As occasional users of cell phones, we subscribe to Virgin Mobile’s pay-as-you-go service. When I signed up initially, a $25 top-up lasted 120 days (i.e. the amount of time you have to top up to prevent your unused credit from expiring) but about two years back, Virgin Mobile reduced the expiry across the board and a $25 top-up was cut back to 90 days. Today, Virgin Mobile announced that they are yet again reducing the length of pre-paid top up expiries. The minimum top up of $15 will now last 30 days (down from 45) and a $25 top up will last 60 days (down from 90).

Fortunately, there is plenty of competition in the pre-paid cell phone service business and Petro-Canada Mobility (yes, the gas station) is now a clear winner. In contrast to Virgin Mobile, a $20 credit with Petro-Canada lasts a stunning 180 days (three times as long as the nearest competition). It so happens that both our cell phones with Virgin Mobile need a top up in the near future and I am going to vote with my wallet and move our business to Petro-Canada. The way I see it, even a high-end phone from Petro-Canada will pay for itself in less than a year as air time would cost $40 compared to $150 with Virgin Mobile’s new service changes.

This article has 25 comments

  1. My “other half” uses pay-as-you-go from Virgin. I’ve been thinking of getting a cell phone and he has suggested I go with PetroCan for the same reasons you suggest. Looks like the entry-level Nokia phone from PetroCan is only $50.

  2. Another provider to consider is Speakout through 7-eleven

    Same provider as the petrocan service but a $25 top-up has a 365 day

  3. CC, if Petro Canada appeals to you, then take a look at the 7-11 cell phone pay as you go plans. I believe that they have a promotion on right now that if you buy a $100 phone card, it will last you 1 year along with getting a FREE Nokia cell phone.

  4. The dealbreaker for me is that you can only use these phones within Canada. I use my cellphone mainly when traveling, and most of my work-related travel is in the US. For a while, I had a prepaid cellphone with a US carrier (AT&T/Cingular), and that worked okay except that I couldn’t top up my phone online because the online form requires you to enter a zip code.

  5. Not defending Virgin’s ever changing policy decisions (including moving up from $.25 per call to $.30) but I do like that if you put in $100 it lasts a full year, and if you top up even the minium amount after that it takes the greater of the two potential expiry dates.

  6. Canadian Capitalist

    FT, Shane: Thanks for the tip about 7-Eleven. Does anyone have this phone? Are they happy with it? To be honest, I’m leaning towards Petro-Can because a friend recently bought a phone with them and is very happy with it.

    Novice: I noticed that we don’t use up the $25 credit within three months. Our usage tends to be more like $50 per year, so I was thinking of switching anyway. This latest change by Virgin Mobile just gave us an extra push.

  7. I’m living in the US now, and yeah, they seem to have way more options. I just went with the generic AT&T and $20 lasts for 90 days, and I think $100 lasts the year. But that link up there for $25 and the year seems to take the cake.

  8. Thanks for the Petro tip! I have a Nokia 2610 that was provided by Rogers for free when they converted their network to GSM. Their minimum PAYG plan is $10 and expires after 30 days, so we rarely have minutes on it. Hopefully I can just carry my phone over to Petro.

  9. I’ve been using the 7-11 SpeakOut phone for a while, and have been very happy with it. Unfortunately they just raised their local rates to 25c per minute and long distance to 45c per minute in US/Canada, however you can offset this by filling up with a 75$ or 100$ voucher which adds 25% of credit.

    Here’s a website with all the info you could want on it:

  10. For long-distance cellphone calls you might want to consider using a Yak travel card. They have local access numbers in most Canadian cities and a toll-free access number elsewhere in North America (a 5 cent/minute surcharge applies when you use the toll-free number, but even with that the rates are cheap: 3.5 cents/minute for calls within Canada (that’s 8.5 cents/minute total if you use the toll-free access number).

  11. I was *just* considering leaving Virgin Mobile because the 45-day expiry (on $15, the min topup) is just a ripoff. If I speak 3 or 5 minutes a month, why should I pay for 75 every month and a half? As it is, my balance is >$50 because I use it so little but am forced to “top up” so as to not lose my balance.

    So, the other day I get a text message saying the expiry policy has changed. I think “great, they must be increasing it back to 120 days!”. Imagine my shock when I find that the $15 expiry is now 30 days.

    If I have to pay every month, why exactly do I have a prepaid cell phone?

    Goodbye Virgin, hello Petro. The sad thing about it is, even factoring in the $50 up-front cost for the Petro phone, I still save about $4/month over Virgin (at $50+$20/6months ~= $11/mo).

  12. Hello, I know this is oot, but I’ve been reading the column for a while now and much of the advice seemed to make sense to me until this afternoon’s head scratcher. I set up a td waterhouse account for my son’s RESP, and went ahead to purchase 10 units of XRE at 13$ each, just to get my feet wet.

    I was surprised to be slapped with a 30$ comission fee. I have other TD RRSP and mortgage and everything through them, but they’re not with waterhouse. If my intention is to put down 200$ per month on this RESP, and I’m getting hit with 30$ each time, I don’t think it makes any sense to go through waterhouse, no? Is there something that I’m missing?


  13. Ioana,

    You forgot to check, or someone forgot to inform you of the trading fees associates with buying securities through a discount broker.
    “Electronic Brokerage Services Standard Commission Rates”

    You may also want to check if there’s an annual fee for the RESP.

  14. Ioana, you want to stick with TD efunds for small amounts. ETFs are great for larger amounts, especially when you buy and hold them forever.

    I think you need a TD efunds RESP account to buy efunds and not pay a yearly fee. If you go through TD Waterhouse they’ll charge a yearly fee for accounts under 25k although you might be able to avoid it if you have other accounts with them.

    Back on topic, I was afraid of what I’d find on Virgin’s website today after receiving the text message. Happy to see they didn’t mess with my $100 card, still good for a year. Sucks that they keep pulling this crap though, that’s what gave them a competitive advantage vs other carriers to begin with.

    Not quite sure I understand the point of getting the smaller cards, I can’t be bothered to make sure I don’t miss a top up more than once a year. If/when they start messing with the $100 card’s expiry period I’ll be moving somewhere else.

  15. Canadian Capitalist

    Iona: As Jon and GSP point out and you’ve discovered, you’ll be dinged a commission for each transaction and it doesn’t make sense to invest regular contributions in stocks or ETFs.

    For smaller accounts, TD Waterhouse charges $30 in trading commissions. Only if you consolidate all your investment accounts with TD Waterhouse and the total between all accounts with the same address is $100K or more, you are eligible for a $10 commission.

    Even if you qualify for a $10 commission, a TD Waterhouse RESP account is overkill, especially in the initial years when the account is likely to be small. You will be dinged the annual administration fee, which might be sizable for a small account. That’s why our RESP accounts are with TD Mutual Funds online (that allows you to invest in TD e-Series index funds). Check out the posts in the RESP category:

  16. Canadian Capitalist

    GSP: I’ll probably keep my newer phone and top up $100 with Virgin Mobile. The only reason I used to top up $25 is because it was the same as a $100 top up and roughly matched my usage. But the other phone, is very old and is probably on its last legs and I’m was thinking of an upgrade anyway. I’ve purchased a Speak Out phone as a replacement.

    Jesse: Like you, I prefer to keep a cell phone until it dies. So, I’ll stick with Virgin Mobile for one of the phones and top up $100. $100 over 12 months works out to about $10 per month.

    brad: Great tip about Yak. We never call long distance over the cell phone but I believe you can sign up for long distance through yakCell. I’ll be sure to mention your tip in tomorrow’s post.

    jasonr: Thanks for your comment. I’ve decided to sign up with Speak Out for the replacement phone.

    Michael_S: I checked out and someone suggested in the forum that a phone can be transferred from Rogers to Speak Out or Petro-Canada. You may want to check it out.

  17. Pingback: Speak Out Wireless: Another Virgin Mobile Alternative

  18. I’ve stayed with bad old Bell because my wonderful little Nokia won’t die. No real complaints about $25/60 day top-up with $ accumulation if you use the “express top-up” service. I’ve now got about $200 in accumulated minutes. When you’re talking a few bucks a month, it’s worth taking into account a) the quality of the phone, especially battery life and reception, and b) the quality of the network. I know for a fact that Bell serves the areas in Quebec we travel to much better than Rogers, and I’ve lent my $50 Nokia to make a call a Rogers Blackberry couldn’t find a signal for. If the main idea is limited use for travel and personal security you want to be sure you’ve got a live phone and a good signal at zero hour.

  19. I just switched from bell to Virgin! They’re the same network, so that’s good. I debated between services discussed here, and decided with Virgin despite higher cost because it has more flexibility. I can switch for the weekend to the $1/day plan and get unlimited minutes — for only 2 bucks! Then switch back to the by the minute plan so that works best for me. With Speakout or Petro, there is no auto top up, so more chance of losing your money and they’ve only got the one plan.

  20. CC, GSP and Jon202 – thank you very much to each for your response!!

    Jon202- I actually read the comission faq, but I misunderstood thinking that my total assets has to be over 100k, rather than only the ones at waterhouse…

  21. I was going to mention offered through 7-eleven but it looks like someone has already mentioned it. The only reason why I personally have not gone to Speekoutwireless (as much a I want to leave Rogers) is that I do rely on the free 2500 received text messages through Rogers. It will cost me $0.05 each under Speakoutwireless.

    I am hopeful that competition will come in Canada and there’s new GSM entrants that will force Rogers to remain competitive.

  22. Virgin Mobile Canada SUCKS!!! They fail to honour their commitment and offer false and misleading advertising.

    I recently returned two phones and cancelled my two plans due to their failure to honour their commitment.

    Bell Canada owns Virgin in Canada and they offer the same poor customer service.

    Customers are not important to Virgin only the customers money is important.

    Stay away from these clowns.

  23. Virgin sucks. I feel like I got Bait’ N’ Switched into it with those initially favourable terms in early 2005. Since then they have systematically and incrementally worsened the pre-paid deal to bring it in line with the others – apparent effort to coerse people to “graduate” to Monthly plans once they got into that segment!

    Customer service has become worse. Last year it took them 6 weeks to make the account adjustments they promised – their tech department is a joke.

    Only good thing has been the virtually indestructable Nokia basic phone it came with – It’s taken everything short of a direct gun shot without a hitch – I’ve been very reluctant to switch because of all the breakdowns my friends have with other phones – but having gotten 4,5 years of life out of it, I’ve finally been pushed too far and will switch to SpeakOut this week.

  24. Virgin support sucks – absolute idiots when looking for technical support – they couldn’t tell a computer apart from a banana if both were sitting in front of them. Virgin Mobile Broadband is bloody awful as well. They promise speeds up to 21mbps but most of the time the speed is slower than dialup – YES REALLY! The wireless channels are shared so whenever there are other phone or data users they overload Bell’s pathetic network and the broadband speed drops to usually 25kps. (That almost 1/100th the speed they quote and half of dialup speed.) Its horrible to try to use, except at maybe 3AM. Also voice calls get network priority so good luck trying to get usable, let alone fast, internet access anytime from around 10AM to after midnight. Bell/Virgin, like all Canada’s telecommunication companies, are absolutely descpicabe companies just reaming the Canadian consumer. They are money printing machines taking advantage of consumers that in this day of age must have voice/data/internet access in order to even live their lives yet the offer the crappiest networks in the world, brag about their “great” services in an endless barage of brain-dead advertizing (remember the BELL beavers – what idiots!) all the while our politians and CRTC watch the “average Canadian” get continually screwed over by these despicable horrible companies and DO NOTHING. Your tax dollars hard at work protecting bell’s and roger’s big profits. Man this country sucks.

  25. Get this…..I ordered a phone and plan online and waited for all the emails telling me it was on the way and watched the tracking on Canada Post as my phone was delivered to someone else who signed for it and stole it. I called Virgin and couldn’t get anyone to help because they didn’t seem to know what to do. I spent a week calling and waiting and being passed around and around and then to add insult to a very, very bad customer service treatment, they send me a bill for a phone and a plan I do not even have?????? No one has yet called to explain what happened, how they were going to fix it or even just say sorry. The worst thing is I left Bell Mobility to get away from this shitty customer and foreign call center treatment, only to find that Bell owns Virgin Canada…..and everyone knows that if you want a business to go belly up fast, let Canadians run it for a month