iPhones in New Zealand? Go or no go?
January 24, 2010 6:14 AM   Subscribe

What's going to happen to my U.S. iPhone in New Zealand?

Okay, I've called AT&T and I'm still confused about what is going to happen if I turn on my iPhone in New Zealand. We are going to be in NZ for over a month and don't want to have to jump in and out of internet cafes or use pay phones to keep in touch with family. Apparently I can get a data plan ($24.99USD for 20MB) from AT&T and I can get a phone plan (something called World Traveler) but they only seem to reduce the galactically expensive cost of making and receiving a call or email from the States to only a slightly insane cost. And I still don't understand what I'm getting for my money. Will 20mb of download space be enough for a month? Will someone be able to call me directly if they ring my number? Are we even going to get coverage outside the major cities in New Zealand since a lot of the country looks pretty rural? Also, I couldn't seem to get a straight answer as to whether or not we could call a New Zealand number from within NZ without it being charged as a long distance call from the States.

Should I just leave the phone at home or is there some clear answer as to how we are going to keep in touch. I realize we wouldn't be having this conversation 5 years ago so I'm fully prepared to 'rough it' and revert to the good old days before cell phones. I'm not one of these people who needs constant tethering to the internet to check basketball scores or stock quotes. We just want to make it possible to hear from our family. I'd appreciate any experience travelers have had specifically with New Zealand, please. Thanks everyone.
posted by birdwatcher to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
20 megabytes is a lot of text, but it's not very much of anything else. You can gauge this yourself by going into your phone's settings (Settings -> General -> Usage) and resetting the usage metering, then working with your phone normally for a few days to see how much data you actually use.

Also, you have the option of using WiFi and turning off your 3G connection until you actually want to use it on purpose, which is a good defensive measure for travellers worried about getting hosed on their bill. Skype works over wifi, and giving skype some money to call landlines might be all the phoning you need.
posted by mhoye at 6:20 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The phone will automatically roam onto whichever GSM network AT&T has roaming agreements with (I think it'll be Vodafone or Telecom New Zealand). Inbound phone calls will work as if you were in the states - so callers from the USA will be able to dial your number as normal (although you'll pay for the cost of redirecting the call from the USA to NZ), but NZ callers will have to dial +1-areacode-555-1234.

Outbound phone calls will work as if you were in NZ - so you won't have to stick +64 in front of any local numbers you call, but you'll have to stick +1 in front of the number if you're calling the USA.

You'll want to switch off Data Roaming - Settings -> General -> Network -> Data Roaming - and leave it off; this will stop it from connecting to any data networks and running up the insane data bills you hear about. Don't bother with the 20MB data plan; just stick to wifi.

(I can't speak for mobile coverage, or pricing, though; pricing might depend on what roaming agreements AT&T has in place, and MeFi's Kiwi contingent would be better placed to talk about coverage.)

And yeah, Skype is a good bet. My standard way of staying in touch with family is to have them text me, then I'll call them back on Skype.
posted by The Shiny Thing at 6:52 AM on January 24, 2010

Best answer: I did this recently for a week.

People in NZ can call you and you can call them.
People in the US can call you and you can call them.

If you have a choice, select Telecom NZ as the carrier (vodafone will also exist in some markets, but it has some issues - especially w/ the setting the time).

Coverage is good but not great - again Telecom who recently deployed lots of new base stations will probably be the best bet.

You will exhaust the 20 MB in no time at all, so be careful if you go this route.

Concerning cost, Even with data off and using the phone only when needed it still resulted in a hefty bill for me. This was fine since it was necessary, but you should be aware if you want to manage costs. From what I remember ATT has at least 2 traveler plans. Get the one which allows you to call NZ cheaply and to roam cheaply - but as you mention cheap is in the eye of the beholder. (1-2 $ per minute if I remember correctly). For a month, I would look into a local phone for local calls.

One other suggestion, I used the skype app + wifi very effectively, but it depends a lot on when you are calling and the quality of the hotel. I had some really good experiences, but I also had some hotels with wifi which couldn't hold up for a call to the states...

Don't forget to write down the voice mail # for ATT, you will not have the visual voicemail. You can call the voicemail access # using sykpe to get your messages...
posted by NoDef at 6:55 AM on January 24, 2010

One more comment on texting. International texting isn't unlimited w/ ATT. It's something like 50 cents a message - still a pretty good deal all things considered, just don't assume they are free.
posted by NoDef at 6:58 AM on January 24, 2010

Response by poster: This is one of the things I love about MeFi. I have knowledgeable friends everywhere. Thanks.

The AT&T contact person said I would still be charged for a data transmission within a WIFI zone. Is that true? Maybe she didn't really know what she was talking about.

Do I have to contact Telecom to open an account in advance or can I drop into an office when I get there? We're taking a day in Christchurch to acclimate before heading out.

When you say you use Skype, are you talking about the free app or do you have a phone account?

Appreciate the tip on the 20mb data plan.
posted by birdwatcher at 7:10 AM on January 24, 2010

When you say you use Skype, are you talking about the free app or do you have a phone account?

There's a few ways to use Skype. You can do Skype-to-Skype calls for free (and video calls if you each have a computer with a webcam). Both parties have to set up Skype accounts to do this but it's become the primary way I communicate with my family.

You can purchase credit and do Skype-to-phone calls (rates are good, even international). Only you need a Skype account for this.

You can also purchase a SkypeIn number which allows phones to call your Skype account through a phone number. Only you need a Skype account for this.

In all cases your phone needs a wifi connection. But if you can live with calling them whenever you have access to a decent wifi connection it's going to be your most cost effective way to keep in touch with the fam.
posted by 6550 at 7:27 AM on January 24, 2010

I was recently traveling abroad and my companion was burned pretty bad on the 20MB purchase; he wasn't paying attention and went over in an expensive way.

I turned data roaming off (as others say above) and stuck to WiFi. Data over wifi does not count toward anything; as long as you are sure you are downloading from the WiFi connection and not a cellular connection you are good.

I use TruPhone as an alternative to Skype. It is a free app with cheap airtime, and worked very well for placing calls to U.S. landlines.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:47 AM on January 24, 2010

Don't forget to carry a paperclip. When I'm in Canada and near wifi, I simply pop the SIM card out a tiny bit so I can't possibly be hit with data or call charges. Crude but effective!

The pin from a 1" printed button will also work in a pinch.
posted by clango at 8:01 AM on January 24, 2010

The AT&T contact person said I would still be charged for a data transmission within a WIFI zone. Is that true? Maybe she didn't really know what she was talking about.

I think she was confused, turn off data roaming and you should be fine.

Do I have to contact Telecom to open an account in advance or can I drop into an office when I get there? We're taking a day in Christchurch to acclimate before heading out.

No need to contact Telecom, this will happen automatically. When you arrive the phone will search for carriers who have roaming deals w/ ATT. It will pick the strongest at the airport if you look at your settings (under network maybe?) it will give you a choice of carriers. You can select telecom here or just let it pick the strongest. Your charges don't change with the different carriers, only things like coverage and quality. I found telecom to be the best, but YMMV.

When you say you use Skype, are you talking about the free app or do you have a phone account?

I just used the Skype app on the iphone with a Skype out account (this lets you call regular land lines). When you are in a wifi zone, this is almost entirely seemless. You start the skype app, dial the number and you talk as you normally would with the phone. The only problem will be if the wifi doesn't have the bandwidth or latency for a call - you will know this very quickly as you will get delays or drops.
posted by NoDef at 8:42 AM on January 24, 2010

Response by poster: Love the paperclip to remove the SIM trick, although I think I'll just switch off data roaming.

We have used Skype for computer cam calls to the grandchildren but haven't thought of using the Skype-to-Skype connection just as a phone call. Now that I read it from several of you I have a 'duh!' moment and wonder why I didn't think of that.

All sounds very reasonable and do-able despite traveling to the complete opposite side of the world from Cape Cod Massachusetts. Thank you everyone.
posted by birdwatcher at 9:31 AM on January 24, 2010

I recently traveled abroad, and here's what I did:

First, jailbreak and unlock your iPhone. (Google it -- the exact instructions on how to do this depend on what version you have.)

Then when you get to NZ, buy a new SIM card. Use the paperclip to pop out your old one, and replace it with the new one you just bought. You'll have a new phone number that will let you call anywhere in NZ, and if you want, a new data plan.

When I was in Thailand I bought a new SIM card with 30 days of unlimited data for about $30. This gave me unlimited Internet access, email, etc., in addition to the ability to make calls anywhere in the country for free. If I wanted to call outside the country, I simply used Fring (like Skype but better) -- you don't even need WiFi to do this, as long as the phone is jailbroken.

(Not sure if you'll be able to get 3G coverage in NZ, but you'll probably get something, albeit something slower.)
posted by mikeand1 at 10:10 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Love the paperclip to remove the SIM trick, although I think I'll just switch off data roaming.

That is a little overkill to pop out the SIM. If you turn off data roaming there is a 0% chance you'll be charged for data roaming and at the same time will make your phone unusable for making/receiving phone calls. I found the iPhone's SIM tray pretty brittle and don't like taking the SIM out unless I absolutely have to.

You may also want to consider signing up for Boingo http://mobile.boingo.com. It is $8 for a month and you can access many paid wifi hotspots all over the world for no additional charge. On that page you can check the hotspots in NZ where you're staying to see if it might save some money. A lot of times you'll have to pay several dollars for just a few minutes of access in paid hotspots (still cheaper than using the data roaming on the iphone) and the boingo roaming agreement helps you keep those costs manageable. I have a friend in Germany right now that was paying 10c a minute for wifi but after signing up for boingo is now paying a flat $8/mth.

Before you leave you should go to a site like jiwire and get a list of all the free hotspots in the cities you'll be in so that you have that with you while there. Nothing worse than having to spend a lot of money for paid data roaming or paid wifi to search for free hotspots.
posted by birdherder at 10:16 AM on January 24, 2010

I just returned to the US from New Zealand - using an iPhone the entire time. I jailbroke my iPhone and then purchased a Vodafone pay-as-you-go SIM card when I arrived in Auckland. Once you jailbreak the phone, switching the SIM card is simple.

On the basic Vodafone plan, I got 100 MB of data included. Outgoing voice minutes cost extra, but they were relatively cheap. Incoming voice calls were free. Each SIM card has a local NZ phone number associated with it.

In the two weeks I visited, I went through about 35 MB of data. I was kind of conservative with my usage - it was a vacation.

One more thing - cellular coverage in NZ sucks. Most of the country is a GSM dead zone. Smaller towns and some rural areas might have GPRS. (If you think EDGE is slow, then you haven't tried GPRS). Larger towns and cities have 3G service, although it's more rare. The North Island's coverage is better than the South Island. Also, free wi-fi is hard to find.

Oh, and the comment above about Vodafone not setting the local time is true. It drove me batty, and I finally just set the time by hand.
posted by fremen at 6:43 PM on January 24, 2010

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