Buying a Prepaid SIM Card in Australia Guide

When you are traveling abroad in Australia, you will want to stay connected – that is where a SIM card comes into play. It can be challenging to choose which SIM card is the best option when there are so many different plans, networks, and companies available. 

So the question is: what are the best SIM card options when traveling in Australia?

The best SIM card for you on your travels in Australia depends on a variety of factors, such as your budget and your communication needs, but all SIM cards in Australia will ultimately function on three network carriers: Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone. Telstra has the best network in Australia, followed by Optus and Vodafone, respectively.

Staying in touch with both friends in-country and family back home is essential when you are traveling overseas, and a SIM card can help facilitate that. Read on to find out more about how to choose the best SIM card for your traveling situation, and what to do with it once you get one.

What Is A SIM Card?

You might already know what a SIM card is if you own a smartphone, but the short version is that a SIM card is a data chip inserted in your phone where your personal data is stored that is unique to your phone. If the SIM card in a smartphone is taken out, the phone will not function. 

When traveling in a foreign country, you can purchase a SIM card separate from your smartphone's standard SIM that will allow you to access international communications networks and use your smartphone abroad. I refer to them as local SIM cards.  

These SIM plans can range from bare-bones access that only allows you to make a few calls to extensive (and more expensive) plans that give you access to streaming video and local television subscriptions. There are SIM card plans available to suit every travel plan. 

Uses for A SIM Card

A SIM card can have many uses when traveling in Australia. SIM cards can be used to fulfill the following functions on a smartphone:

  • Booking hotels/hostels/travel activities via phone call
  • Staying in contact with traveling companions
  • Meeting up with friends discovered in-country
  • Making emergency calls in case of a crisis
  • Texting (which can be more economical and practical than calling)

Another important job of a SIM card is to allow you to access Internet services on your phone. In the 21st century, this is almost more important than the ability to call out. This SIM card functionality allows you to do the following things on your smartphone while in Australia:

  • Travel research
  • VoIP calls
  • Make online bookings in digital portals
  • Navigation such as GPS support
  • Manage email
  • Post to social media (how else are you going to send out your amazing
    Australian selfies?)

These are activities that are much more difficult to accomplish without a SIM card, so it can be worthwhile for any would-be traveler in Australia to obtain one before travel or as soon as they touch down. 

Without an Australian SIM card, you will be limited to Australian Wi-Fi, which is sadly pretty limited, thanks to bandwidth restrictions and a popular culture that does not put much emphasis on providing free Wi-Fi in public places. 

How to Choose the Best SIM Card for You

For picking up an Australian SIM card, the first thing you need to do is consider the parameters of your trip. 

A traveler who is going to be spending most of their time in the bush is going to have very different SIM card needs than one who is sticking to the most populated areas and cities in Australia. Here are other factors you need to look at when choosing a SIM card:

  • Network coverage: some of the networks in Australia have better network coverage in remote areas, and others are only really stable in large cities or populated parts of the country.

    Once you hit the outback, coverage diminishes significantly. So, if you are going to be a lot of backpacking in remote areas and still want good cell coverage, you may end up having to pay a little more for a more expansive network, such as Telstra
  • Budget: Different travelers will have different budgets that they will want to spend on a SIM card. Prepaid SIM card plans range from just ten bucks a month all the way up to fifty dollars or more.

    If you are traveling in Australia, chances are you are planning on staying a while. This means investing in a good SIM plan can be crucial, but it also means you will be spending a lot of money on other stuff. Therefore, you have to hit the right balance financially. 
  • Capability: There are a bunch of different SIM plans available on the market because travelers have very different expectations with regard to what they will use their SIM card for. 

    Some only use it to call internationally on a sparing basis to avoid unnecessary expenses, while others want their phone to operate basically the same as it would in their home country, right up to Netflix access.

    Before you purchase your SIM card, you need to determine precisely how much you are going to plan on using your smartphone while in Australia. Are you only going to use it for travel booking and calls home, or do you want a ton of data to play with?

Once you get to Australia, you will likely be exhausted from a long air trip and bleary from travel. You are not going to want to shuffle through two dozen SIM card plans at the airport. Therefore, it is advised to do some research beforehand so that you do not have to grab something at the last minute. 

Features to Look at in A SIM Card

Like the SIM cards that power your regular smartphone plan, SIM cards designed for international travel have several features that make them the right choice for staying connected overseas. Here are some of the most essential elements to look for in an Australian SIM card: 

  • Network carrier: A SIM card in Australia is going to operate on one of three network carriers: Optus, Telstra, or Vodafone. These three networks have similar coverage statistics, but their specific coverage maps will differ.

    Which carrier your SIM card uses will determine your coverage area. Note that if you obtain your SIM card through a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), such as Amaysim or ALDImobile (or any of the smaller MVNOs), you will be running on the big three’s networks at potentially reduced costs.
  • Data package: Most SIM card data packages will offer a certain amount of gigabytes of data per month (28/30 days) along with a text and calling plan. How much data you need will be determined by how much you intend to use your smartphone while in-country.

    Certain functions on the phone, such as streaming music and video, use up more data than search engines or texting/calling, so consider your usage carefully before deciding which SIM card plan is best for you.
  • International calls: Many SIM card packages feature international calling, which is obviously vital for any traveler coming to Australia from overseas.

    The country coverage for international calls varies from provider to provider, so before you decide on a SIM card plan, be sure that the SIM card allows for international calls to your country of origin.

    Some international calls are cheaper than others, and some SIM plans feature free international calls to certain countries. You need to check each SIM card plan carefully to see which countries are included and which are not, as this can impact your decision. 

Advantages of an Australian SIM Card When Traveling in Australia

The main advantage of a local SIM card is that you will be able to use your smartphone normally. Sometimes, your provider does not allow you to roam, or roaming will be so expensive that it is not worth it.  

No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!

A local SIM card is an excellent option for travelers because it allows travelers to prepay or buy into an international network for a temporary period while they are abroad, which means they maintain the same level of connectivity that they would have at home.

In an increasingly connected world, where more and more travel plans are finalized on the Internet, being cut off from using your smartphone can be a significant hassle when you are traveling in Australia. 

Disadvantages of Depending on Wi-Fi in Australia

One of the reasons for choosing an Australian SIM card is so essential is because free Wi-Fi access really is not a thing in Australia. Even in hotels, you are not likely to find much access to an open Wi-Fi network like you would in Europe or North America.

So if you want real mobile internet access while you are in Australia, you really need to get an Australian SIM card. Otherwise, you are going to spend a lot of time out of service, and it is definitely going to put a damper on your holiday. You do not realize how much you use your cell phone until you cannot.

The reason that many areas of Australia do not have free WiFi access is due to bandwidth quotas, which are caused by Australia's isolation from the rest of the world. It is expensive to install and maintain undersea fiber links, and that cost gets passed on to consumers. 

Another reason that WiFi is not free in Australia is that Australia has a low population density in comparison to other countries, and also the world's best mobile network by reputation (Telstra). Therefore, many Australians do not see the need for additional WiFi access.  

Main Networks in Australia

There are three leading communications network carriers in Australia, and every SIM card in Australia operates off of them. This also includes SIM cards sold by any resellers/mobile virtual network operators, such as Amaysim or ALDImobile.

While these three companies offer some similar coverage statistics, they do vary slightly in their price and functionality. Read below to find out more about each of these networks and how they operate.

Optus

Optus Logo

Optus is the second largest network provider in all of Australia, and services over 98% of the population. My partner has a subscription with Optus and is happy with it. This company is a subsidiary of the Singaporean company Singtel. For many users overseas, Optus is going to be the best option for a SIM card. 

Not only does Optus have physical stores in many locations throughout Australia, including its international airports, Optus actually has prices that are competitive with its resellers such as Amaysim, making it a viable and convenient option for obtaining a SIM card. 

Here are a few other features of Optus that make it a solid network choice for a SIM card:

  • Optus allows you to order SIMs to an Australian address, so you can have one available for you the moment you arrive.
  • Optus allows you to use an overseas credit card or PayPal to top off an active SIM card so that you can add more data or minutes to your SIM card plan as necessary once you are already in Australia. Its mobile app makes this process quick and easy.
  • Amaysim, a popular reseller that operates off the Optus network, is widely available at the same locations as Optus (such as the airport) and can sometimes sell discounted packages that can save travelers a bit of money.
  • Optus has staff at international airports in Australia during all flight hours, to take into account that travelers come into the airport at different times of the day and will need communications access the moment they land. 

Optus is the best option for SIM cards for the following travelers:

  • Travelers who want extensive coverage but do not want to pay the price for Telstra
  • Travelers who want the convenience of quickly being able to activate a SIM card at the airport
  • Travelers who want a wide variety of SIM card options with top off access and robust customer support services

RELATED: I tested an Optus SIM card when I was in Australia recently. I made an in-depth review of Optus, which you WANT to read when considering Optus!

Telstra

Telstra Logo

Telstra has the best reputation of any network carrier in Australia, and the price tag to go with it. This company has the best coverage in the entire country and has cell access for even remote rural areas that other carriers cannot reach, but it also has expensive pricing in comparison. 

Telstra is the right SIM card network choice for those travelers who plan to spend a lot of time in more rural or remote areas of Australia, but who still need to maintain some level of connectivity out in the bush.

Telstra coverage does not cover the entire outback, however, so be sure to check coverage maps carefully to make sure you are not purchasing a SIM card that will not give you any cell phone coverage in the area you are visiting. 

Another downside to Telstra is that they do not allow you to activate a SIM card with a passport number and an international credit card if the credit card is outside of the country. This means it is tough to activate a Telstra card before you actually arrive in Australia. 

Telstra is the best option for SIM cards for the following travelers:

  • Travelers planning on going to remote or rural areas
  • Travelers who have a larger budget for communications
  • Travelers who want the most coverage out of any of the Australian networks
  • Travelers who plan on activating their SIM card in-country

RELATED: When I was in Australia, I managed to get my hands on a Telstra SIM card. I created a lengthy Telstra review, which you have to read when considering Telstra!

Vodafone Australia

Vodafone Logo

Vodafone Australia, just Vodafone, is the smallest of Australia's three network carriers and features 96% coverage in comparison to Optus and Telstra. For travelers who plan on sticking to populated areas and major cities like Brisbane or Sydney, Vodafone can be the right choice.

Vodafone SIM cards are also a good choice for travelers on a budget, as these plans tend to be cheaper than plans through carriers like Telstra. While Vodafone does not offer quite as many options as other carriers, it is economical and functions well in touristy areas.

However, Vodafone is probably not the right choice for anyone who plans on spending much time outside of cities, as it does not have good coverage in rural areas at all. 

Vodafone is a good SIM card provider for the following travelers:

  • Travelers who are trying to keep their communication budget low
  • Travelers who intend to stick to well-populated areas and cities in Australia
  • Travelers who do not intend to take advantage of expanded data packages
  • Travelers who wish to call and text internationally without the use of a VoIP app

RELATED: When I tested Vodafone when I was in Australia, I was quite surprised with the results I got – they have gotten much better than a few years ago. Check out my Vodafone Australia review to see how they have improved over the years!

SIM Resellers & MVNOs in Australia

Along with the three communication networks in Australia, you can also obtain SIM card packages from various resellers. These resellers are also known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). 

The way MVNOs work is that they buy coverage from the leading networks at a wholesale price, and then resell that coverage at retail price. Some of the major resellers in Australia include the following mobile companies:

MVNOs are specific to the different carriers, and different reseller companies will operate within the networks of different carriers. So if you want an MVNO that runs off of the Telstra network, you will want to use one of the following companies:

On the other hand, if you would rather buy an MVNO SIM card operating off of the Optus network, you would choose one of the following companies:

Finally, if you want to choose an MVNO that uses the Vodafone network, you will go with one of the following: 

As you can see, there are literally dozens of options of MVNOs available to buy through should you choose not to get a SIM card through the network carrier directly. 

Each of these MVNOs has its own discounts and packages available that you can use to choose the best SIM card option for you. 

Keep in mind that the MVNOs of Telstra may not necessarily have the same coverage maps as Telstra proper, so check carefully before purchase.

Australian SIM Card Reviews

You have probably noticed that there is so much choice in SIM cards in Australia, mainly because of all the MVNOs. Around 20 of the 50 operators in Australia offer prepaid services.

I managed to test and try 15 of them so far. You can read the review of each Australian SIM card on my Australian SIM Card Reviews page. I even have comparisons between the MVNOs, let's say Optus MVNOs, and other types of comparisons, like store-branded MVNOs, SIM cards available in store,s and SIM cards ordered online.

Tips for Using a SIM Card in Australia

One of the best tips for using an Australian SIM card is to research SIM cards before you plan to travel. There are a lot of options available, and the more research you do, the most efficient choice you can make that will take into account your plans for data usage and coverage needs.

Another tip for using a SIM card in Australia is to get a SIM card and activate it as soon as you land at the airport (if you do not acquire one before getting to Australia). There are many storefronts and kiosks available in all of Australia's international airports to help you with this. 

If you wait until you leave the airport, you might run into travel delays, confusion, or other issues that make it difficult for you to find a SIM card provider. This could severely limit your options for a SIM card package and may lead to you having to settle for whatever you can find in a pinch. 

Finally, it is a good idea to get a PayPal account and transfer some money into it. While it can be difficult to use your local credit cards to add data to a SIM card because the SIM card registered address and your credit card address will be different, PayPal bypasses this potential hassle. 

Do not Expect SIM Card Coverage in The Outback

While Telstra has the largest area of network coverage out of all of the available communications networks in Australia, there is still a large part of the Australian wilderness that is too remote for cell coverage. 

If you are planning to stay in a very remote part of the Australian outback, you should pay extra attention to coverage maps to see if getting a SIM card would even be worth your while. 

While it can be useful to have a SIM card just in case of emergencies, most phones will allow you to dial out emergency services without having to use a SIM card. To use your cellphone for an emergency when you do not have coverage in Australia, dial the following numbers:

  • 000
  • 112

These numbers should contact you with emergency services in Australia regardless of whether you have coverage or not. This can be especially important when you are in the outback, as emergency services are already a long way off at that point. 

Requirements to Register a SIM Card in Australia

The requirements to register a SIM card in Australia are simple. All you need are the following pieces of information/documents:

  • Name
  • Passport number
  • Australian address

If you are an overseas traveler and you are not staying at an Australian residence, do not worry – your registered SIM card address can be your hotel or hostel address as well. 

Not only does this SIM card registration protect you from mobile phone crime, but it also prevents your phone number from being misused in your name. Without registering your SIM card, you will not be able to finish activating it. 

For this reason, it is crucial that you already know your Australian address and passport number when you approach the SIM card storefront or kiosk, that way, you will not be having to dig through your luggage trying to find your itinerary or passport once you land at the airport. 

When you first get to Australia, you will likely be exhausted, excited, and ready to move on to the next leg of your journey. That is why doing a little preparation ahead of time and having these materials prepared for SIM card registration will make your landing in Australia go a lot smoother, and your activation process goes a lot faster. 

How to Get Your SIM Card

Every international airport in Australia will have storefronts or kiosks that sell SIM card packages for travelers. Many of these storefronts operate at all hours, so no matter when your long flight to Australia finally touches down, you should be able to disembark and pick one up immediately.

If you have gathered all of the required information for registering your SIM card, and you have already chosen ahead of time, which is the best SIM card plan and option for you, then activation of your chosen SIM card should be quick and painless. 

Choose your SIM card option at the store or kiosk and pay for it. Activation is typically done on the spot and can take less than ten minutes. If you do not get your SIM card at the airport, many convenience stores and stores such as Woolworth's also offer SIM card kiosks and services. 

Once your SIM card is activated, you are good to go! Many SIM card providers also offer usage apps that help you monitor your remaining data and minutes so that you know when you need to top off your service plan. This can make managing your communications abroad very simple. 

Choosing the Best SIM Card Depends on You

There are tons of SIM card options available for every potential traveler's budget and data needs, so the best SIM card for one traveler is not going to be the best SIM card for another. 

However, if you do your research ahead of time and consider what you need out of a SIM card, you will be sure to get a SIM card that meets your needs while you are in Australia

Further Travels in Oceania

Visiting other countries in Oceania? Check out my Oceanian SIM card buying guide covering the other Oceanian destinations, such as American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna. Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.

What is next?

Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!

Book Your Flight for Australia

It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to Australia. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to Australia drop.

Book Your Accommodation for Australia

I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in Australia. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in an Australian hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for Australia

You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in Australia, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.

Get a Travel Debit Card

Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to Australian Dollars for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.

Enjoy your trip!

Ernest Adu

Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region in Asia, in particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan due to the current pandemic and does not have any travel plans for after his stay in Taiwan.

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