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American Cell Phones in Australia

So, like I said in my last post about trying to be human during our first weeks, one of our first tasks was turning our phones on.

Rusty and I are admitted smartphone addicts.  Guilty as charged.  We try not to be that couple that doesn’t talk at restaurants because we’re playing on our phones, but we are, in fact, that couple.  Sometimes we make popcorn, put in a movie, sit down on the sofa next to each other, and then read Twitter for two hours.  Sad, but true.  That’s not to say that we don’t communicate with each other, though–we’re often emailing, texting, and tweeting each other!  Yes, yes, we’re lame.  We know.

Anyway, before we got to Sydney, we had thought that we’d just make do with the wi-fi at the guesthouse for awhile before we turned on our phones.  We’d be together the whole time, so we wouldn’t really need to call or text anyone, and all of our email and social media nonsense could be done online.

Problem:  Internet at our guesthouse is not free!  This fact was a bit of a shock for us.  We’re accustomed to hotels in the States where free wi-fi is pretty much standard now.  To use the wi-fi at our guesthouse, we have to buy vouchers from the desk downstairs.  The vouchers have a user name and password printed on them.  You can buy 1 hour for $5 (time is valid for 1 day after activating,) 6 hours for $12 (time is valid for 3 days after activating,) or 12 hours for $20 (time is valid for 5 days after activating.)  Ack!  For two people who are typically always online in one way or another, having to pay by the hour seemed like a fate worse than death.  We knew the smartphone data connection situation had to be cheaper than that, so off to the cell phone store we went.

It’s complicated, though.  See, Rusty and I don’t have global phones, but we are lucky in that we have phones with removable SIM cards.

What’s a SIM card?  This guy.

Most Verizon Wireless phones from the States are not so lucky, but Rusty and I happen to be happy owners of one of the rare phone models that does have one.  (Yes, Rusty and I have the same model of phone.  We’re cute like that.)  The SIM card is what connects your phone to your phone service’s network.  Phones in the States usually have internal SIM cards that can’t be removed so that individual phones are (for the most part) permanently connected to one service provider–as in, most Verizon phones have internal Verizon SIM cards so that you can’t buy the phone from a Verizon store and then go sign up for AT&T service to use it.  This is, however, not the way that it works in other countries.

Most countries primarily use the removable SIM card model for cell phone service.  Australia, luckily, is one of those countries.  Almost all phones are compatible with all service providers in Australia.  You just need to get a SIM card from the provider you want to use and then set up service with them.  Well…okay, it’s not quite that simple.

Here are the steps to get your American phone (with a removable SIM card) working on an Australian network:

Step 1:  Choose the network you want to work with.

Australia has a lot of cell phone network providers.  In our little ‘hood, there are shops for all of the major brands–Vodafone, Telstra, Optus, etc.  Honestly, Rusty and I didn’t do much shopping around.  We wanted a pre-pay type plan, and our concern was really only the data allowance.  For a long time, we will probably only be texting and calling each other, and with seemingly all of the providers, calls and texts in-network are free.  Vodafone has pretty straight-forward pay-as-you-go options, so we went with them.

Step 2:  Buy a SIM card.

You can buy a SIM card for your service provider at the provider’s store, at any electronics shop, and at most convenience stores.  They’re cheap ($2 or so), and they’re just connected to a provider, not to a plan–you’ll connect it to your plan later.  We bought our Vodafone SIM cards at Dick Smith, the electronics store.

Step 3:  Unlock your phone.

Even though your phone has a removable SIM card, that does not mean that you can immediately go around swapping SIM cards to your heart’s delight.  Despite the fact that the cards slip out easily, Verizon has a programmed locking feature in their phones that causes the phones to reject new SIM cards unless you have Verizon’s permission.  I understand this to be pretty common for most service providers.  When we first put Australian SIM cards into our phones, we essentially got error messages that said, “Haha!  Nice try!  Nope!”.

You have a couple options here.  If you’re a customer in good standing with Verizon, you can call Verizon, and they will send you a code that you can enter to bypass the lock.  Alternately, if you do not want to bother trying to call Verizon from a foreign country and/or you cannot possibly wait the 24-48 hours it takes for them to respond to an email and/or you are not a customer in good standing, there are some shady folks online that will sell you the code for about $5.  Either way, you’ve got to unlock the phone.  Make sure you already have the new SIM card–you can’t unlock the phone without the new SIM card.

Step 4:  Sign up for something.

Once you have your new SIM card in your unlocked phone, you can do something with it.  Take it to your new service provider and ask them about your options.  We decided on Vodafone’s pre-paid caps option.  For the $30 cap, you get $450 in credit (for non-network calls and texts), unlimited in-network calls and texts, 500MB of data, and free social networking (using the phone’s browser, not apps.)  The credit expires after 30 days.  We can re-up and add another cap to our phones at any time at any of the places that sell the SIM cards, e.g. Vodafone shops, electronics stores, and convenience stores.  Vodafone also has monthly plans with contracts, but we elected not to sign up for one of those–the monthly plans just don’t suit our phone needs.  However, if a monthly plan does suit your needs, you’d follow all the same steps to get there that we followed to get our pre-paid credit.

Step 5:  Make sure it works.

When we got back to the guesthouse after visiting the nice folks at Vodafone for the third time one day, a visit during which they added our credit to our phones for us because we couldn’t do it on our own, we realized that we couldn’t use our data connection.  We were able to text each other and call each other, but we couldn’t check our email or use the internet.  Back to Vodafone we went.  As it turns out, the network we used in the States isn’t the same type of network that they use in Australia.  We had tried all of the different data settings for the phones, but they still didn’t work.  Apparently, the appropriate setting had to be added into the phone, which we never would have realized on our own.  When in doubt, take your phone in.  The friendly folks at Vodafone in Randwick added the setting for us and got our phones back in business.

All of this, just so that we could use Twitter and Facebook…


About theacademicsabroad

Rusty and Ali are a couple of nerds who moved to Australia to go on adventures. Oh, and work. :)


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August 2012
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