Australians are a travelling bunch. We love getting out there and exploring the world – probably because we’re so isolated on our own very continent, and we feel like there’s so much beyond our own backyard. Chances are you know some girl called Tiffany from your uni class who spent a year backpacking around South East Asia before helping out in an orphanage in Cambodia. Or there’s that guy called Rick at work who went on a boys’ trip to Las Vegas. No matter your dream destination, you’ll need a good travel SIM card for your mobile phone.
You’ll need a travel SIM card that won’t break the bank. How else are you going to upload those photos to Instagram? And check in with mum every so often! In this article, Canstar Blue reviews mobile phone plans for travelling from Australia, to help you enjoy your trip without fear of bill shock when you return home.
Compare mobile phone plans
What are some good mobile phone plans for roaming?
All the big carriers offer roaming, and overseas-specific call rates. It’s worth keeping an eye out for Optus, Telstra and Vodafone, but note that Woolworths Mobile also offers travelling plans, as does Australia Post with its travel SIM card.
|Optus||$1.50/minute calls, 50c SMS, $1/MB data for Zone 1 countries||Postpaid & Prepaid|
USA $3/minute calls, 75c SMS, $3/MB
‘International Day Pass’: NZ $5 extra per day to use your current plan, $10 for other countries
|Postpaid & Prepaid|
|Vodafone||‘$5 a day’ to access your current plan inclusions in 55 countries (free use in NZ)||Postpaid|
|$1/minute calls, $1/MB data, 75c SMS||Postpaid & Prepaid|
|Australia Post||$25 including $5 credit, 25c calls, text and MB data||Prepaid Travel SIM|
|Woolworths Mobile||$29 SIM starter pack including $10 credit, variable extra packs to add on||Prepaid Travel SIM|
(Source: Respective company websites)
These rates above are generally ‘pay as you go’, except for Vodafone’s ‘$5 a day’ option, as well as Telstra’s $5 or $10 deals. The USA was also used as a yardstick, commonly found in ‘Zone 1’ countries – those people from Australia are most likely to visit.
Roaming is generally the most convenient option, as your provider basically does all the legwork. There are several ways to go about it. Simply taking your existing phone plan overseas can easily see you rack up big bills – you’ve no doubt heard the horror stories about your neighbour Dave who went to Thailand and came back with a $2,000 phone bill.
Beyond PAYG roaming, there are a few options to consider when taking your mobile phone overseas:
- Roaming packs
- A travel/global SIM card
- A phone plan
Generally, this list can be considered in order from the most convenient to least convenient. Consequently, convenience can also mean extra costs. One thing is for sure – these three will all beat using dodgy free Wi-Fi in a cafe that is both slow and a security risk.
You can purchase roaming packs from the major providers ahead of time. However, smaller carriers may charge differently, so it pays to check with your own provider first.
Besides the ‘pay as you go’ (PAYG) rates listed above, you can plan ahead and purchase an Optus Travel Pack for an extra $10 a day on top of your existing phone plan.
- This Optus pack gets you unlimited talk and text, with 100MB of data for Zone 1 countries. You can also purchase, say, five of these ‘$10 days’ in advance and receive a 250MB data pool for use during the whole five days
- Zone 1 regions include North America, New Zealand, as well as much of Europe (including Russia) and Asia
- These packs can be activated on ‘My Account’ online, or through your Optus app on your mobile phone
This is for phones on a plan, but how about prepaid users? Optus also has you covered. It’s much the same as phones on a plan, however you will have to recharge a minimum $20 with the ‘Travel Credit Add On’. Beyond that, the standard rates listed above apply. You can track your usage during your trip to make sure you’re not coming back with a painful bill through the Optus app and online.
Telstra operates in roaming very much the same way as Optus does. First you’ll have to activate the roaming feature through the Telstra app, and then purchase a travel pack. Beyond that, Telstra has also introduced the ‘International Day Pass’, which basically lets you access your current plan overseas for either $5 or $10 a day.
- New Zealand can be accessed from $5 a day
- Other countries are $10 a day, with most popular countries available such as the US, Canada, Brazil, China, much of Europe and Asia.
For prepaid users it’s a bit of a different story. It will cost you $29 to buy a 100MB data pack, while 300MB costs $85 and $160 gets you 600MB. For roaming, Telstra has ramped up value in the postpaid space, but prepaid users be struggle to see value in these high prices.
Arguably with the most competitive roaming options out of the Big 3, Vodafone has popularly flaunted its ‘$5 a day’ roaming charge for a while now. But what do you get for $5 a day?
- Quite simply, you get what’s included in your plan – think of the $5 charge like a password to unlock your plan’s usefulness overseas
- This applies to 55 countries, which includes North America, Brazil, South Africa, some of Asia plus almost all of Europe
With mobile phone plans activated post 23 April 2014, you don’t need to activate anything. For phone plans before this date you will have to activate through your ‘My Vodafone’ login.
Prepaid users also get access to roaming on the Vodafone network, and can simply recharge by texting particular codes to a certain number:
- 3 days, $25: 100MB, 30 minutes of calling, 30 SMS OR 200MB data only
- 7 days, $35: 250MB, 60 minutes of calling, 60 SMS OR 500MB data only
Once you’ve exhausted these allowances, you’ll be charged the PAYG rates listed above. However, you are limited as to where you can use prepaid roaming. The USA is included, but Canada is not, much of Europe is included, though only some of Asia is. You can easily recharge using these rates by dialing 1511, which is incredibly handy.
Travel and Global SIM Cards
These exist in prepaid form, which makes them easy to insert into your unlocked phone and only pay for what you need! There are several private operators that provide travel SIM cards,
Australia Post Travelsim
Arguably the most popular of the travel SIM cards is the ‘TravelSim’ brand operating through Australia Post.
- It costs $25 and includes some starter credit and free express shipping
- Relatively low rates of 25c for a megabyte of data, per minute of calling or per text
- These rates apply worldwide
- 24/7 customer service with a smartphone app to control and monitor your use, recharge and troubleshoot. It also includes offline mapping for handy navigation.
- The SIM pack is a tri-cut one; nano, micro and standard SIM sizes
- Free TravelSIM to TravelSIM texts, making it easy for couples or friends to go overseas and contact each other if need be
This makes it possible to organise your travel money card, exchange cash and get a travel SIM all in one spot!
Woolworths Mobile Travel SIM
Aside from Australia Post, Woolworths Mobile also has a range of good international SIM card options. Activating the SIM is just like any other prepaid plan, and you’ll get a new phone number to use. Woolworths is tailored towards providing service in Europe, but it also has a range of global bundles, plus one for New Zealand. The base SIM fee costs $29, but you’ll get $10 credit included.
- Europe: 500mb for $40, 1GB for $50, 3GB for $100
- Europe Combo Pack: $40 for 200MB, 200 SMS & 200 minutes
- Global: 250mb for $40, 500MB for $60, or 1GB for $99
- New Zealand Pack: $40 for 200MB, 200 SMS & 200 minutes
Beyond that, Woolworth’s PAYG rates apply as above.
What about a phone plan from the country I’m visiting?
It’s hard enough having to wrap your head around the 30+ providers in Australia alone, but going overseas can make your head spin with all the phone plans on offer when you’re travelling. Language barriers also pose a strong problem. Buying a native prepaid phone plan in the country you’re visiting can require some footwork, but the work can pay off as you’ll often be afforded some great rates and generous inclusions.
Prepaid plans are the way to go, as with postpaid plans you’ll most likely need to supply an address, ID check and a local credit card. With prepaid, you can recharge with minimal fuss and enjoy straight away.
This is an easy one. Simply compare prepaid phone providers using our sister site – Canstar Blue NZ.
- You can compare phone plans
- Expect 1GB of data plus generous call minutes and unlimited texts for under NZD $30 a month.
New Zealand has markedly less providers than Australia, but you will be afforded similar value.
There are a massive five mobile networks in the United States: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular. Verizon is the largest in terms of subscriber base, but all offer strong plans. All five operate physical stores just like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone back home and popping in to one is a good way to get yourself a prepaid phone plan.
- Keep in mind that 7/11 stores also stock a range of prepaid plans that may prove to be pretty solid value.
- Keep up with the US lingo: ‘wireless’ and ‘cellular’ are synonymous with ‘mobile’.
As you’d expect, these five providers are a little more expensive than the USA’s raft of Mobile Virtual Network Operators, but some US MVNOs are pretty obscure and you’ll really need to do your homework here, as they often aren’t found in-store.
Like the USA, there are five network operators in Canada: Rogers, Telus, BCE, Shaw and RuralCom.
- Much of what you can get on a mobile phone plan in Canada is province dependent; one network might operate only in Alberta, but not in British Columbia for example.
The ‘Big 5’ would be a safe bet though, with an expansive network of stores across most provinces.
- Expect 1GB and unlimited talk and text for no less than CAD $40 with the big providers.
Prepaid plans are generally much dearer than what’s available in Australia, but there are some cheaper MVNOs available in various department stores, and prepaid SIM cards are often available in convenience stores as well.
There are four network operators in the motherland – EE, O2, Vodafone and 3. There is also a huge array of MVNOs, some with funny names like ‘Giffgaff’ and ‘Natterbox’. While undoubtedly these MVNOs may provide solid value, the ‘Big 4’ provides reliability and convenience.
- Most of the providers offer pretty solid value, and you can expect 1GB of data with unlimited calls and texts for £20 a month or thereabouts.
- Keep in mind that AUD to GBP exchange rate though!
Each of the four carriers have a range of store locations spanning most of the UK and you’ll likely be able to pop into one and walk out with a prepaid plan any time.
As for other countries, it starts to get a little trickier. The safest bet is selecting a roaming option, but if you’re willing to do the homework and legwork yourself, then you should be able to nab a very cost-effective deal. Sticking to major providers is also a safe bet in terms of reliability and convenience. MVNOs – while often providing more ‘bang for buck’ – can be hard to find without retail stores and you’ll often need to order online first, and this can extend the time you spend waiting for mobile phone coverage instead of enjoying your holiday.
Mobile phone roaming: Is it worth it?
Traditional mobile phone roaming where you simply take your phone overseas with no forward planning is obviously very convenient, but the costs can also add up. Expect minute-long phone calls to cost over $1 a minute, and a simple text to cost at least 50c. You may want to think twice about turning mobile roaming on, and only using it in case of emergencies.
Beyond that, there are a handful of providers supplying ‘travel packs’, but these too can be quite expensive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the generally cheapest options also tend to be the most annoying to acquire – a native phone plan in the country you’re visiting can be the most cost effective, but finding the right one can be both time consuming and a downright pain in the butt.
No matter what route you choose, it is undeniable that having mobile phone access overseas is handy and a good safety tool. If you’re willing to pay for convenience, then roaming presents a good option to enjoy your holiday with minimal fuss.