Ask LH: Which Mobile Plan Should A New Arrival In Australia Get?

Ask LH: Which Mobile Plan Should A New Arrival In Australia Get?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m hoping to fulfil my dream of moving to Australia in a couple of months to study at a university. I’ve been wanting to get an Android smartphone for some time, but I’ve decided to wait and get one once I get there and decide on a plan. Which is the best carrier and what is the best plan for someone who is on a tight budget but would still like to enjoy the benefits of an Android device? Thanks, Venezuelan Visitor

Picture by eutrophication&hypoxia

Dear VV,

We hope the dream comes true! There are really two separate issues to consider here: which network you want to use and whether you want a contract or a prepaid deal.

There are effectively three mobile network operators in Australia: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. There are other brands on sale, but they all use one of these three networks. (For instance, Amaysim, Boost and Virgin Mobile all use Optus’ network; Crazy John’s uses Vodafone, and the soon-to-disappear 3 also runs on Vodafone).

Speaking in very general terms, Telstra has the best coverage, followed by Optus, and then Vodafone. Having said that, Telstra’s plans are more expensive than the other two carriers, though pricing is cheaper than it was even a couple of years ago. No mobile carrier is entirely foolproof, however, and you will find occasions with all three where you get little or no signal.

Whichever carrier you choose, you’ll need to pick between either a contract deal or a prepaid deal. On a contract deal, you sign up for a fixed monthly payment which includes calls and data, and usually includes a handset as well. You’ll typically have to sign up to a 24-month contract. Note that the cost of a contract is a minimum cost; if you make calls outside the allocated value (not difficult with international calls), you’ll have to pay additional fees. Even on plans which offer “unlimited” calling, there are usually restrictions (such as no international calls and limited data usage).

On a prepaid deal, you pay a monthly amount to cover your calls and data needs. Some prepaid plans describe themselves as caps and include a set amount of data plus a large amount of calls over a fixed period (such as Amaysim’s unlimited plan; other options simple let you add value and make calls; and there are unusual choices such as Optus’ $2 days, where you pay $2 each day you use the service but get unlimited Australian calls and data over that time.

A big advantage of prepaid is you’re not tied to a particular carrier, so you can change if it turns out your first choice doesn’t work where you end up living. One downside of this approach is that call charges will generally be a little higher. Data offers are also sometimes stingy on prepaid plans, but we’ve noted some that aren’t.

My general advice, especially for students, is to go for the prepaid option. It’s hard to know just how many calls you’ll make and how much data you’ll need (universities often have a lot of free Wi-Fi coverage), so signing up for a contract can involve you in needless expense.

That does presume that you can afford to buy the phone up front, of course, but that’s really not so difficult with Android. There are plenty of sub-$100 Android handsets on offer; the Ideos X1 and the Smart-Touch immediately spring to mind, and there are often sales on older models. Note that some cheaply-sold prepaid phones are network locked, meaning that they will only work with SIMs from a particular carrier. That said, you can usually get them unlocked without a fee provided you’ve purchased the handset outright.

That should be enough to get you started on research, and I’m sure readers will have additional points to make in the comments. Good luck!


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  • Hi LH, thanks for the story. I am heading to Malaysia and Thailand in November, can you suggest a sim to use over there? Have you ever done a story on this? I am mainly after data, not so much voice or sms.

    • As a general rule, carriers will accept international student applications if they have one more month of visa after the contract expires e.g. for a 24 month contract you need 25 months of visa left when you apply. They also need other extra documentation like a certificate of enrollment and a bank statement showing a minimum balance of $1000, along with the other 100 points of ID. But if you meet those conditions you will normally get approved.

  • I have found that it’s a hit and miss with telcos handing out contract plans to international students. I know a few people(international students) who have been able to sign up with 3/vodafail.

  • If you plan to travel whilst in Australia i would seriously recommend Telstra. In the cities you should be ok with Optus (but expect the network to go down at a large event, eg New years eve in the city, footy grand final etc). But if you want to live the dream travelling in a beat up van up the east coast, go with telstra cause when your van overheats in the middle of nowhere they’re the only carrier likely to give you a signal.

  • Thanks a lot LH! I’m the “Venezuelan Visitor”. I think I’ll go with a prepaid plan and take my own unlocked phone.

    The thing is that the australian providers’ offers are a bit confussing for me at times.

    For example, the Optus’ $2 Days (, it says unlimited calls and data a day for $2, but at the same time there is a table that states that if you recharge $30 you’ll get 30 days. So if I recharge $30 I’ll get a month of unlimited calls, sms and data?

    I must not be understanding something, because it sounds to good to be true.

  • Woolworths mobile has to rate a mention!
    Prepaid freedom, with all the benefits of a plan and possibly even enough data to forego a separate internet plan – perfect for a student.

    45 day expiry, great data and call allowance, a few freebies thrown in (like free calls from Optus YesTime users – I believe), reasonable network (ie not Vodafone).

  • The other thing to consider if you are moving to Oz is how much of your calls will be local and how much will back to your home country. Therefore also consider what the international call rates are. Optus, Vodafone and many of the other smaller providers also have great plan with cheap local calls and great international rates. eg gotalk, Lebara, Lycamobile. These plans also give you free calls to others within the same network. So if your friends are using these plans, then it might be cheaper to also use it.

  • I’m surprised no one has asked a similar question for those traveling to NZ for the Rugby World Cup.
    Anyone know what the best prepaid mobile options in NZ are? My Dad is going for 6 weeks and will be taking his unlocked iPhone 4.

  • Whatever you do DO NOT GO WITH VODAFONE. Or 3, since they are pretty much the same. I have spent 2 years waiting for my contract to end – the worst coverage ever – I am embarrassed for them for not answering my pleas about how crap it has been. I wouldn’t take a phone from them if it was free and had unlimited everything. It won’t work when you want it to. And if it does it will be so slow your friends will think you’ve travelled here from the past and are too cheap to get a new plan.

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