The road to Mount Cook

Buying a SIM Card in New Zealand

In Get Connected by Dave Dean21 Comments


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The home of bungy jumping, hobbits and the famous All Blacks, New Zealand’s laid-back culture and natural beauty make it a huge hit with overseas visitors.

Until recently, though, those visitors have been less impressed with the state of Internet access in the country.

With expensive, slow Wi-fi the norm even in hotels and cafes, plus high prices and tiny data allowances on most cell plans, staying connected in the country was a costly, frustrating exercise.

Things are changing in 2018, however — the rollout of fibre networks and unlimited broadband plans is (slowly) helping the Wi-fi situation, and a reasonably-new reseller has bought prices down in the cellular market.

While you still won’t be amazed by the price or coverage, things are much better for international visitors than they were a few years ago. Here’s what you need to know.

Companies


  • We recommend Spark or Skinny for most travellers
  • You may be able to save a bit of money with Vodafone

There are three mobile networks in New Zealand. Spark and Vodafone have the largest networks, both covering around 98% of the population. 2degrees has a smaller coverage area, but customers roam for free on the Vodafone network as needed.

Don’t expect to get service everywhere regardless of which network you’re on, however — the country’s geography and lack of population density leave plenty of blank spots on all networks.

Competition is limited between the three companies, with similar, relatively expensive prices across the board — but little differences help swing the balance one way or another.

If you’re flying in from overseas, you may be able to save a bit of money with Vodafone. In the duty-free area at Christchurch, Auckland, and potentially other airports, you can pick up the company’s NZ Travel SIM at tax-free prices. This means you won’t pay the 15% GST on whichever package you go for.

Spark’s call, text, and data offering for tourists is exactly the same as Vodafone’s, but it also throws in 1GB of free Wi-fi per day from any of its 1000+ hotspots around the country. Mostly found in phone boxes in tourist areas, and with decent free Wi-fi still comparatively hard to come by in New Zealand, you may find yourself using those hotspots more than you expect.

Spark also owns the Skinny brand, which offers competitive pricing for prepaid users, especially those who use a lot of cellular data. Utilising the widespread Spark network, with a slick website and app that makes life unusually easy for international visitors, it’s definitely a good option.

I’ve used SIMs from all of the providers on different trips, most recently Vodafone and Skinny.

How


Skinny

If you’ve got a New Zealand address to use, you can order a Skinny SIM online and have it delivered within a day or two. If not, you can pick one up at most supermarkets, plus large stationary, electronics, and other retail chains in every city and decent-sized town throughout the country.

With family in New Zealand, I opted for the online ordering option. I needed to pick a call and data package along with the SIM when placing the order, and the kit arrived the following day.

After inserting the SIM, I dialed ‘456’ to activate it. No passport or other identification was needed.

The Skinny website is slick and easy to use, and in a welcome (and rare) move, lets you top up using an international credit card without issue. There’s also a comprehensive Android and iOS app, which I used to select a package and monitor my usage throughout my month in the country.

Vodafone

After arriving on an international flight at Christchurch Airport, I noticed a little kiosk selling Vodafone tourist SIMs at the entrance to the duty-free store prior to passport control. Stopping to take a look, the attendant mentioned that because no tax was being charged there, the packs were 15% cheaper than in the arrivals hall or elsewhere in the country. That was good enough for me!

She installed the SIM in my phone, checked it worked, then sent me on my way to pay for it at the duty-free checkouts. The process took all of about three minutes.

Vodafone stores are also available in the duty-free area at Auckland airport, plus the main arrivals area at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown airports, and in towns and cities around the country. Spark has stores at Auckland and Wellington airports, and again, all over the country as well.

You’ll also often see tourist SIMs being sold in supermarkets and elsewhere. In short, you’re not going to have a hard time getting hold of one!

 

Can't be bothered with the hassle of buying a local SIM in New Zealand? OneSIM topped our international SIM card comparison.

It offers phones and SIM cards that work in 200 countries, have free incoming calls, save up to 85% on roaming fees, and can be sent out ahead of time to let you hit the ground running. Find out more here.


 

Costs


Skinny

Skinny call, data and text packages renew every seven or 28 days. While you can get a basic monthly package for as little as $9 NZD with unlimited texts, 100 minutes of calls and 250MB of data, the best value is in the larger packs.

I went for the $46 NZD 4-week ‘Ultra Combo’, with unlimited calls and texts to New Zealand and Australian numbers, plus 10GB of data that rolled over to the following month if not used.

If you need more data, you can buy ‘add-ons’ — an extra 1GB costs $15 NZD, or 2GB for $25. Skinny also has an interesting “binge” option, where for a few bucks, you can buy up to 12 hours of unlimited data on top of whatever package you’re using. That’s particularly useful when you find yourself somewhere with no, unusable, or expensive Wi-fi, which happens more often than you’d like.

Note that not all add-ons work with the cheaper packages, so check this page for details. It’s unnecessarily restrictive in that regard, but the long and the short of it is that you’ll get more for your money with Skinny than other providers. It’s always worth checking the site for promotional offers, as they change regularly.

Vodafone and Spark

Vodafone and Spark’s travel SIMs are almost identical, right down to the name.

For $49, you get 200 calls and texts to New Zealand and several other countries, plus 3GB of data, valid for two months. While most of the included international destinations are the same for both companies, there are a few differences, so it’s worth checking the exact details beforehand if you plan to call or text back home.

There’s also a $99 option that (shockingly enough) is also the same between companies, which bumps the data allowance up to 8GB, but keeps everything else the same.

As mentioned earlier, you may be able to save 15% on the Vodafone SIM if you buy it before immigration, and you’ll get that 1GB of free Wi-fi per day from branded hotspots with Spark.

Both companies have apps to track usage and more, although neither are particularly good.

Topping Up


Skinny

You can top up using a voucher, or with a credit card on the Skinny site. As mentioned, international cards work fine.

Vouchers are available anywhere you see the Skinny logo — there are 6000+ retail outlets across the country, so you’ll find one almost anywhere you’re likely to be. Once you’ve got a voucher in hand, you can add the credit via the app, website, calling ‘204’ or dialing *888#.

Vodafone and Spark

Since the visitor SIM lasts two months, you may not need to top up unless you’re on a particularly long trip, or burn through your data, calls, or texts.

If you do, you’ll need to choose an add-on pack containing more of whatever you need. To do so, add credit either by purchasing a voucher from anywhere displaying the company logo, or via the Vodafone or Spark website.

Once you’ve loaded credit onto your account or pre-registered a debit or credit card, you can then select the add-on you’re after via the app or by texting a specific code.

As an example, you can buy 1GB of data for $20 NZD with Vodafone by texting ‘BUY EXTRADATA’ to 756. Spark charges $15 NZD for the same thing, which you get by texting ‘BUY 15DATA’ to 258.

Note that once the two months is up, you can’t renew your visitor plan with either company. The SIM card is still active, however, and you can buy those call, text, and data add-ons to keep you going a bit longer.

Check out the list of available add-ons for Spark here.

 

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Coverage and Data Speeds


Data speeds were good, even in relatively small towns. With Skinny, I consistently got around 8Mb/sec on 3G, and over 50MB/sec with LTE. With Vodafone, I got a remarkable 102Mbps.

With either network, cell signal disappeared while driving between some South Island destinations and when hiking on various trails in the Canterbury region — as mentioned, you won’t get 100% coverage with any provider in New Zealand.

Check the coverage maps (Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees) if you’re concerned about getting service in specific locations.

Vodafone LTE speeds in New Zealand

Vodafone LTE speeds in New Zealand


Skinny 3G speeds

Skinny 3G speeds


Skinny LTE speeds

Skinny LTE speeds

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.

What you need to know about staying connected with a local SIM card in New Zealand, with details on how to buy and which company to use.

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Hey Dave- good post covering Telecom NZ SIMs. They are a top option for a traveller heading to NZ.
    The biggest win telecom NZ have over the competition is definitely quality and coverage- but also because they make it easy to get online with them.
    I’m not 100% sure you have it right on the ‘very little difference between carriers’.
    Vodafone is pretty much referred to Vodafail in Aust and also NZ due to their network being so poor in & outside major cities…(NB: 28degrees works on the Voda NZ network)… telecom NZ is definitely the way to go, as referenced by my research (yes disclaimer I run a company which sells prepaid SIMs for travellers), but also as agreed in other forums such as TripAdvisor here http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowTopic-g255104-i125-k5215363-o10-NZ_sim_card_with_data-New_Zealand.html
    Good work on the other SIM reviews also- will check them out and hopefully make a few useful comments for you and your readers!

    1. Author

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comments. While Vodafone definitely has a bad reputation in Australia (and fair enough – I had a prepay Vodafone connection there for several months and it was poor outside the major cities), I can’t agree with your assessment of their service in New Zealand.

      To provide some background, I have been a customer of both Telecom and Vodafone at various points for the last 20 years. While Telecom long had better connectivity outside metropolitan centres, Vodafone has invested a lot in network build-out in the last few years to the point where, as I said, there’s little to choose between them. That cute ‘Vodafail’ nickname really doesn’t apply in New Zealand any longer, and in fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard it there.

      In the two months I spend driving all over the North and South Islands earlier this year, I had access to both Vodafone and Telecom SIM cards the entire time. Frequently the Telecom one wouldn’t get signal in a given area, so I’d switch to the Vodafone one. When that stopped getting signal, I’d switch back.

      It was no harder getting online with a Vodafone SIM than a Telecom one – in fact, it took longer to activate my Telecom SIM than it did the Vodafone one.

      As a traveller in NZ, you’re not going to get coverage everywhere with any carrier. Do some research if you’re planning to spend a lot of time in a particular area, but if you’re on the move regularly, I’d be choosing whichever company had the best deal at the time rather than worrying about coverage.

  2. Hi! I’m a foreign student who will be arriving in Aukland this month (and will be staying for at least a yr). I have no idea which provider to approach when I get there (and how and where) I need first of all a sim card, minimal call and text and substantial mobile internet access. What do you suggest for me?Thanks

  3. I just tried a NZ spark prepay in a dual sim moto 2.
    Beware all who have dual son phones… It appears spark won’t work with another sim active, it MUST go in sim slot 1 and somehow messes up slot 2. When I turned the spark sim off slot 2 started working. A little checking and it appears spark does this with 2 degrees and Vodafone in nz (as well as my euro sims). Alternatively, the 2 Degrees sim I now have is plug and play… As it should be.

  4. I think Spark is the current winner. Same prices as Skinny, but you get 1GB free wifi every day as well, and these wifi stations are put in most old payphone booths.

    I picked up the sim at the airport and it took just minutes to get set up and ready to go. Surprising to say the least.

    1. Hi Dustin, could you share whether you bought the Spark sim card online before you reached NZ or purchased it directly at the airport? Thanks.

      1. Hi Guys, I am a technically challenged person (from South Africa) who will be visiting NZ for 1 month (North & South). I will need a local sim card for the following; Internet Data, Whats App, Google Maps and the odd call. We are landing in Auckland for the start of our adventure.
        What would you suggest I do when I arrive at airport?

      2. Author

        Both Spark and Vodafone have booths at the airport, so to keep things simple, I’d suggest just buying a SIM from one or the other. Pricing is similar — the most useful tourist SIM pack costs around $50 NZD for 3GB of data, plus enough calls and texts for your needs. Usefully for you, the included calls and texts are also valid for South Africa (and a handful of other countries).

        As long as you don’t go overboard with your web browsing etc, that’ll be enough data for the month. Spark also gives you WiFi access at its telephone booths across the country, up to 1GB per day for free.

        The salesperson should offer to set it up for you if you’re not comfortable doing so yourself.

  5. I have an ATT provider with aniPhone 6s . Will I be able to use a locally purchased sim card in my phone?

    1. Author

      Yes, as long as the phone’s SIM card slot isn’t locked to AT&T. If you don’t know whether it is or not, you’ll want to check with AT&T prior to your trip.

  6. Rather than buy or rent a GPS unit with NZ maps loaded (if the rental car does not have one installed), I was wondering whether I could use WAZE or Google maps or similar apps (your suggestions welcome) on my unlocked Samsung phone. If so, what kind of data plan would I need for about 30 hours of driving on North and South Island roads (the usual tourist spots)? Is GPS more reliable, if there are gaps in cellphone coverage on the main tourist areas and roads?

    1. Author

      You can definitely use Google Maps instead of an in-car GPS in New Zealand — I’m actually here at the moment, driving around regularly, and that’s what I’m doing. To cut down dramatically on your data usage, save the areas you’ll be traveling through for offline use in Google Maps ahead of time. It won’t completely stop you using data while driving, but it’ll eliminate most of it. If you do that, it’ll also help deal with any gaps in cellphone coverage.

  7. Dave I am not comp smart at all we are coming to New Zealand are renting a camper with a GPS staying for a month would like a phone to use while in the country. Our phones are old and I don’t think take a sim card do the have something out there we can use. just would like something for emergencies or look up info

    1. Author

      I’d suggest finding out your phone model, and plugging it into this site. If you get any green ticks, you’ll be able to use a local SIM card in New Zealand as long as the phone isn’t locked to your existing cell carrier (ask them about it if you’re not sure.)

      Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a new phone (our current picks are here), or maybe look at buying a mobile hotspot that you can plug a local SIM into and use via Wi-fi with your existing phone.

  8. There were so many sales reps in arrivals in Auckland offering SIM deals it was hard to miss them. I chose Vodaphone simply because the queue was shorter and all prices were more or less similar. Having travelled around the North Island so far I have not been disappointed with coverage or speed. The most important thing to remember is to unlock your phone before travelling.

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