spots in the Cape Breton Highlands this summer but in other spots we could get through.

For southern Ontario highways and bi-ways we’ve had no trouble connecting to the network.

What Does the Airtime Cost?

Because this is an emergency phone we don’t get a monthly plan for it, although one is offered. Instead we buy blocks of airtime and activation.

For $100 we get 365 days of activation and $100 dollars of airtime. The calls are billed against this amount. As of December 2013, the calls are billed at $0.25 per minute for local and $0.50 per minute for long distance within Canada and the US. There is also a monthly charge for 911 service. In December 2013, that charge is $1.25 per month.

As of December 2013, outgoing text messages are

  • 10 ¢ to destinations within Canada
  • 15 ¢ to the US and
  • 35 ¢ to anywhere else in the world.

Incoming text messages are free.

If you buy a small block of minutes remember you will be paying the 911 fee even when you don’t use the phone so keep an eye on your balance. (Or an ear: they will send you a message when you’re getting low.)

Isn’t That a Lot of Money for an Emergency Phone?

Possibly. Frankly I think it’s insurance I am more likely to use than my regular auto insurance.

I consider the annual cost to be another type of insurance premium where I am betting I will need it and the insurer is betting I won’t. From that point of view, it seems a reasonable cost to me.

Does Airtime Rollover or Expire?

If you renew your phone before it expires, any balance of airtime dollars will carry forward into the new renewal time. If you forget to renew before the expiry date you will lose any dollars you still have.

I understand there’s a class action lawsuit brewing against one of the major Telecoms about this loss of air time. For now, though, there’s no law that says they can’t do this.

What Kind of Phones are Offered?

The cell phones are actually sold separately.

Remember that I wanted a phone that I could speak into and hear a reply? And that I could lose, destroy or have stolen without serious regrets?

I bought a bottom of the line Nokia with no keypad. I paid with Petro-Points but it cost about $40 to buy with cash a couple of years ago. It’s been working fine for years now and it keeps a charge for months.

I won’t list the available phones. There’s only a couple and they change from time to time. You can look at them on the http://mobility.petro-canada.ca/default.aspx site.

If you are also looking for this type of emergency phone I’d suggest looking at the phones offered with the lowest cost on the PC Mobility website. Then hop over to a review site like amazon.com and see what real people have said about that particular model.

Can I Just Buy a SIM Card from PC Mobility for my Old Phone?

Some people may have an older GSM phone they want to keep in the car as an emergency phone.

Yes you can buy a SIM card if your phone is unlocked. It has to be a GSM phone (850/1900 MHz.)

Usually you can get a SIM card for $5 at a Petro-Canada gas station. It usually costs more (about $15) to order one online.

There are no refunds on SIM cards, even if you find you don’t have the correct-type of phone after you buy it. If in doubt, talk to customer service *before* you buy the card.

PROs of the Petro-Canada Mobility Phone

  • No credit check is necessary.
  • No bills are sent. If you use up your dollar balance you can’t make a non-911 phone call and you can’t send a text message.
  • No roaming charges. OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. There are no charges because there’s no support for roaming.
  • Free incoming text messages.
  • Free voice mail.
  • Free caller id.
  • Free call waiting.
  • No system access fees. (There is an automatic non-deniable $1.25 fee per month for 911.)
  • No contract.
  • You can buy more minutes at Petro-Canada gas stations, but you will need to call a toll-free number to activate the minutes. Be sure your receipt is easy to read before leaving the gas station!
  • You can buy more minutes online if you register your phone.

CON: Very Limited Coverage in Low Population Areas

Because the phone uses the Rogers network, the range is definitely biased towards areas of high population like the corridor from London Ontario to Quebec City.

If you live, even along the TransCanada, in northern Ontario, there may not be any coverage. Check the map at
http://mobility.petro-canada.ca/images/general/coverage_national.pdf
if you don’t expect to use the phone mostly in highly populated areas.

(For comparison, here’s the Rogers GSM network map:
http://www.rogers.com/business/on/en/enterprise/rogers/coverage/ )
and the Bell map:
http://www.bell.ca/Mobility/Coverage_map

To be fair, it’s not really a Petro-Canada Mobility drawback. It seems both of the major carriers in Canada don’t care to offer decent coverage to areas with low population density.

CON: You Can’t Use the Phone in the USA

Unless you are close enough to the border to pick up the Rogers carrier signal, you can’t use this phone in the US. It has no roaming abilities.

CON: Local Call Rates Are High

I suppose it’s good that there isn’t much difference in the cost between a local call and a (US and Canada only) long distance call. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean the long distance rate is low, it means the local call rate is high.

If you’re planning to make a call that’s longer than 2 minutes locally, it’s much cheaper to use a payphone for 50 cents, than pay the 25 cents per minute to use your cell phone.

Other Options to Consider

There are other providers to consider.

  • 7-11 stores are the physical location selling SpeakOut network phone services.
  • The regular Telecomm suspects all offer a prepaid phone service, including Bell and Telus.


Related Reading

Join In
Do you have a ‘disposable’ cell phone instead of or in addition to your multi-purpose ‘real’ cell? Which provider do you use? Please share any cautions or concerns from your experience with a comment.

16 thoughts on “An Emergency Only Cell Phone: Pros and Cons of Petro-Canada Mobility

    • I’m not sure exactly what we pay. I suspect if I checked I could probably use our P-Points for something a bit more valuable per point than for the phone time, but we have so many points available it’s not worth doing the math.

      $87/year does sound like a good rate for a emergency phone!

  1. For emergency, only 911, I am pretty sure you can just use an old phone that doesn’t even need a SIM card.

    • That’s what I’ve heard. I think so long as the battery is charged, all cell phones can call 911. That’s why some shelters collect old phones to give to their clients and why they will take any make or model.

  2. We have an archaic Samsung pay-as-you-go, that we take with us for trips or bad weather. Typically we put $100 on it about every 18 months or so… So pretty cheap for life’s little unplanned emergencies. For years I would just keep a $20 in the car in case I needed to flag someone down because of a car breakdown as a thank-you for phone use… over a 5 year period, I needed it only once, and the other person, even gave me a ride. Now that was cheap!

    • Sounds like you have a good method.

      It’s true that almost every car passing nowadays has a cell phone and would be happy to help. But in a strange way I think it makes people a little less likely to stop to help as they assume I have a cell too!
      Maybe I’ll start taking the cell AND a $20. That should cover both possibilities. : )

  3. I use my Petrocan phone both as an emergency phone and hooked up to my car via bluetooth. The phone is 3 years old but still functions well. I pay $25 for 120 days of service. They remind me to top up in plenty of time. My previous carrier, Virgin, left it up to me to top up without any reminder. As a consequence I lost both my money and airtime. Not very fair to the consumer.
    I have had no problems with Petrocan since I signed up for a phone.
    Finally, they are offering a smartphone for $150. Very tempting.

    • We’ve had good luck with our phone too. I lend mine to the kids when they go outdoors so they can call me if something nasty happens. (Skateboarding even in parkland is not perfectly safe.)

      Thanks for mentioning the smartphone is available too and thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. I know I’m a few months late commenting, but I just came across your site. Thanks for creating it!

    My mother uses the Speakout/711 phone, with annual airtime top up of $25 which doesn’t expire for a full year. It has been the best deal for us for an “emergency use only” phone.
    http://www.speakout7eleven.ca

    • I’ve heard of this plan but haven’t had time to check into all of the details (and I can’t get it for free using my excessively huge number of Petro-Points.) So thank you for sharing your family’s experience so readers can consider this another option.

  5. Hello,

    I just switched from Petro Canada Phone to $100 per year Fido Prepaid.

    Advantage of this Fido prepaid is you’ll get free evening and week-end calling with all other Petro Canada features such as display and voicemail.

    Disadvantage is Fido will charge roaming fees while Petro Canada is not

  6. I purchased two phones and two plans for my young sons for primarily texting with occasional voice calls to make sure they are safe and keep tabs. The text a lot monthly plan is $15 and you can setup an auto renew payment schedule. This sounds great but what they don’t tell you is that the actual cost is 16.25/ month (911 fee). No big deal, but you can only pay in $15 increments so you account balance is always either over or under the monthly cost. Before signing up I was assured by customer service that the voice feature would shut off after 100 minutes each month and that we would not be charged extra and the texting would remain active. This is not true. When the user goes over the 100 minutes, the texting that was free is now 0.10ea and voice messages are 0.25/minute and start using up the balance for next month (that you have to put in to cover the 911 fee). For adults who manage their phone properly, this is not a problem. For kids it means they have to be careful about the voice usage or our ability to communicate gets cut off.

    • Thank you for this detailed review of the texting plan. Having not used it, I didn’t realize it was “buggy.” Is there any way to get the provider to fix it? Or did they say you’ll just have to keep monitoring the talk minutes yourselves?

  7. I don’t see any mention of data having been available here. I just signed up for the Petro-Canada $100.00 Anytime deal which includes data billed at 10 cents/MB. Usually you end up paying a minimum charge of $10/100MB although Virgin will charge you $7.50 for the first 50MB. So I will use this service away from wifi and Fongo when connected to wifi. I’m looking at reducing my annual phone bill to around $150 from around $500.

    • That’s true. For an “emergency phone” I didn’t need any data. In fact, I don’t have a Smartphone so I couldn’t use data even if I had it. I hope the new plan will work well for you. If you can post an update on whether you like it or not, I’m sure data-using readers would appreciate it!

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