Let's face it. The phone is still the easiest way to keep in touch and having your own number means that people can call you (which will save you a fortune in phone calls). Your own local phone number is also essential if you're looking for work.
Virtually every backpacker travels with a mobile phone. If your mobile phone works with the GSM system (most European phones do) and is unlocked (not locked into your home network) then you can simply buy an Australian SIM card and stick in your phone. If you don't already have a compatible phone, then you will need to buy a prepaid starter pack including a phone and SIM card for around $70-100.
Most Australian mobile phone companies charge a connection fee of 20-30c on each call and their advertised call charges are usually quoted per 30 seconds (not per minute as you would expect).
There are four mobile phone network operators in Australia, plus lots of virtual network operators (companies that sell their own branded mobile phone service using someone else's network) so there is plenty of choice and enough competition to keep prices reasonable.
The main networks are Optus (website www.optus.com.au), Telstra (website www.telstra.com.au), Three (website www.three.com.au) and Vodafone (website www.vodafone.com.au). With the exception of Virgin Mobile, most of the virtual network operators are small little-known companies, but they are usually much cheaper than the big guys.
While the bigger phone companies offer some very good deals for customers on long term contracts, their prepaid deals aren't so great, but the smaller virtual networks offer some good value prepaid deals:
Prices and mobile phone deals change all the time so we haven't listed prices here but you can get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each network and then check their websites to see which one is best for you.
Australia's second largest mobile network has excellent coverage in most parts of Australia, especially along the east coast; but there are some gaping holes where their network doesn't work such as Kununurra, WA and both the east and west coasts of Tasmania. All in all, Optus is good value and a good compromise between coverage and price.
Telstra is Australia's most expensive mobile network but it also has the best coverage and there is almost nowhere their service doesn't work. Sure it may be nice to get access on a dirt track in the middle of the outback, but it shouldn't have to cost as much as it does.
Three is good value and they have some great extra services (like the ability to make free Skype calls from your mobile and free calls to other Three customers) but their network is limited to just a handful of the bigger Australian cities. Fortunately Australian Three customers can roam onto Telstra's GSM network when they are outside Three's coverage area.
Three is a good option if you are are going to spend most of your time in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane; but if you're planning on picking fruit or spending months travelling up the coast then you'd better look at one of the other networks.
The 3 Like Home promotion means that Three customers in Ireland, the UK and some European countries can use their mobile in Australia without roaming charges, but this only applies when you are on the network that Three operates in Australia and not the Telstra network that Three's Australian customers have access to.
Vodafone is one of the more popular mobile networks for many backpackers even though their coverage is pretty limited compared with Optus and Telstra. Vodafone SIM cards only cost $2, so it is cheap to get set up and they have some of the better value pre-paid plans.
There are several other mobile companies in Australia that offer their own branded service using the network infrastructure of one of the larger companies. They are generally the cheapest for prepaid services.
Dodo (website www.dodo.com.au) are a cheap mobile service that includes free calls to Vodafone and other Dodo customers.
Just Prepaid Mobile is the only Australian mobile phone company we could find that has no connection charge. No connection charge makes their rates easy to understand and coupled with low call rates makes Just a good deal if you make lots of short calls. They also have capped plans that are very good value if you make a lot of calls. Just Mobile use the Vodafone network.
Revolution Telecom (website www.revtel.com.au) have cheap call rates and use the Vodafone network.
Savvytel (website www.savvytel.com.au) is one of the best value mobile phone companies in Australia with capped pre-paid plans, credits that never expire and cheap call rates. They are one of the cheapest prepaid mobile deals in Australia. Savvytel uses the Vodafone network.
Virgin (website www.virginmobile.com.au) is one of the biggest of the virtual networks with good value call rates. Virgin use the Optus network, which gives you better coverage than Just Mobile or Savvytel (unless you're going to spend all your time in Kununurra).
There are several companies that sell SIM cards on the internet. They charge US$49 or £29 for a SIM card but you can buy a SIM for around $5 in Australia. Buying an Australian SIM card over the internet from most companies in the US or the UK is a complete rip-off! The exception is SIM Card Guru, which charges £4, for the same Just Prepaid Mobile SIM card that Telestial sells for USD $49.
If you need to know your phone number before you travel, then buy your SIM card from SIM Card Guru, otherwise wait until you get to Australia.
Roaming (leaving your home SIM card in your phone when you travel abroad) is the most expensive way to make calls. Not only are you charged exhorbitant rates for your calls but you are also charged for an international call everytime you answer your phone. Usually roaming is something you use in isolated cases, such as a one-day stopover when it doesn't make sense to buy a local SIM card.
Roaming does give you the advantage of having a single number (usually in your home country) that people can contact you on regardless of what country you are travelling in. There are many cases when you need to offer a single point of contact so you can receive important calls, this is especially the case if you do freelance work and you don't want your clients to know that you are travelling down under.
One of the easiest and cheapest options is to use a SkypeIn number (or another VoIP service) that is diverted to your mobile in Australia. You still have to pay for the incoming call but it is a lot cheaper than roaming and you don't need to update everyone with your new number everytime you visit a new country. To save on call costs give your Australian mobile number to people who call you frequently so they can call you directly.
Another option is to use an international SIM. This is a SIM from a small country (they usually come from Estonia, Liechtenstein, Iceland or the Isle of Man). It is free to receive calls in most countries (Australia is almost always on the list countries with free incoming calls) and making a call is also reasonably priced. However the quality is dire and many travellers give up on the service (or lack thereof) after they realise that it is almost impossible for people to contact them.
The best option. Simply buy a local SIM in every country where you spend a week or longer and use a SkypeIn number so you don't miss those really important calls.
Despite the popularity of mobile phones, calling cards are still the cheapest way to call home. Virtually every service station, newsagent and corner store sell a huge range of calling cards.
Rates are generally cheapest if you call a local access number rather than the toll-free number on the back of the card but this means that you may have to pay for a local call on a payphone in addition to the calling card rate.
VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is one of the cheapest ways to make a phone call but the quality isn't so great if you have a bad internet connection. Generally VoIP lets you call other customers of the same VoIP service for free, which gives the biggest VoIP services the advantage of more people you can talk to for nothing.
Skype (website www.skype.com) is the biggest of the internet-based phone services and Skype software (and webcams for video calling) is installed in most internet cafes and in many hostels, which makes choosing Skype a no-brainer even though many of Skype's competitors are cheaper.
Although many travellers just sign up for the free Skype account so they can talk to other Skype users for free, it is worth the money to go for a fully fledged account with a SkypeIn number (a proper number that anyone with a phone can call) and even opt for the €2 a month Skype Pro that gives you free calls to Australian landlines.
Of course you still have to pay to use the computers at the internet cafe so it's a better deal if you're staying at a hostel with free internet access or if you have your own notebook computer and a free Wi-Fi connection.