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Long hot summer days, golden beaches, world-class surfing, delicious brunches and more, there are plenty of reasons why Australia sees over seven million visitors each year.
All those suntans and flat whites come at a cost, however. The country is expensive to get to, and far from cheap to spend time in.
For years that high cost extended to staying connected, but competition from new entrants to the cellular market has driven prices down in recent years. It’s now reasonably cheap and easy to get a local SIM card Down Under if you choose the right provider.
For overseas visitors, topping up online and providing proof of identity and address is more difficult with some cell companies than others. Fortunately, some of the better-value options are with companies that don’t make it impossible for tourists to use their service.
Here’s what you need to know.
Of the three network providers in Australia, Telstra has the widest coverage, and the highest prices to go with it. The Optus network isn’t quite as large, although you’re unlikely to strike a problem in most towns and cities. It’s the rural areas where you’ll start hitting dead spots.
Vodafone coverage is reasonable and expanding, but it’s still the smallest of the three. If you know you’ll be spending time in small towns and rural areas, check the coverage maps (Telstra, Optus, Vodafone) to make sure you’ll get service where you need it.
The cheapest option for visitors is usually from a reseller called Amaysim, which offers 3G and 4G/LTE service on the Optus network. On my most recent trip to Australia, though, Optus itself was offering a slightly better deal than its resellers.
You’ll get faster speeds with Optus, and usually an easier purchase and setup process. Be sure to check the current pricing for both providers before making a final decision.
How to Buy a SIM Card
Amaysim doesn’t have its own retail stores, instead selling SIM cards through a range of outlets including post offices, supermarket chains, gas stations, and electronics stores.
I walked into a branch of one of the major electronics stores in suburban Melbourne, and purchased a SIM and top-up voucher in under a minute. The SIM comes in two sizes: standard/micro, and nano. Be sure to specify which one you need.
While you can activate the SIM, add credit and select packages from your phone, I chose to do it from a laptop. The instructions are straightforward, requiring you to first enter the SIM number on the package, then select a phone number from a given range.
You’ll then need to provide your name, passport number and an Australian address. There’s no additional verification done on the address, though, so you can use the one for your hotel or hostel without a problem.
While those with an Australian credit card can top up online during activation, don’t try doing the same with an overseas card. It will appear to go through, but since the address of your card doesn’t match the one you’re registering the SIM to, activation will fail. You’ll then need to contact support to sort things out.
Top up using a voucher instead, as it works much better. Once you’ve added your credit, select the call/text/data package you prefer and you’re good to go.
Optus has physical stores throughout Australia, including at international airports. You can also order SIMs to be sent to an Australian address — they’ll take 1-3 business days to get to you.
Arriving in Cairns on my most recent trip, I could have purchased from a small kiosk in the arrivals area. Instead, I waited until I got downtown, and walked into the official store in the city’s main shopping centre.
As mentioned earlier, some companies are more stringent about ID requirements than others when selling to overseas visitors. In this case, at least, only a passport was required.
After choosing a call, text, and data package and handing over the cash, the staff member inserted the SIM, confirmed that it worked, and I was on my way. The process took under ten minutes.
Prepaid SIM Costs
Amaysim is often noticeably cheaper than the competition, especially if you want a useful amount of data. The SIM card costs $2 no matter where you buy it, and there’s a wide range of call, data, and text packages at very competitive prices.
Monthly packages with unlimited domestic calls and texts start at $10 AUD with 1GB of data. You’ll get 5GB for $20 or 30GB for $30, up to 60GB for $50 AUD. Promotions often add extra data as well. Expect to use more cell data in Australia than many other countries, since usable free Wi-Fi is relatively rare.
The pricier package options also include free calls to certain international destinations. If you plan to call home regularly, that’s definitely something to bear in mind.
Optus had unusually competitive pricing for new customers on my most recent trip. A $30 AUD package included the SIM, unlimited domestic calls and texts, and 35GB of data for the first three months. It dropped back to 10GB/month after that.
There was also an extra 10GB of streaming video available, including Netflix and a few local services.
As mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to top up online with a voucher than trying to use an international credit card. The company does let you use Paypal for top-ups after activation, however, which works for overseas visitors.
Be aware that it sets up an automatic monthly renewal. Be sure to cancel it before leaving the country.
If you’d prefer to use a voucher, they’re available anywhere that sells the SIM cards. You won’t have a problem finding somewhere in all but the smallest towns.
You can top up by buying a voucher from an Optus retail store, or anywhere else displaying the Optus logo. That includes most supermarkets, gas stations, and convenience stores.
Even easier, the company’s mobile app lets you top up via credit or debit cards, including those issued overseas, or Paypal.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Since Amaysim uses the Optus network, you’ll get service that covers “98.5% of the Aussie population.” 3G/HSPA+ speeds in central Melbourne were reasonably quick at 8Mb/sec, and LTE speeds were close to 30Mbps.
Using an Optus SIM in the same location gave double the speed, however, even though it’s the same network. If the fastest speeds are important to you, bear this in mind.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.