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The iPhone user's Down Under travel guide

If you own an iPhone and you're traveling to Australia or New Zealand, you might be wondering how your handset will work Down Under. The good news: as long as you have a GSM-model iPhone (i.e., not the Verizon iPhone), and as long as it's unlocked, your iPhone will work just fine down here. But there are still some tips you'll need to get the most out of your iPhone on our corner of Earth.

First of all, if you want to use your iPhone's voice and data features overseas without hunting for WiFi hotspots, you have two options. First, you can stick with your current SIM and pay your carrier's international roaming fees, but these are usually extortionately expensive, especially for data. For instance, with AT&T you'll pay over a dollar per megabyte for data on a DataConnect Pass-Global plan. Things are even worse with many international carriers; my carrier, Vodafone NZ, charges NZ$5 per megabyte to roam in Australia, and $10 per megabyte in most other countries. Given the high cost of international roaming, even very light overseas usage can add up to more than your monthly bill; heavy usage (and poor planning) can lead to charges in the thousands of dollars.

A much cheaper alternative is to unlock your iPhone and buy a pre-pay SIM from an overseas carrier, then switch back to your normal SIM when you return to your home country. Ask your local telco nicely if they'll unlock your iPhone for international travel; if you're with AT&T, well, good luck with that. Alternatively, just jailbreak the thing and unlock it that way. You can always revert to standard firmware when you return home. It's important to note again that the Verizon iPhone is completely incompatible with all networks in Australia and New Zealand, and it will basically be nothing more than an expensive iPod touch for the duration of your stay.

Click "Read More" for some country-specific tips on getting the most out of your iPhone in Oceania.

Australia

You're spoiled for choice in Oz, with three major telcos all technically suited to the iPhone. Coverage in urban areas is excellent, even several meters underground in Melbourne's train stations. If your iPhone is unlocked, getting a pre-pay SIM for it is as simple as walking into one of the carriers' shops and paying for one; activation is a simple process, and you'll be off and running in less than an hour. Unlike US carriers, none of the Australian carriers charge extra to tether your iPhone to a computer, but you'll chew through your data allowance relatively quickly if you do so.

Telstra and Optus both seem to have good coverage and pre-pay plans with reasonable data rates, but avoid Vodafone Australia like the plague. I used Vodafone AU on a recent trip to Melbourne, and the service was the worst I've ever experienced. During the week I spent in Melbourne, data performance on my iPhone 4 was abysmally slow, with even simple text-only webpages requiring multiple attempts to get them to load at all. Even something as simple as checking my Twitter stream could take as long as five minutes before anything successfully loaded. During the best of times (usually in the wee hours of the morning) performance was relatively snappy, but by midday I was experiencing sub-GPRS speeds even in areas with four or five bars of 3G coverage. Image-heavy webpages often refused to load at all, and I didn't even attempt to use any video services. Paradoxically, iPhone tethering to my wife's MacBook seemed to perform substantially better than browsing on the iPhone itself, but the speed was still subpar.

I'd initially put this poor service down to the fact that I was in Melbourne, a city of over 3 million people that's absolutely saturated with iPhone users, during both the Australian Open and Australia Day. But I'm not alone in my poor experience with Vodafone AU; a friend in Australia confirmed her service through Vodafone has deteriorated badly over the past year. Vodafone AU's data service has been so poor for so many that at least 9000 customers are preparing a class action lawsuit against the company.

If you haven't got the message by now, here it is simply stated. If you want to use your iPhone in Australia, here's the rough order of preference for your choices:

  1. Pre-pay on Telstra or Optus
  2. Turn off 3G data and hunt for WiFi
  3. Hook a telegraph machine up to your iPhone
  4. Use smoke signals
  5. International roaming
  6. Leave your iPhone at home
  7. Pre-pay on Vodafone

As of yet I have no personal experience with rural coverage in Oz, but if you're heading into the Outback, you'll probably want a satellite phone anyway. Vast swathes of Australia's interior have no cell coverage whatsoever, which isn't particularly surprising considering the climate, terrain, and low population. Coverage maps for all three major telcos show that the iPhone 4 should enjoy voice and data coverage throughout most of the populated areas of the country. However, because they don't support 900 MHz UMTS/HSDPA, the iPhone 3GS and 3G will have more limited coverage, with 3G data usually limited to only the metropolitan areas of the largest cities. If you still have an original iPhone, it should theoretically work on the EDGE networks in Australia, but there's no guarantees.

If you'd rather not deal with any of the carriers and want to leave 3G turned off for the duration of your trip, you'll find that free WiFi is nowhere near as widespread as it is in the US. When I visited Melbourne, I found that its central business district had a few places which offered free WiFi, but they were few and far between. According to my wife most McDonald's restaurants have free WiFi, but most other locations' WiFi is either locked down or for-pay.

This probably doesn't matter to you, but it's worth noting iPhone users are anything but precious or unique snowflakes in Australia. iPhone marketshare among smartphones is something like 80 percent in Australia, and the things are everywhere -- over 5 percent of all web browsing in Australia happens on an iOS device. If you expect to receive a lot of calls while in Australia, make sure you have a uniquely identifiable ringtone; I heard just about all of the built-in standard tones at some point during my stay, with "Old Phone" being a particularly popular choice.

The 3G iPad should work fine on any of Australia's networks, and it has the added benefit of not being locked to a specific carrier. The first-gen iPad will have the same limited data coverage as the iPhone 3GS or 3G due to its lack of support for 900 MHz 3G networks, but this is something I'd expect to change in the iPad 2 since the iPhone 4 gained support for this frequency last year.

I have less experience with Australia-specific apps than NZ-specific ones, but I wanted to give a shoutout to one app in particular that made my stay in Melbourne extremely pleasant: Metlink Melbourne. This app contains a searchable database of timetables and locations for all forms of public transport in Melbourne, and its search functionality is very powerful. You can pick any two spots on a map of the city, and Metlink will find multiple alternatives to get you from point A to point B, including trains, trams, and buses. Without this app, navigating through Melbourne's somewhat complex transit system would have been far more difficult; with Metlink, finding my way around Melbourne was easy as pie. Best part? The app is free, although you'll have to find a WiFi hotspot to download it since the app is over 20 MB.

Metlink helps make sense out of spaghetti

Speaking of free WiFi, Australia's largest cities have full-fledged Apple Stores which offer that service, and they're virtually identical to the ones in the US. The only differences? The stores are full of Australians instead of Americans, and they have much higher prices than in the States. If you're from the US and thinking of going on a shopping excursion in Oz, think again; prices are anywhere from 150 to 200 percent higher depending on the product. In an emergency you could probably get your iPhone or iPad serviced in an AU Apple Store, but getting an outright replacement might be difficult if you're an international iPhone user.

Look familiar?

Overall you'll find that using an iPhone in Australia is a pleasant experience (as long as you steer well clear of Vodafone) and probably not much different from using it in your home country. You'll be pretty astonished at the number of fellow iPhone users you'll see, though, even if you're coming from the States.

New Zealand

Much like Australia, getting an unlocked iPhone on one of New Zealand's networks is a relatively simple matter, though your choices are more expensive, more limited, and more complex. Because they lack support for 900 MHz UMTS/HSDPA, the iPhone 3GS and 3G are better-suited to Telecom XT's network, which works on 850 MHz. On Vodafone NZ, those older handsets will instead be on an agonizingly slow GPRS connection anywhere outside the central business district of major cities. In a drastic contrast to Vodafone AU, Vodafone NZ's service is far more robust, especially if you're on an iPhone 4. Because it works on 900 MHz, the iPhone 4 enjoys much better support on Vodafone's network, with 3G coverage in most well-populated areas. Most rural areas will still be on GPRS with Vodafone, but that's an improvement over Telecom, which often has no mobile broadband service at all in farther-flung areas of NZ. Don't even bother bringing a first-gen iPhone here, because it'll only work on GPRS, only on Vodafone, and even then it's finicky about connecting.

The iPhone 4 will work equally well on either telco, so which you choose depends where you'll be during your stay. If you'll spend more time in urban areas, go with Telecom, whose new XT network features improved speed compared to Vodafone. If you'll spend time outside the main cities, Vodafone has slightly slower but more extensive coverage. 2Degrees is also a good third choice if you're going to be in one of the major cities (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, or Queenstown), but you'll want to be very conservative with your data if you'll be spending any time outside of those limited areas. All networks allow iPhone tethering for free, but you'll want to keep an even more hawkish eye on your data consumption in NZ than in Australia.

Overall you'll find data speeds in New Zealand are highly dependent on your location. In Auckland and Wellington, coverage and speed are both quite good, often rivaling the speed of home broadband in less-populated parts of the country. In smaller cities with 3G coverage, speed varies widely; where I live, the speed generally hovers around 700 - 1000 Kbps for me. Speed on Vodafone's 900 MHz extended 3G network is generally equivalent to a very slow DSL connection in the States, while GPRS is basically wireless dialup. As far as I know, there aren't any EDGE networks in New Zealand at all, which is partly why bringing a first-gen iPhone here isn't such a good idea.

Free WiFi is all but nonexistent in New Zealand. Even most hotels and holiday parks charge by the minute to connect to their WiFi, and the rates are not cheap. You won't find any unsecured networks here, either, so forget about "wardriving" or anything similar. Data is such a costly commodity in NZ that people know better than to let passersby piggyback off their networks.

Like the iPhone 3GS and 3G, the first-gen 3G iPad is better-suited to Telecom's network because of antenna limitations. Again, this is something I'd expect to change for the iPad 2, which should theoretically have 900 MHz support and therefore enjoy the same network coverage as the iPhone 4 on Vodafone. Both Telecom and Vodafone offer data plans and micro-SIMs for the iPad, but the data allowances are nowhere near as generous (or generously priced) as they are in Australia (or, really, almost anywhere else in the world). Data in NZ doesn't come cheap.

There are no official Apple Stores anywhere in New Zealand, so if something goes wrong with your device, you are pretty much out of luck until you go back home. Theoretically you could possibly cajole either Vodafone or Telecom into sending your iPhone to Brightpoint, NZ's only official point of repair, but this is pretty unlikely if you're an international user. Even if you do convince them to repair your device, you'll likely pay all repair costs out of pocket and wait a week or more for it to get back to you. Bottom line: don't break your iPhone in NZ.

I've used a ton of NZ-specific iPhone apps since moving here, and they're well-suited to travelers looking for quick access to country-specific information while they're in the country. Four apps in particular will make it easy for travelers to find info on just about anything they might need to look for, and they're all free and available on the US App Store (if you're in another country, availability may vary).

1. Yellow NZ is the white and yellow pages for all of New Zealand condensed into one app. You can search by category, name, location, or nearby services. Not only will the app provide you with phone numbers and addresses, it'll also give you the option to call from within the app, location maps, links to directions, and even hours of operation for many businesses. It's a very powerful app, though it does require a data connection in order to work.

2. Find NZ is similar to Yellow in that it allows you to search for locations based on categories, but you can't search for individuals like you can in Yellow's white pages. Where Find NZ trumps Yellow is its offline database; even without a data connection, you can still search through a nationwide database of businesses and attractions with the same type of information included as Yellow NZ. If you're a savvy traveler and plan your trip far enough ahead, you could theoretically get away with not having a data connection the entire time you're in New Zealand if you won't be doing any email or web surfing. That's how powerful Find NZ's offline database functionality is.

3. menus.co.nz is a searchable database of NZ restaurants, complete with phone numbers, addresses, maps, opening hours, and even reviews in some cases. The app has a very intuitive interface that allows you to find locations close to you very quickly, or you can search anywhere in the country.

4. Flicks NZ contains a searchable database of both cinemas and films. The app will show you phone numbers and locations for the nearest cinemas (or those you search for), and it will also show you what's playing there, complete with session times. Searching by film offers descriptions, trailers, reviews, and session times at nearby cinemas.

Considering the low population, rugged terrain, and geographic isolation, New Zealand's networks are actually surprisingly advanced given the conditions. I griped about New Zealand's wireless infrastructure a couple years ago, but after seeing what US iPhone users have had to put up with from AT&T and what Australians get from Vodafone, my attitude has done a 180. Coverage is fairly extensive, especially on the North Island, and while the speeds aren't going to blow your hair back, you'll likely still find 3G perfectly serviceable if you have an iPhone 4. The big caveat here is that data plan caps in NZ are both relatively restrictive and quite expensive, so don't expect to do a lot of cheap, heavy web surfing while you're here. Then again, if you're just visiting New Zealand for a week or two, there are a lot better things to do than mess about on the internet anyway.

Hopefully this guide will help you out on your adventures in Oceania. Admittedly I have less experience with Australia's networks than New Zealand's, so I may have left something out. If you have any other questions about getting your iPhone or iPad online down here, let us know in the comments.



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If you own an iPhone and you're traveling to Australia or New Zealand, you might be wondering how your handset will work Down Under. The...