Let’s face it. The phone is still the easiest way to keep in touch and having your own number means that people can call you (which will save you a fortune in phone calls). Your own local phone number is also essential if you’re looking for work.
Virtually every backpacker travels with a mobile phone. If your mobile phone works with Australian mobile networks (most European phones are) and is unlocked (not locked into your home network) then you can simply buy an Australian sim card and stick in your phone to avoid mobile roaming rates. If you don’t already have a compatible phone, then you will need to buy a prepaid starter pack including a phone and sim card for around $70–100.
Most Australian mobile phone companies charge a connection fee of 20–30c on each call and their advertised call charges are usually quoted per 30 seconds (not per minute as you would expect).
There are three mobile phone network operators in Australia, plus lots of virtual network operators (companies that sell their own branded mobile phone service using someone else’s network) so there is plenty of choice and enough competition to keep prices reasonable.
While the bigger phone companies offer some good deals for customers on long term contracts, their prepaid deals aren’t so great, but the smaller virtual networks offer some good value prepaid deals and are generally a better deal for most travellers.
Prices and mobile phone deals change all the time so we haven’t listed prices here but you can get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each network and then check their websites to see which one is best for you.
Australia’s second largest mobile network has excellent coverage in most parts of Australia and their network has improved a lot in the past few years particularly if your phone supports the 900MHz 3G band. All in all, Optus is good value and a good compromise between coverage and price.
You can check Optus’ network coverage here.
Telstra is Australia’s most expensive mobile network but it also has the best coverage and there is almost nowhere their service doesn’t work. Sure it may be nice to get access on a dirt track in the middle of the outback, but it shouldn’t have to cost as much as it does.
You can check Telstra’s network coverage here.
Vodafone is one of the more popular mobile networks for many backpackers even though their coverage is pretty limited compared with Optus and Telstra. Vodafone is relatively good value but their coverage can be patchy in rural areas which can be a problem if you’re driving across the country or picking fruit in a rural area.
You can check Vodafone’s network coverage here.
Virtual mobile phone networks
There are several other mobile companies in Australia that offer their own branded service using the network infrastructure of one of the larger companies. They are generally the cheapest for prepaid services.
Aldi Mobile have a good value plans. They use the Telstra network, however coverage and data speeds are reduced so it is not as good as coverage available to regular Telstra customers. Most people would be better off with one of the mobile services that use the Optus network.
Amaysim are a good all-round option that has cheap calls (including cheap international calls) as well as good value data packages. Amaysim use the Optus network.
Dodo are a cheap mobile service that includes free calls to Vodafone and other Dodo customers. Their rates are fairly cheap and easy to understand although they’re not the best option if you need a lot of data. Dodo use the Optus network.
Just Prepaid Mobile have very cheap calls, but their service does not include data access which rules it out as an option for most travellers. Just Mobile use the Vodafone network.
Lebara Mobile have cheap international calls and good value data packages. They use the Vodafone network.
Lycamobile have cheap international calls but are not such a great deal for data access. Like Aldi Mobile, they use the Telstra network, but coverage and data speeds are reduced so Lycamobile is not as good as coverage available to regular Telstra customers. Most people would be better off with one of the mobile services that use the Optus network.
Virgin is one of the biggest of the virtual networks with good value call rates. Because Virgin Mobile are owned by Optus they tend to get access to faster data before it is offered to other virtual mobile network operators. Virgin use the Optus network.
Yatango is a good value pay as you go mobile service with cheap calls, however data is not particularly good value. Yatango use the Optus network.
Which is the best option for you?
We have compared all these mobile networks and have found that most people would be best off with an amaysim sim card in their mobile.
Basically you want to be on one of the virtual network operators as they’re much better value than the big three mobile operators, but you would be best off with coverage on the Optus network rather than Vodafone or a slimmed down version of Telstra’s (otherwise excellent) network.
Some networks like Just Mobile give you cheap local calls, others like Lebara and Lycamobile have cheap international calls but have either no data or slow and expensive data; and other networks have good deals on data but calls or coverage aren’t so great. We have found that amaysim offer the best all-round combination of calls, data and coverage. They’re also one of the largest of the virtual mobile operators with customer support that is on par with some of the larger networks. We also like amaysim because they advertise their call charges per minute (as opposed to per 30 seconds like some other networks) and they don’t have a call connection charge.
However if you’re planning on spending considerable time in remote outback areas you may need to bite the bullet and go with the more expensive Telstra network.
Activating your Australian mobile phone
Mobile networks in Australia are required by law to collect identification on their customers before activating your service. In most cases this means that that you need to show your passport in the shop that sells you your sim card; however amaysim have an online activation system that collects the required information without having to supply your passport. This make amaysim the easiest sim card to activate, particularly if you want to sort out your sim card online prior to travelling to Australia.
You are also required to supply an Australian address when activating your sim card. If you don’t have an Australian address you can simply use the address of a hostel that you may be staying at; however it must be a valid Australian address.
Buying a sim card before you travel
There are several companies that sell Australia sim cards on the internet. A few years ago when we researched an earlier version of this site we noticed that there were companies charging USD $49 and £29 for the same sim card that you can buy for $2 in Australia. Even now there is one company that is selling a Lebara Australian sim card for USD $99.95! Certainly there are extra costs involved in supplying an Australian sim card outside Australia and many people find it reasonable to pay an extra £5–10 for the convenience of sorting this out before they travel, but we found that the prices being charged were a complete rip-off! Because of this we set up our own site (simcardguru.co.uk), which charges £5 for the amaysim Australian sim card including next day delivery in the UK.
If you need to know your phone number before you travel or just want to get things organised so you have one less thing to worry about when you arrive in Australia then we would love it if you bought your amaysim Australian sim card from simcardguru.co.uk for £5 otherwise wait until you get to Australia and buy it locally for $2.
Roaming and having a UK contact number when travelling in Australia
Roaming (leaving your home SIM card in your phone when you travel abroad) is the most expensive way to make calls. Not only are you charged exhorbitant rates for your calls but you are also charged for an international call everytime you answer your phone. Usually roaming is something you use in isolated cases, such as a one-day stopover when it doesn’t make sense to buy a local sim card.
Roaming does give you the advantage of having a single number (usually in your home country) that people can contact you on regardless of what country you are travelling in. There are many cases when you need to offer a single point of contact so you can receive important calls, this is especially the case if you do freelance work and you don’t want your clients to know that you are travelling down under and also if you don’t want your family to pay for an international call each time they phone you.
Fortunately there are several options that allow you to keep a contact number from your home country without incurring roaming charges.
Roaming with Three
The Three network in the UK is unique in that it allows free roaming in around 18 countries (including Australia). If you are a Three customer in the UK, this is the simplest option. This is usually set up by default if you’re on a pay monthly plan but pay as you go customers may need to contact Three to set this up.
This is a great option for a shorter trip to Australia, but can be impractical for longer trips (for instance if you are on a working holiday) where you may want to give out a local Australian contact number to Australian friends and other travel companions.
Using the O2 TU Go app
If you’re a pay monthly customer with the O2 network in the UK you can download the O2 TU Go app so you’re still able to receive calls to your UK mobile number and also make calls to phones in the UK using the included minutes from your O2 mobile tariff.
This is one of the most practical options as it lets you receive both calls to your UK and Australian mobile numbers on the same phone; however you do need an Australian sim card in your phone (as the app needs data access to work and you don’t want to pay roaming rates for your data) and you also need to continue paying your monthly fee to O2 (it is recommended that you switch to their cheapest pay monthly plan which costs £9 per month). The O2 TU Go app only works with O2 UK customers on pay monthly or business tariffs so you can’t use it if you are on a pay as you go tariff.
Receiving calls on a Skype number
Another option is to use a Skype number that you answer using the Skype app on your mobile in Australia. If you have a Skype account you can pay for a regular landline phone number in over 20 countries so anyone can call you from any phone.
This way you can have a local UK landline number (or a number from over 20 other countries) that will ring on your mobile wherever you are travelling as long as you have the Skype app running. This option is great as you can receive calls to your Australian mobile number or your UK landline number (or whatever other country you want your Skype number from) so both your friends in Australia and your family back home only need to make a local call.
Skype numbers are generally a lot cheaper if you have signed up for one of Skype’s subscription plans.
Multi-country international sim cards
Another option is to use an international sim card. This is a sim from a small country (they usually come from Estonia, Liechtenstein, Iceland or the Isle of Man). It is free to receive calls in most countries (Australia is almost always on the list countries with free incoming calls) and making a call is also reasonably priced. However data is expensive, the call quality is dire and many travellers give up on the service (or lack thereof) after they realise that it is almost impossible for people to contact them.
Some of these international sim cards are advertised as coming with a UK mobile number, however in most cases this is an Isle of Man number (which shares the +44 country code with the UK) and this is not always charged as a national call when friends and family are calling you from the UK.
Despite the popularity of mobile phones, calling cards are still the cheapest way to call home. Virtually every service station, newsagent and corner store sell a huge range of calling cards.
Rates are generally cheapest if you call a local access number rather than the toll-free number on the back of the card but this means that you may have to pay for a local call on a payphone in addition to the calling card rate.
However calling cards are becoming a less popular option with the introduction of cheap international calls on mobile phone plans and services like Skype and Viber.
Skype & other VoIP services
VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is one of the cheapest ways to make a phone call but the quality isn’t so great if you have a bad internet connection. Generally VoIP lets you call other customers of the same VoIP service for free, which gives the biggest VoIP services the advantage of more people you can talk to for nothing.
Skype is the biggest of the internet-based phone services and Skype software (and webcams for video calling) is installed in most internet cafes and in many hostels, which makes choosing Skype a no-brainer even though many of Skype’s competitors are cheaper.
Although many travellers just sign up for the free Skype account so they can talk to other Skype users for free, it is worth the money to go for a fully fledged account with a Skype number (a proper number that anyone with a phone can call) and even opt for a subscription that includes an allowance of international call minutes.
Of course you still have to pay to use computers at hostels (unfortunately not all hostels have free internet access) so it’s a better deal if you’re staying at a hostel with free internet access or if you have your own notebook computer or tablet (or a phone running the Skype app) and a free Wi-Fi connection.