In many countries, the average traveller can manage with free Wi-Fi. This isn’t the case in New Zealand. If you want to stay connected, buying a SIM card in New Zealand is the more convenient and affordable option.
Free Wi-Fi isn’t the norm
During my visit to New Zealand in 2012, I relied on Wi-Fi. That was a mistake. Searching for Wi-Fi was a waste of time, money and energy. Free Wi-Fi was uncommon. Accommodation providers advertising “free Wi-Fi” invariably dispensed it in the form of “Wi-Fi passes.” Each was limited to 250 MB of data, which seemed to evaporate within minutes. Purchasing Internet access was expensive.
For my visit in February 2017, I was determined to have a better experience.
My preferred features in a NZ mobile plan
- ability to purchase and activate a pre-paid plan at Auckland Airport’s International Terminal;
- validity for 20 days;
- cellular coverage in Auckland and the South Island, with free roaming between networks;
- calls within New Zealand to stay in touch with friends and travelling companions, book accommodation and activities, or use in an emergency;
- calls to Australia and Canada (if possible);
- data to access the Internet for travel research, navigation, VoIP calls, email management, posting to social media, and using my phone as a hotspot to connect my tablet to the Internet;
- ability to conveniently buy additional calling minutes or data; and
- an app to track usage.
My usual starting point, before any trip, is the Buying Local SIM Cards Around the World section of Too Many Adapters. It’s a one-stop place for Intel on options in over 50 countries.
Plans, features and costs can then be found at the web site of each network and reseller.
Finally, I check which sellers have a presence at my arrival airport. Having a phone that can be activated before leaving the airport allows me to get on with my travels. It’s especially important when communicating with others about delayed travel plans and meeting arrangements.
At the airport, my approach is to visit each storefront or kiosk. If I’m lucky, there will be at least two sellers. If so, there’s a chance there’ll be discounted rates on decent calling and data plans.
This is what I learned from the pre-trip research:
- There are three main networks in New Zealand – Spark, 2Degrees and Vodafone (reseller Skinny operates off Spark).
- Spark and Vodafone have the largest networks covering 98% of the population.
- Skinny and Vodafone offered similar plans and prices. Both companies built packages with travellers in mind. Spark was more expensive with the international calls package add-on, and offered less data. 2Degrees had plans geared to longer-term customers.
- Skinny didn’t have a presence in Auckland. Vodafone had two stores at the International Terminal of Auckland Airport, open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
My choice: Vodafone
The first Vodafone kiosk was located next to a duty-free store, before passport control. It was staffed with two workers. With the aid of a laminated information sheet, one of them outlined the features of the popular “NZ Travel SIM $49” plan. The price was $43 (31 USD) if purchased in the duty-free zone.
As advertised on the Vodafone site, the plan came with:
- 200 calling minutes and 200 texts, within New Zealand and to select countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, UK, and USA);
- 3 GB of data;
- validity of 60 days; and
- a free app to monitor usage and purchase top up.
Set up and activation took a few minutes. I asked the worker to enable access to the hotspot feature on my phone and she successfully paired my iPad mini. Payment was quick at The Loop Duty Free a few metres away.
Vodafone makes buying a SIM card in New Zealand easy for travellers. The features are clearly outlined at the Vodafone website, and on the information boards at the airport kiosks. Vodafone recognizes that passengers arrive at irregular hours, and has staff available to meet incoming flights. Set up is efficient and activation is immediate.
I didn’t expect cellular reception in a few areas. This was indeed the case in places between Te Anau and Milford Sound, and crossing Rainbow and Molesworth Stations. Otherwise, I was satisfied with the coverage.
I was able to use free Wi-Fi at airports (limits of 30 minutes in Auckland, 60 minutes in Nelson and 2GB in Queenstown). Most accommodation providers limited Wi-Fi usage to 250 MB of data. Vodafone’s 3GB of data was more than enough for those occasions when free Wi-Fi wasn’t available.
The ability to make calls to other countries is a bonus for staying in touch with family and friends. Both Vodafone and Skinny recognize this need in their NZ Travel SIM and NZ Holiday SIM products.
What’s your experience buying a SIM card in New Zealand?
Heading to Australia? If so, you might be interested in Buying a SIM card in Australia.