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
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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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