Prepaid works for casual mobile phone users, but many Australians choose to sign up for a contract plan, either to get better data rates or because they want the cost of their handset subsidised. But which one should you choose? This up-to-date Planhacker listing covers every contract mobile plan (and their month-by-month competitors) available in Australia.
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Updated 05.07.2012 3pm with Live Connect and TPG listings.
Contract plans have one huge disadvantage: they tie you to a single carrier for an extended period of time. If you move house, or even if the network performance degrades, that can be a major disadvantage. However, the combined lure of a subsidised handset and a fixed monthly price means they remain a popular option.
In the table below, we've listed all the contract plans available from carriers and MVNOs in Australia. We've also included non-contract plans which work in the same way (that is, they give you a set call value which you can use over a 30-day period, rather than working on a pay-as-you-go model). We've only included plans which are listed as available online, and we haven't included limited-time bonus offers.
For each plan, we've included how much you'll pay per month; how long the contract is (1 month indicates no long-term commitment); and how much data is included, and what you'll pay for excess use. Research suggests that many people don't need more than 1GB a month, but if you also tether your phone for data access on other devices, your usage can be much higher.
In terms of calls and texts, plans typically fall into two categories. 'Unlimited' indicates calls can be made to any landline or mobile in Australia (and usually covers texts to Australian numbers as well). These will invariably include a 'fair use' clause to cover extremely excessive usage. The monthly value on unlimited plans is usually available as credit for international calls.
Alternatively, you'll have a fixed amount of call credit which will be charged at a set rate. That rate comprises a flagfall (connection fee) plus a charge per minute (or part thereof). In practice, you need to add the two figures together to calculate the minimum cost of a call.
Many plans charge calls to 13 or 1800 numbers at a different rate, which we've indicated ('standard' indicates that the same rates apply as for regular calls, including flagfalls if applicable). We've also included charges for texts and MMS messages. All call and data inclusions are for Australia; if you roam overseas, you'll pay extra charges. Call rates also apply when you retrieve voicemail, except on unlimited plans or if you're on Virgin Mobile or Red Bull.
All these plans are bring-your-own phone options. Most carriers also offer the same with included handsets, but you'll generally pay an extra handset fee (except sometimes on the highest-value plans). While this will be the model lots of people will adopt, and which phones you can get will be a major factor, comparing the plans purely on their inclusions gives you a better indication of whether they'll fit your needs. BYO plans usually offer 12 month contracts; if you want an included handset, you'll typically be asked to sign a 24-month contract or be slugged with much higher handset fees.
Network coverage will be a vital consideration. There are only three choices: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. Telstra generally has the best reputation for coverage, but you can only access its Next G service through Telstra itself and there's a definite price premium. And even Telstra's coverage is not universal -- there are locations where you'll get better performance from Optus or Vodafone. The only sure way to know is to check with a handset where you live. Vodafone's reputation has been in tatters for the last two years, but the company has spent a large sum rebuilding its network and is promising high-speed options next year. If a store promises you reception in a given area and you get no service, you should be able to leave the contract (which is a good argument for buying in person rather than online).
The table below lists all the plans we found. Note that you can right-click on the headers to sort and filter the options you want, so you can (for instance) sort by all minimum price, or just pick plans with a particular level of data inclusions. There are notes and comments on each provider below.
If you're happy with the Optus network, Amaysim's plans are good value. Less frequent phone users should be fine with the recently introduced $19.90 Flexi offer; if you want more data or make a lot of calls, the $39.90 Unlimited is good. Not being tied to a contract is also a major bonus. If you're a heavy data user, you can purchase additional data packs. Access to social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) is free.
Boost's deal is actually similar to Amaysim's Unlimited deal (right down to using Optus and having the same free social networking access), but with lesser data inclusions and a much higher excess data rate. As such, Amaysim seems the more obvious choice if you want this kind of plan.
If you're happy with the Vodafone network, Crazy John's has some reasonable deals, and runs 12-month contracts. You get free calls to other Crazy John's customers. The $45 plan includes $100 of credit for international calls and texts, which could make this appealing if you regularly call overseas. You can also add data packs or additional text messages to customise your usage.
Dodo's reputation for customer service isn't particularly solid, and there are cheaper deals available that also use the Optus network (Amaysim and Boost), for both call rates and data. Contract terms can be short (6 months), though you'll need a 24-month deal if you want a handset included. Dodo includes separate credit for "Dodo-to-Dodo" calls, but doesn't offer free calls through that scheme (if you want free on-network calls through Optus, Virgin Mobile is a better bet). Access to social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) is free.
Live Connected (added on the suggestion of readers -- the company has kept a low profile!) uses Optus and has, by a fair distance, the cheapest plans on offer if you don't want to sign up for an unlimited deal. Two things to note: excess data rates are relatively high, There's credit include for on-network calls to other Live Connected customers, but if this is an important feature for you, Virgin Mobile (which has unlimited calls between customers) might be a better bet. Access to social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) is free.
Optus' MVNO partners (Amaysim, Boost, Dodo, Live Connected, TPG and Virgin Mobile) in several cases have lower rates than Optus itself. Access to social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) is free. Unusually, excess data rates are cheaper on more expensive plans. The $14 plans includes 500 free texts. . Optus' more expensive Timeless plans are only available with an included handset and a 24-month contract, and if you want a handset, most deals also require a 24-month sign-up and are priced $1 higher.
Red Bull's model is unusual; if you pay up front for 6 or 12 months, you get a discount and a larger monthly data allowance. That set and forget model will appeal to some people, but it limits your flexibility. Running on Vodafone will also be a concern for some customers.
Telstra updated its plans this week, and while the coverage is excellent, both call and data rates are among the highest on this table. On the upside, all plans include unlimited texts, and you can make free calls to Australian mobile and landline numbers between 7pm and 7am and across weekends. Telstra also offers data packs if you need additional data.
TPG is another Optus reseller with a competitive range of plans: its $45 plan has 5GB of data, which is more than you get on the equivalent (but slightly cheaper) Amaysim plan. (Amaysim does offer unlimited calls, however.) Access to social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) is free. Call rates for 13 and 1800 numbers on cheaper plans are high, but voicemail is free.
Virgin trimmed its plans earlier this week, but still stands out amongst Optus resellers for some features. Virgin doesn't charge for voicemail retrieval, offers free calls and texts to other Virgin users, and rolls over unused credit. Contrary to an earlier version of this post, you also don't have to commit to a contract if you bring your own phone. If you bundle a phone, the minimal extra charge is $10 per month and you're on a 24-month contract.
Vodafone's plans run month-to-month, but if you want a handset you'll need either a 12 or 24-month contract. On plans priced $35 or above, you get free on-network calls and texts to other Vodafone users. Given its reputational challenges and the competitive landscape, the inclusions aren't especially generous. You can add data packs if needed.
Got any additions or corrections to this list? (It's a big table and I don't claim to be 100 per cent error free, though I do my best!) Tell us in the comments.