Australian phone networks and frequencies explained

Alex Kidman 14 July 2017

Curious to see if your mobile phone will work in Australia? Our guide will walk you through the frequencies and networks you can connect to.

Not all mobile phones are created to work in every possible location across the globe. The wide variety of mobile network technologies and frequencies means that a phone built for one market won't automatically work in another country, even if there's a model of the exact same phone built for that location.

If you're buying a phone from overseas, or you're a traveller or migrant planning to travel to Australia, it's worth checking that your handset of choice will actually function on Australian network frequencies.

The first step is to identify your phone and the model sold in your country. You should be able to find that information on the device manufacturer's website or from the carrier you acquired the phone from. Those details should include the compatible frequencies that your handset uses, which you can match against the table below.

Australian carriers2G3G4G
TelstraN/A850MHz/2100MHz700MHz/900MHz/1800Mhz/2100MHz/2600Mhz
Optus/VirginN/A (NT and WA), 900MHz (until 1.8.17) (All other states)900MHz/2100Mhz700MHz/1800Mhz/2100MHz/2300Mhz/2600Mhz
Vodafone900MHz (until 30.9.17)850MHz/900MHz/2100MHz700Mhz (2018)/850MHz/1800Mhz

No matter mobile carrier you opt for in Australia, they all currently operate on networks owned and operated by Telstra, Optus or Vodafone. Local brand TPG has indicated that it will commence building a mobile network in 2018, although it won't likely offer consumer products until at least 2019.

The other factor you'll need to consider if you're bringing a phone you're already using overseas into Australia is whether it's locked to your current carrier. Contact them before you travel to see if your phone is locked, and if it is, what process is needed to unlock it. Fail to do this, and you could be stuck with a handset that will only work with your current country's SIM at significantly increased roaming prices for calls, texts and data.

It's also worth noting that there's no CDMA support in Australia, so if your current phone only works on CDMA frequencies, it won't work in Australia. Also, no Australian carrier has (to date) taken up Apple's eSIM/Apple SIM product for roaming purposes or for applying for a new Australian plan.

One factor to consider when choosing an Australian telco is that they usually quote coverage figures based on population, not geographical coverage. Australia is a vast continent, and the farther out from the major population centres, and especially the farther away from the coastline you get, the smaller the coverage areas become. All carriers offer coverage maps that you can check against your travel plans, but these are largely just advisory rather than an absolute guarantee of coverage.

The 2G trap

2G is still quite common in many overseas markets, so if you're bringing in a 2G-only phone into Australia, your access to services will be limited, and by the end of September 2017, completely unavailable outside Christmas Island. Telstra shuttered its mainland 2G services on 1 December 2016, while Optus killed off its 2G services in WA and the Northern Territory on 3 April 2017, with the rest of its 2G services due to go offline on 1 August 2017. At that point, the only remaining 2G network in Australia will belong to Vodafone. That network is currently set to be decommissioned on 30 September 2017.

Bear in mind that if your phone supports 3G or 4G frequencies, the lack of 2G won't affect your ability to make or take calls and texts, but if you're using a phone that is solely 2G, it won't function at all after 30 September 2017 no matter what network you're on. This could also be an issue if you use a "dual SIM" phone because many of those phones offer one high-speed 3G or 4G SIM slot and one 2G-only SIM slot. In that case, you would effectively be limited to it being a single-SIM phone.

What kind of plan should I choose?

Australian phone plans are sold on both prepaid and post-paid contract terms. For prepaid plans, you simply pay a set sum for access over a period of time that can range from as little as 10 days up to 365 days, and you get access to call, text and data services within Australia for that time.

Post-paid contracts bill you at the end of each billing cycle (typically a month) for your usage during that period. Most carriers offer plans on a month-to-month, 12-month or 24-month basis, although the 24-month option is usually tied to a bundled phone.

One benefit to the 24-month option is that you'd definitely get an Australian network-compatible phone with that deal, although you would be liable for the costs of that contract for a full two years. The other advantage of a postpaid contract plan, whether month-to-month or over a set term, is that you can't run out of data, call or text credit. Excess usage is simply added to your bill when relevant.

Australian phone network brands

Telstra

Telstra is the big player in the local market and grew out of the company Telecom back when it was a government-owned entity. Telstra's subscriber base is the envy of its competitors, but it has seen significant competition in recent years for subscriber numbers.

Telstra offers its network wholesale to a number of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), but it sells its own phone services with a distinctly premium flavour, which means there are a number of included extras, such as access to its Telstra Air national Wi-Fi network, free streaming of AFL, NRL and Netball games and quota-free streaming of music through Apple Music.

Telstra's network operates on 3G and 4G frequencies, including its hybrid 4GX network that offers data speeds of up to a (theoretical) 1Gbps. Telstra is often cited as the most reliably available network across Australia, which is due to its large investment in regional and rural centres. If your travel plans within Australia include a lot of travel outside of the major metropolitan or main tourist areas, a Telstra plan (or a plan with a Telstra MVNO) might be a very wise step.

From a compatibility viewpoint, if you want to get the most out of Telstra's phone services, you'll need a 4GX compatible phone, but you won't find that on many manufacturer specification sheets. That's because it's Telstra's marketing term for its specific carrier aggregation approach, which bonds its 700MHz and 1800MHz networks together on compatible devices. If you want to get the most out of Telstra's network, you'll need a phone that supports that carrier aggregation approach on those frequencies, although if your phone doesn't support it, you can still get 4G access, albeit at lower speeds.

Optus

Optus is the nation's second-biggest carrier in terms of subscriber numbers. It's a wholly owned entity of Singaporean brand Singtel and has the second largest network reach in terms of population coverage.

Optus is by far the most widely resold network in Australia through a large number of MVNOs, and it does not differentiate in terms of speeds offered to those partners. Its 700MHz network is its primary 4G tool, although it does offer network access using both FD-LTE and TD-LTE 4G technologies. Its most prominent area with TD-LTE coverage is the nation's capital in Canberra, although there is some network overlap if your phone is only FD-LTE compatible.

Optus sells services on both a prepaid and a contract basis under its own branding as well as through its wholly owned youth-centric subsidiary Virgin Mobile. It sells on a value basis with pretty much every plan including unlimited standard national calls and texts, and many plans also offering features such as access to Optus Sport, its EPL football and cricket streaming service.

Vodafone

Vodafone is a huge brand internationally, but in Australia it's the nation's number three network in terms of coverage and customer numbers. As a network, it's actually a co-owned entity of the merged Vodafone and Three/Hutchison networks. Historically, Three launched the first 3G network in Australia and sold under its own branding for a number of years before merging with Vodafone and adopting that branding.

Vodafone sells its network to a select few MVNO partners with full 4G access. Its network is strongest in metropolitan and large regional centres, with lesser coverage in more remote and rural parts of Australia. Notably, Vodafone didn't commit to the early rounds of the so-called "digital dividend" auction of the 700MHz spectrum that was freed up when Australia switched off its analogue TV services.

It has now purchased a 700MHz spectrum that will be made available to Vodafone in April 2018, although it may take some time for it to fully integrate that spectrum into its consumer offerings.

Vodafone offers its own branded network services in a fiercely competitive manner against Telstra and Optus, with a focus on switchable components for its postpaid offerings such as international call inclusions or larger data bonuses. Depending on your usage patterns and travel plans, Vodafone could be a good choice.

Other mobile operator choices

While Telstra, Optus and Vodafone operate the networks, they all sell access to a variety of MVNOs. If you're looking to save a little money while travelling, an MVNO may be a good way to go about that. Optus and Vodafone don't differentiate between their own networks and their MVNO partners, although Telstra does offer a slightly smaller network map and limits access to only parts of its 3G and 4G networks rather than the full speed 4GX equivalent.

Here's the current layout of provider brands and the networks they actually connect to:

Primary NetworkNetwork used by these brands
TelstraTelstra, Boost, ALDIMobile, Better Life Mobile, Cmobile (Blue), Lycamobile, MeU Mobile, Southern, Telechoice, Think (Classic), Woolworths Mobile
OptusOptus, Virgin Mobile, amaysim, Barefoot Telecom, Bendigo Bank Telecom, Coles Mobile, Dodo, Exetel, Jeenee, iiNet, LiveConnected, OVO, Southern, Vaya, Yomojo
VodafoneVodafone, Cmobile (Red), Hello Mobile, GoTalk, KISS Mobile, Kogan Mobile, Lebara, TPG, Think (Ultimate, Swift, Simple 12)

Can I change carriers?

Australia supports full mobile device and number portability, which means that once you've signed up for a SIM and an Australian phone number, you're free to swap it between networks and providers without a specific penalty for doing so.

Your only commitment is whatever you agreed to in your contract. For postpaid contracts, that's typically the time left on your contract. You can cancel most prepaid contracts at will, but you will lose any existing prepaid contract value when doing so.

Can I call overseas?

With very few limitations (usually to do with specific regions in conflict or where a trade sanction exists) Australian mobile networks fully support international calling. Be aware that your use of such services are generally in addition to any "call quota" your plan may offer you, although some plans and SIMs do include a quantity of either international calling credit or international calling minutes, usually to specified locations.

The flip side of this is that if your friends or relatives want to call your Australian number they can do so, but they'll pay whatever international rate their carrier charges them for the call. Australia's international calling code is 61, which they'll need to append to your number when calling you. In Australia, you are not charged for receiving standard calls or SMS messages, although some premium subscription services do charge for these services.

Can I keep my existing number?

If you're coming in from overseas with an existing number given to you by your local carrier, you won't be able to keep that number with any Australian carrier. In that situation, your best bet would probably be to opt for a dual SIM phone to house one Australian SIM for local usage and your international SIM for incoming calls. Be sure to check what charges your local carrier may bill you for in relation to roaming charges, including receiving calls.

Which phone option is cheapest?

Generally speaking, if you want to maximise your mobile spend and limit cost blowouts, prepaid plans are the way to go because you simply can't spend over your limit. That's especially true if you're not spending all that long in Australia because there's no point tying yourself down to a long-term contract if you're only here in the short term. It's becoming increasingly common, even in the prepaid space, for SIM-only plans to include unlimited standard national calls and texts, although not all do and it's worth restating that this coverage is for calls to Australian mobiles only.

That being said, if you're here for a longer spell, contract postpaid SIM-only plans typically include larger data quotas than their post-paid equivalents, which could be useful if you're busy on social media a lot, sending pictures online for your friends back home to see.

In the comparison chart below, we've pre-selected simple, prepaid SIM-only plans with moderate amounts of data to give you an idea of what's available, but you can adjust any figure you like to suit your particular needs by clicking on "Filter results" below.

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2 Responses

  1. Default Gravatar
    mohammedOctober 7, 2017

    I use mobiles the same way I use landlines, only for the purpose of making and receiving phone calls, not even for texting. As such, would the new “Nokia 3310 3G” function on the Telestra network? I asked Telestra but they muttered some mumbo jumbo about frequency. They never wanted to say yes or no. Can you answer the question in one sentence? :-)

    • Staff
      JhezelynOctober 7, 2017Staff

      Hi Mohammed,

      Thank you for your comment.

      The Nokia 3310 3G model (with its legendary 6 and a half hours talk time, and 27 days of standby time) will be available for $89.95 from mid-October in Charcoal, Azure (a lovely blue and silver) and Red. You’ll be able to pick one up from JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman, Telstra and Vodafone.

      Regards,
      Jhezelyn

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