cellphones are proof we live in the future
June 1, 2012 7:56 AM   Subscribe

What cellphone and service should I choose for an upcoming 6-week vacation to Australia?

Later this year, I'll be taking a 6-week vacation in Australia with my wife. Probably we'll spend the majority of our time in these areas: Cairns, Sidney, Melbourne, Tasmania (in particular, we have no plans to get out into "the outback").

We want to have a phone to make reservations and call friends we'll be visiting. I'd be surprised to hit 200 minutes of in-country calling; I'd have to guess we'd do less than 10 minutes of international calling ('hi mom, we made it to australia, ok bye') and would skip it entirely if the costs are unreasonable.

It would be nice if the phone is a smartphone that could act as a browser/tether/hotspot to the tune of 100-300MBs over the course of the whole trip (basically, in case we're in an area with cellular service but at a hotel without free internet service it would be nice to check e-mail and find restaurants). Again, if the costs are crazy this is not a requirement.

It would be a convenient bonus if the phone could be used in Europe (germany/france/england mostly) by swapping out the SIM card for a local provider, so I'm looking for an unlocked phone. (I think this is feasible, but if you can educate me a bit about the various GSM frequencies and regions that wouldn't hurt)

What cellphone should I buy, and what service provider should I choose? Is there any problem activating a cellphone without a permanent Australian address? Can I and should I buy the phone while in the US, or wait until I'm in Australia (we start in Melbourne)? How much should I expect to pay for service, given my usage predictions?

I live in the US and my current cellphone is a CDMA-only Android (ting.com on sprint's network) It's unimportant whether the cellphone I buy for this trip will work in the US as I have no desire to replace my current phone.
posted by jepler to Travel & Transportation around Australia (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For that usage, you should expect to pay no more than $60 for the six weeks. That would be two $30 prepaid caps (they expire monthly) but if you shop around you could easily find something cheaper. On the service I use (Crazy John's Flatchat) that usage would be about $40 depending how many separate calls (and thus flagfalls). CJ's data rate is 3c/MB, most caps include a few hundred MB of data if you go that way. (Caps are marketing gimmicks, basically, you pay $30 and get a couple hundred dollars of "value" but the call rates are higher than on non-cap recharges.)
Oh, and a sim card will cost you another $2 or so.

Do you know what networks your friends are with? Most have free or extra included calling within their own network, so if all your friends are on Vodafone for example you'd probably want to go with them.

You'll need ID to buy a sim card. You don't, as far as I know, need a permanent Australian address. If you're prompted for one during the activation you could probably just use a friend's.

Phones are probably cheaper in the US. I'd buy it here in Australia personally so that you'd know that the internet settings were all correct without having to fudge around with them, but ymmv. They're not hard to buy here or anything; we sell them in the supermarkets.

You could probably get a quad band smartphone for not too much money if you want peace of mind about compatibility. I think most of Europe uses 900/1800 MHz, but I could be wrong about that. Hopefully someone else will have recommendations for a specific model.
posted by lwb at 8:27 AM on June 1, 2012

Best answer: My understand is that mobile phone calls are handled a little differently in Australia, you get charged per minute for the call no matter what number you ring, the one time and only I rang internationally on a mobile phone it cost me AUD$7 a minute, so check the rate before you dial.

All the major Aussie companies have websites. I have always used Telstra, because they were the first place with service in the little country town I lived in. I always had no problems with service with them, others might have different stories.

I'd suggest a prepaid phone. There are a range of plans, you fill find the data caps miniscule compared to the US.

There are a lot of stores and mall booths that specialise in mobile phones from of the major companies in one place, in most shopping centres/malls . Pick one and ask there for help and suggestions. They can activate your phone there. My 72yo legally blind mother recently upgraded her phone Telstra phone using a company called Allphones, they spent ages teaching her which buttons where which, activating her account and setting up her voice mail for her at no charge so I can recommend them.

Last time I got a prepaid phone in Australia I could unlock it after a year with Telstra, this might have changed as I haven't used prepaid in a few years and I just buy a cheap throw away phone every time I go back home to visit.
posted by wwax at 8:28 AM on June 1, 2012

Best answer: Last time I got a prepaid phone in Australia I could unlock it after a year with Telstra

I'd recommend just buying an unlocked phone straight off. Woolies and Coles both sell them, or there's DSE etc if you want a bigger range of models to choose from.
posted by lwb at 8:33 AM on June 1, 2012

Response by poster: Just double-checking some terminology…

"Woolies" (Woolworths) and "Coles" are grocery stores and "DSE" is Dick Smith Electronics?

A "Flagfall" is (a charge for) beginning a call?

In any case, it sounds like I can put off these decisions and purchases until I'm in the country, which is nice to know. Looking at Dick Smith's website it appears that there will be a wide range of phones to choose from, as well.
posted by jepler at 9:24 AM on June 4, 2012

Woolies is Woolworths which is a supermarket chain as us Coles. DSE is Dick Smith Electronics, they are a handy store sort of like Best Buy but more for smaller personal electronics and not fridges and the like.

Flagfall is the connection cost that you'll be charged no matter how many minutes the call lasts. Then you'll have a per minute rate on top of that.
posted by wwax at 11:55 AM on June 4, 2012

Best answer: Certainly go the pre paid phone route once you are here.

Depending on exactly where you are going, the provider does make a difference. Telstra provides coverage in Tasmania outside of the main centres, whereas others often do not.

Coverage for Cairns, Sydney and Melbourne are widespread with all providers. Pre paid SIMS purchased with your phone (the supermarket option is a good one) makes it very simple. Plans change all the time, and check a little closer to when you leave, but some should give you the opportunity to make free calls between yourselves when you are in the country.

Lebara and cards like Amysim can offer highly discounted costs overseas, in fact at the same rate as calling someone next door.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Flashduck at 2:56 AM on June 6, 2012

Best answer: Short answer: Go with Telstra because they have the best mobile phone coverage, especially outside of metropolitan areas, which is very likely for Tasmania. If there is a very good Telstra prepaid phone deal then go for that, otherwise buy a unlocked quadband (2g/gsm: 900/1800 3g/umts: 850/900/2100) phone and join a Telstra prepaid sim-only plan. The emergency number in Australia is '000' and on mobile phones you can also use '112'.

Long answer: There are three 'real' mobile carriers in Australia: Telstra (once government owned), Optus, and Vodafone. Then there are a whole bunch of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO)s like Crazy john's and Labara who bulk buys airtime from the 'real' carriers and onsales to the public.

Telstra, once being owned by the Australian Government has the best coverage in Regional areas where it is not economically viable for Optus/Vodafone, and of course the priciest (but are quite competitive these days). You will also get the best data download speeds from Telstra because they have the best backhaul and they don't wholesale airtime to MVMOs much so it is less congested.

Optus, is the middle of the road carrier and is very good if you're sticking to voice in the capital cities. Apparently data congestion is quite an problem in some places like Melbourne with them due to them overselling airtime. Some of the MVMOs like Labara offer very good deals but I would not recommend to you for such a short stay because it can be tricky to get help from some of the MVMOs if you run into a technical problem.

Vodafone, is the 'budget' carrier and whilst they are improving, I cannot in good conscience recommend at the current time for anyone who needs to call for help if they get lost.

It would be a convenient bonus if the phone could be used in Europe (germany/france/england mostly) by swapping out the SIM card for a local provider, so I'm looking for an unlocked phone. (I think this is feasible, but if you can educate me a bit about the various GSM frequencies and regions that wouldn't hurt)

In Australia, Vodafone and Telstra use 850 and 2100mhz for 3g/umts and Optus uses 900 and 2100mhz. Most of Western Europe uses 900/2100mhz bands so if you're specifically buying an unlocked phone, then make sure it can support those frequencies. If you post what phone you're planning to buy, I can double check whether it would work in Europe. For others who might be reading this, AT&T mobility uses 850/1900mhz.

For international calls I would recommend a prepaid phone card (there are many, but the link goes to one that has worked well for me) or Skype to Go, where they will issue you with a local phone number you can call to be connected overseas.
posted by magic_skyjuice at 6:59 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just returned from my trip, and thanks in part to the advice from all of you, the trip was a big success.

I ended up buying a phone at Dick Smith's (Samsung Galaxy Ace for $250), got a Telstra SIM on the Prepaid Simplicitly plan ($30), and recharged once ($20). I used $30 for data ($20 for 700MB + $10 for 200MB) and about $10 for calls and texts.

The only part that really made me angry was that calling the "message bank" (voice mail retrieval) was highway robbery at 89c/minute plus 39c for connection; nearly half of the $10 I used for talk was spent setting up my greeting and then listening to one voicemail which simply said "call me"!

I didn't have service in ultra-remote areas like Cradle Mountain National Park TAS, and in other places (like on a farm 15km north of Sheffield VIC) the data connection was unbearably slow, but for the most part the data service (which we spent the most time using) was quite good. It sure beat paying the rates that many hotels and motels were asking for a day of wifi.
posted by jepler at 6:36 AM on December 1, 2012

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