Cross-Border Plug-in Travel? Read This Before Planning Your Summer Electric Car Vacation

Depending on where you live in the world, travelling across borders between countries is either an everyday occurrence, or something which happens once in a blue moon due to the size of the country you live in, its proximity to other nations, or your personal circumstances.

Cross-border trips are only successful if you have the correct access cards for the right networks.

Cross-border trips are only successful if you have the correct access cards for the right networks.

In Europe, driving in between different member states of the EU is a breeze, with even currency in many European countries staying the same as languages and borders come and go. For those in the U.S. or Canada, crossing between the two countries isn’t much more of a hassle, save for the queue at the border, the switch from one dollar to the other, and perhaps translating speed limit signs from miles per hour to kilometers per hour.

For plug-in car owners, there’s often an invisible, sometimes impossible barrier to taking your car over the border,

Your car will still operate in another county, and if it runs on gasoline, you’ll still be able to pump gas and pay for it as you would at home.

Yet for plug-in car owners, there’s an invisible, sometimes impossible barrier to taking your car over the border, especially in Europe and North America: obtaining the correct RFID smart cards you’ll need to charge your car at a public charging station during your stay.

It’s something we wrote about last year on a failed trip across Europe — and it’s something reader Kelly Carmichael from BC, Canada has been living with for the past five years every time he tries to take his Canadian car south from Vancouver to Seattle, Washington.

While your car may be able to connect to the charging stations in another country, don’t bet on getting a charge — unless you happen to own a Tesla Model S, of course.

For any electric car drivers on long-range trips, being able to charge is essential.

Kelly, a Nissan LEAF owner from the U.S.’ neighbor to the north, tells us that the problem seems to lie in the fact that very few charging networks allow customers to register from outside their home country. In other words, an U.S. charging company requires you to have a U.S. bank account and postal address to sign up. A Canadian one won’t do. He’s not alone either: we’ve spoken to many plug-in car drivers from mainland Europe who find themselves struggling to obtain the necessary plug-in charging cards to enable them to make a trip to the UK.

“Since most of the Canadian population lives within 100 kilometres of the U.S. border there has always been a lot of cross-border driving for Canadian drivers,” he explained in an email to us. “The U.S. cities near the border have always been very accommodating to Canadians, and some places even accept currency at par to encourage cross-border traffic.”

But when it comes to charging providers, the two countries could be mortal enemies, separated by a demilitarized zone.

Of the GE wattstation — a common public charging point used by third-party and independent providers in North America — Kelly says will sell U.S. residents the nessesary charging card needed to access the charging station. Yet for Canadians, the Amazon website says it cannot ship the item to Canada, and the website doesn’t even list the card.

“I tried calling GE EV support, and they refused to send me a card, and direct me to,” he explains. The workaround?  “A friend ordered a bunch of GE cards, had then shipped to a U.S. mailbox, then he drove down to the U.S. to pick them up and distributed them to all of us.”

Next comes the Blink Network, now owned by the Car Charging Group after the original owners of the network declared bankruptcy.

“It didn’t understand Canadian addresses, and my new state was ‘California’.”

Before it fell into financial trouble and was purchased, Kelly says the Blink network website required customers to fill out their postal address in order to obtain the required RFID smart card used to switch on charging stations — but that it would only accept U.S. or Australian addresses. After months of complaints from Canadian drivers, the system was modified to allow Canadian addresses, but a problem with the Zip code verification system meant that Canadians were forced to add an additional fake digit to their 5-digit postal code to allow it to comply with the U.S. 6-digit zip code system. That zip code system was used at charging stations to provide additional verification to RFID cards too, so owners had to add an additional digit or find themselves locked out of the charging station.

“We had to remember to change the zip code back to our real postal code before they tried to bill at the end of the month or the credit card would be declined,” he said. “They didn’t seem to be aware of the ‘magic’ that drivers used at charging stations to get a charge.”

Want to charge? You’ll need the right access card — and they’re often only available to ‘local’ drivers.

After Blink became bankrupt, Kelly said the online system changed again thanks to a new backend from the new owners at the Car Charging Group.

“It didn’t understand Canadian addresses, and my new state was ‘California’,” he wrote. “I tried to show new drivers how to sign up for a blink card which is required if you want to DC charge in Seattle, Washington. They were not able to request a card because the website does not allow you to enter a Canadian address.”

For the two networks above, Kelly has managed to find workarounds and cheats to enable him to obtain the necessary cards needed to use the high-powered DC quick charging stations located along the I-5 corridor from the Canadian border all the way through both Washington state and Oregon state to its border with California. Now a veteran of the woes of cross-border charging, Kelly said that he had hoped this problem was an old one, but having heard that NRG eVgo had just entered the Seattle market, he found himself once again jumping through hoops to obtain the correct charging card.

Like other charging networks, only valid U.S. addresses are recognized, so Kelly said a friend from Bellingham, Washington contacted NRG to ask if there was someone who could help Canadians set up their account

The reply?

We do not have infrastructure in Canada and this is the reason why you do not see it on our website. Do you have a US Bank account?

Since then, Kelly says he has been able to obtain an NRG card by using his Canadian credit card and his friend’s U.S. address to obtain the RFID card, but notes that many would-be cross-border drivers it would simply be too much of a hassle.

We’ve reached out to the parties involved, and have yet to hear from any of them regarding why cross-border trips in an electric car seem to be so complicated for anyone without a Tesla Model S (Model S owners, of course, aren’t required to use any RFID cards at Tesla superchargers, enabling effortless cross-border trips).

To successfully charge in another country, you need all the right access cards.

To successfully charge in another country, you need all the right access cards.

But we have talked at length to Rutger Plantenga, Interoperability Manager at Dutch charging provider The New Motion. One of the leading providers for charging in Europe, the firm has worked hard to work with partner charging providers across Europe to ensure its customers can continue to charge their electric cars even when outside of the Netherlands.

Talking on the telephone a few weeks back, he explained to us that user registration from overseas is something of a problem for all charging providers, partly due to the various requirements surrounding pay-as-you-go charging provision. It’s even harder when the two different countries have different regulations regarding the reselling of electricity.

There’s also the need to ensure that a customer will pay their bills, and a native address verification is the easiest way of doing that.

To keep customers happy and ensure its network is easy to use wherever you go, Rutger says the team at The new Motion has been working hard for many years, building relationships with providers in different nations in a mutual agreement that grants each user access to the other’s network.

“Sometimes, there’s cold-calling involved,” he said. “Other times, you meet up with other network providers at events and see a shared goal to make it easier for customers to cross into each others’ networks. It’s a mutually-beneficial thing.”

Should charging providers offer more roaming to customers?

Should charging providers offer more roaming to customers?

Some networks aren’t willing to share their charging stations with rival or neighboring network providers, but Rutger says the hard work very often pays off, noting that sometimes formal agreements are made between the networks to reimburse one another for the electricity used by roaming providers, and other times the agreement is set up with the understanding that roaming between the networks will remain free unless there’s an unfair roaming balance in favor of one network or the other.

“It’s like the early days of mobile telephones,” he explained. “You can’t sign up for another country’s cellphone provider, but you can use their network if your provider has a roaming agreement with them.”

Talking to others within the charging industry who were less eager to go on the record, it seems that roaming agreements are the way forward for most European charging providers. But in the U.S. and Canada, where the sheer size of the countries involved means that cross-border agreements are less essential to charging business models, we suspect cross-border travel for plug-in owners will continue to be a problem.

Should the U.S. adopt Europe’s roaming models? Or will it lag behind as it did with cellphone networks for many years?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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