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How to pick a phone plan

If you've been on contract with the same telco for years, it's time to compare and select a new plan and possibly a new carrier too.

For a lot of Australians, the process of picking up a new phone hasn't changed much over the years, even though phone technology has improved in leaps and bounds. Every couple of years, you get a "new" phone for "free" with your 24-month contract. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But hang on a minute! If you've been on a contract for the past two years, that means that you're living with contract inclusions that were standard nearly two years ago. In some cases, if you simply switched up phones, you could even be living with plan inclusions that are older than that, which means that you're almost certainly paying way too much for far too little service. It's time to change all that. The first factor to consider is what has changed across the major carriers that you may have a contract with.

Telstra

Telstra remains the nation's biggest carrier, both in the sheer number of customers as well as in the overall coverage of its 4G network, which it claims now offers service to 99% of the Australian population. There are numerous other benefits to Telstra's plans that may tempt you to either stay or switch to Telstra's contract plans:

  • New Phone Feeling. Telstra's contracts give you what it calls "New Phone Feeling." This allows you to switch your handset for a new one after just 12 months on your existing contract as long as you renew your contract for a further 24 months. You can find out more about Telstra's New Phone Feeling here.
  • More data, much more speed. Telstra's been a little slower in improving the overall data inclusions on its contract packages than competing telcos, but it hasn't been able to ignore Australia's voracious appetite for mobile data. Where it has stood out is in building up its "4GX" network, with up to Category 16 speeds. That means on some handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8, it's technically feasible to hit download speeds approaching 1GBps.
  • Included streaming goodies. If you're like the majority of sports-mad Australians, the chances are good that you have a team you support, whether it's in the AFL, NRL or Netball leagues. Telstra's got the lock on all three, offering free streaming to mobiles (both for the subscription and for the data) if you sign up for most plans.
  • No data hit for Apple Music. If you're an Apple Music user on a Telstra contract plan, you won't incur any data charges for using the streaming music service. Many plans also come with a trial of the service if you haven't tried it yet.

Want to know more about Telstra's plans? We've got the full list of Telstra's contract plans right here.

Optus

Optus has been spending big in the past couple of years improving its 4G service and preparing for the oncoming debut of 5G services as well. It's also been active in offering highly competitive plans, whether you're looking at a prepaid offering or a full 24-month contract plan.

  • New Phone Trade Up. Optus's offer of a phone switch is a little newer than Telstra's, but the core concept is much the same. If you want a newer handset after a year on your current contract, you can get one with minimal fuss. You can find out all about Optus's New Phone Trade Up offer here.
  • More data on plans. Optus has often led the way with increased data inclusions on plans, especially if you opt for higher tier plans. If you're coming off a two-year plan, you may be surprised at just how much data you can get.
  • Unlimited calls and texts. If you're transitioning from a much older plan, it's worth bearing in mind that all of Optus's plans include unlimited standard national calls and texts. If you're a voracious caller or texter, you really don't have to spend much on a plan these days to keep yourself happy.
  • Optus Sports. Optus customers can access Optus Sports, a streaming sports package for which the crown jewel is the inclusion of the English Premier League. Optus has the exclusive EPL rights, so if you're a soccer/football fanatic, Optus is your best solution.

Want more detail on Optus's phone plans? You can find the full details on Optus's contract offerings right here.

Vodafone

Forget your perceptions of Vodafone as the "Vodafail" network. Having substantially rebuilt its entire network in the past couple of years (no small feat), Vodafone has emerged as a strong contender in the local contract phone space with aggressive pricing, a focus on user-defined packages and a planned further $2 billion in spending on its network in the near future.

  • Improved data inclusions. Like Optus, Vodafone makes a point of offering unlimited calls and texts across all of its regular contract plans, which means that the competitive area is in data inclusions. Here, Vodafone offers some very high limit plans if you have a nearly unquenchable thirst for data.
  • Choice of data or international calls. Vodafone's 24-month contract plans include the option for either a larger data inclusion or a range of international calling minutes, depending on how you think you'll use the phone.
  • New Phone Every Year. Yep, just like Optus and Telstra, Vodafone has an option to trade up to a new handset after 12 months have passed. Conditions do apply, and you can find out more about Vodafone's take on phone trade-ins here.
  • $5 roaming. While its competitors have improved their global roaming rates, Vodafone still leads with its $5/day red roaming package, which charges you $5 per day when you're overseas to access whatever inclusions your plan already has, including data.

After more detail on Vodafone's contract plans? We've got all the details on Vodafone's plans right here.

What are MVNOs?

MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) have expanded in scope markedly over the past few years. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, an MVNO uses the network of one of the big three carriers, typically offering a budget option with similar or identical coverage.

For Vodafone- and Optus-based MVNOs, the coverage offered by their MVNO partners is identical, while Telstra keeps its 4GX network speeds for itself, with only Boost having the full 4G map. The other Telstra MVNOs use "parts of" Telstra's wholesale 3G/4G network. This results in a slightly smaller coverage map, although you will only ever hit that if you travel to the very edges of the coverage map.

For more on MVNOs, you can read our comprehensive guide here.

Data is the big story now

For most contract plans, and even the majority of prepaid plans, you should find yourself with unlimited standard national calls and texts, which means that data is the key battleground to consider when comparing mobile phone plans. Data inclusions are only going up, and most contract plans offer a simple $10/GB excess usage fee if you go over your limit, which is markedly better than the excess charges telcos used to have.

Data is also important because the vast majority of Australians opt for a smartphone with access to data-hungry apps. It's well worth understanding which apps are using up your data to ensure that you're happy with your overall usage, especially as faster 4G networks predominate and we begin to look forward to a 5G future.

Don't discount buying outright!

If you want to spread out your mobile costs, a 24-month plan with a bundled handset can make a huge difference, but it's not automatically the most cost-effective way to handle your handset needs. If you can spare the cash upfront, you may find that going on a SIM-only plan, whether that's a 12-month, a month-to-month or even a prepaid SIM-only plan, can save you serious money.

Buying your own handset outright also has the added advantage of giving you true flexibility when it comes to your mobile carrier. You have the choice of changing networks because of issues around billing or reception or simply because a better deal appears from a competing provider.

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