North American cell phone laws you might not know about

Cell phones have become a near-ubiquitous accessory. A few taps or swipes is all it takes to stay connected and find information. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center.

Using a cell phone is also a daily habit for many travelers to North America; however, there are some places where you can’t use a cell phone even if you try. Green Bank, W.V. lacks cell towers because Green Bank is located within the National Radio Quiet Zone, an area where radio transmissions are restricted so as to not interfere with scientific research and military intelligence projects. As a result, there is zero to very limited service in the surrounding area.

Many cell phone users might be unaware of the cell phone laws in their hometowns or vacation destinations. We break down the laws in Canada and the U.S. to ensure your vacation isn’t ruined by hefty fines for inadvertently breaking cell phone laws.

Texting while walking law

texting and walking

Pretty woman, texting down the street… (Image: Don LaVange, Lost in the Ether via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you’re in the habit of texting while walking, you better look up and keep your eyes on the sidewalk in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Folks caught texting while walking are issued $85 jaywalking tickets.

Where you can’t use a cell phone


No time to talk. (Image: Mo Riza, Text Squat via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

While it’s almost universally understood that cell phone use is restricted in most courthouses, churches and hospitals in North America, the use of a cell phone is also prohibited in many states when voting during a U.S. presidential election. Forget using them when waiting at customs and immigration when entering Canada or the U.S., too.

Banned: selfie sticks

Selfie Stick

Many places have banned the “narcisstick.” (Image: César, Selfie stick via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

What at first seemed like a convenient way to take perfectly angled selfies and group pictures has easily turned into one of the most annoying cell phone accessories. Many places have banned selfie sticks. It’s not against the law to carry a selfie stick into a museum, concert or tourist attraction, but the retractable rods that help users take self portraits, are banned at a variety of venues.

  • All Disney theme parks
  • All Smithsonian Museums
  • Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto, Canada)
  • Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Winnipeg, Canada)
  • Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, Ohio)
  • Coachella (annual music festival in Indio, Calif.)
  • Getty Center (Los Angeles)
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.)
  • Lollapalooza (annual music festival in Chicago)
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
  • Modern Museum of Art (New York)
  • Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal, Canada)
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago)
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
  • National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Canada)
  • Pointe-à-Callière Archaeology Museum (Montreal, Canada)
  • Seattle Art Museum (Seattle)
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Distracted driving laws

No text sign

This sign says it all. (Image: Michael Babcock, Don’t Text & Drive via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Most cell phone laws address distracted driving, particularly driving while using a phone. Driver distraction is a factor in about 4 million motor vehicle accidents in North America annually, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

Think using your phone while driving is no big deal? The Canadian Automobile Association’s distracted driving simulator will show you otherwise. For example, answering a phone call takes 10.6 seconds and replying to a text message takes 33.6 seconds, according to the Canadian Automobile Association. That’s a long time to have your eyes off the road.

With it becoming increasingly harder to disconnect, cell phone users might be breaking the law and not even know it. Worse yet, you could be putting yourself at risk when texting or talking while driving.

U.S. distracted driving laws

No texting license plate

Look ma, no texting! (Image: Eli Christman, No Texting Car via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Talking while driving

While no state bans all cell phone use by all drivers; what you can and can’t do varies by state. Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving is banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some 38 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use for novice drivers.

Places that ban all drivers from talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving are:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Four states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas – have partial bans on cell phone use while driving.

Texting while driving

Washington was the first state to ban texting while driving in 2007. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia. In Missouri, drivers 21 and younger, and in Texas, “drivers in school crossing zones and on public school property during the time the reduced speed limit applies; bus drivers with minor passengers; drivers younger than 18” are banned from texting while driving. Arizona and Montana do not have bans against texting and driving.

The biggest misconception about cell phone laws

“One of the biggest misperceptions people have about cell phone laws is that it’s safe to talk hands-free because the law does not prohibit that, but it’s important to remember that hands free is not risk-free. So, even though it may be legal, it’s still a dangerous behavior,” said Kara Macek, Communications Director, Governors Highway Safety Association. “The best bet is to put your phone out of reach so you’re not tempted while driving.”

How often are cell phone laws enforced?

“Laws are enforced most often in states that have hand-held bans, in addition to texting bans, because these types of laws are much easier to enforce,” said Macek, “Texting bans alone, are very challenging to enforce, because a driver can claim that he was dialing a phone number or looking up a web page, or doing some other activity that is still considered legal. To make these laws enforceable, states really need to prohibit all hand-held cell phone use – if someone is handling their phone while driving, they are breaking the law.”

How to avoid breaking the law

Since there are many nuances in the laws, it’s best to check Governors Highway Safety Associaton’s Distracted Driving Laws chart or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s distracted driving map that lists laws restricting cell phone use and texting before hitting the road. The best way to avoid unknowingly breaking the law? “Don’t use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, even if the law permits it,” said Macek.

Canada distracted driving laws

texting and driving

Don’t text and drive. (Image: irina slutsky, texting while driving via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Talking and texting while driving

No Canadian jurisdiction bans all drivers from using hands-free cell phones while driving. All 10 provinces and two territories have some form of distracted driving legislation with fines ranging from $100 CAD in Newfoundland and Labrador to $1,200 CAD in Prince Edward Island, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

The biggest misconception about cell phone laws

“Many people aren’t aware of how expensive distracted driving fines can be. For example, in PEI, you can be fined up to $1,200,” said Julia Kent, Manager, Public Affairs, Canadian Automobile Association.

How often are cell phone laws enforced?

“Cracking down on distracted driving is a three-step process. First, we need the laws in place to protect Canadians, and thankfully all Canadian provinces and territories have laws in place to combat distracted driving. Secondly, we need police to enforce those laws, which they are doing from coast to coast on a daily basis. Lastly, we need public awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and the impact it can have on Canadian lives,” said Kent.

How to avoid breaking the law

Since there are many variations in the laws, it’s best to check the Canadian Automobile Association’s Distracted Driving Laws in Canada page, which details distracted driving laws by province and territory. Another option is to check the local province or territory website:


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