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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.
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.
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.
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!
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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
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.
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.