Just get a $2 throwaway SIM, they said

January 23, 2012

I’m heading off to the US in less than six weeks, and am taking my smartphone with me. I want to use it as my modem for my laptop where there isn’t free WiFi (yeah, I need to figure out how to do that…), so I need to get a SIM that is either a US SIM or a global SIM. I’m on a contract with Telstra in Australia and if I use their SIM plus international roaming, I could be up for thousands (yes, thousands) of dollars on my phone bill for just two weeks in the US.

I checked the Whirlpool forums online (a great source of Australian information on all things techie and geeky), and the general consensus is that I need to unlock my phone with Telstra and get another SIM. The suggestions included purchasing a $2 SIM card from another provider and testing that the phone is unlocked with that SIM before committing to purchase one that will work in the US without the exorbitant charges from Telstra. And to do this before I leave Australia. I also went into the local Telstra Business Centre and asked the lady I know there about it, and she said I shouldn’t have to pay a fee for unlocking, told me what I had to do (she couldn’t do it from there), and also suggested buying another carrier’s $2 SIM and testing that the unlocking had worked.

So, when I was in the supermarket the other day, I asked about SIM cards and was sent to the Customer Service counter where they have the cigarettes under lock and key and hidden from view, and from where they also sell SIM cards. In front of the Customer Service counter was a bin of $2 SIMs from Vodaphone, so I grabbed one and put it on the counter along with my $2.

But it wasn’t that simple. The lady behind the counter said she needed to fill in a form for me to buy the $2 SIM. A form? For a $2 purchase? You’ve got to be kidding! But no… a LONG official form from the Australian Government, on which she was required to fill in my name, address, drivers license number and other details. All for a $2 SIM.

The form had the Australian Government coat of arms on it followed by ‘Australian Communications and Media Authority‘ and a logo for the AMTA (Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association). On further investigation of the AMTA website I found this: http://www.amta.org.au/pages/Pre-paid.ID.Forms, which says:

“Under Federal Government regulations, mobile service providers are required to collect, verify and store and, on lawful request, retrieve identity and address information about purchasers and users of pre-paid mobile phone services.”

There are copies of the official forms here: http://www.amta.org.au/pages/Forms.in.use.for.Pre-paid.ID.Check

In addition, the customer service lady had to hunt a list of handwritten numbers (how long did it take for someone in the supermarket to write that list?), then write my details next to the code number for the $2 SIM pack I was purchasing.

All up, the whole process of purchasing a $2 SIM took some 15+ minutes of her time and mine. That’s not counting the time taken for someone to hand write that list of codes (and hopefully not make a mistake — these codes are 10+ digits long), someone to collect the forms at the end of each day and mail them to Canberra. Unbelievable.

I still haven’t broken open the $2 SIM packet or unlocked my phone with Telstra, so I don’t know if/how it will work, but I’ll try that in the next day or so. What I did notice on the back of the $2 SIM packet was that there was no talk time/data time with the SIM — I’d have to purchase that separately from Vodafone, and, from their website, it looks as though the MINIMUM I can purchase is $29.

As of right now it’s cost me:

  • $2 for the SIM
  • 15 minutes getting the form filled in so I can purchase the $2 SIM

I expect further ‘costs’:

  • $29 for the minimum recharge amount to test out my $2 SIM
  • 15+ minutes on hold to Telstra to get my phone unlocked

Then once I’ve got that all sorted, I’ll need to order and pay for a US network-compatible SIM. And test using my phone as a modem when I’m on the road.

So much for a ‘throwaway $2 SIM card’!

What do the ordinary people who travel do? Just suck up the Telstra charges, or not use their phones for anything except an emergency? This is too hard.

Update 23 January 2012: I called the Telstra ‘unlocking team’ (125 111) today to unlock my HTC Sensation phone. After going through the voice prompts and feeling like a dill for answering Yes, No, Unlock, etc. into an empty room, I got shunted and shoved between three Indian call center personnel, before finally getting one who told me that my HTC Sensation with Telstra doesn’t need to be unlocked because it already is! So why isn’t that on the Telstra website? And why did it take three lots of ‘on hold’ music and three voices I found hard to understand before I was told this??

If you’re reading this and are also on a Telstra contract, it seems the only phone you need to unlock is the iPhone. The phone number for unlocking that I called was 125 111, and one of the people I spoke to said the direct number was 1300 720 179, just in case it’s useful to you.

Next step: Swap out the SIM and activate the phone with Vodaphone…


  1. Yeah. But look at it this way: it could be worse. You could drop the sim card somewhere overseas near a terrorist target and then b

  2. … oops (small keyboard on phone)…

    .. and then be on the official terrorist list of the Feds..
    Which is presumably the reason 4 all that paperwork.

  3. I go through this about once a year when I get a new SIM for my Telstra Bigpond pay-as-you-go modem (works out cheaper when camping than using my contract data plan).
    The small print in these SIM purchase agreement forms references “international treaty obligations” – so I’m not totally sure we can blame our pollies entirely for this mess… The pressure to gather lots of user data before giving you a SIM seems to come from beyond our shores.

  4. On my Singapore holiday last year, I made a point of buying a SIM when I arrived. I had worked out which one I wanted and where the closest outlet to my hotel was weeks before I left Australia – a 15 minute walk there, 5 minutes of waiting and paperwork, another few minutes of activation back at the hotel, and I was done.

    Only needed it for one client emergency, but was very handy for travel research.

  5. 2 broad suggestions

    1 You must have some contacts in the US. Ask them what they suggest.

    2 Buy an el cheapo phone when you get there. Aust phones and calls are so expensive compared to the rest of the world and you will do as well jsut buying everything off shore.

    In HK and China there is absolutely no requirement to register your name etc. It’s an aust govt thing and for far more than terrorism reasons.

    When we have gone to HK we have just bought a cheap phone Nokia there (could have got a really gee whiz 2nd hand one if we could have waited an hour or so to go to teh right street) and bought a card there for next to nothing. Every 4th or 5th shop seems to sells phones so it is not necessary to walk more than 50 metres from a hotel to get connected.

  6. Could the amount of info have something to do with drug trafficing as well, or have I been watching too much of The Wire? (It’s an HBO series for those of you who don’t know.)

  7. Hi Rhonda

    Why did you bother buying a $2 sim? Surely you know someone that has a phone with a sim card other than a Tel$tra sim? :)

    All you need to do is put the “other” sim card in and ensure it finds the network and can connect. That will confirm your phone is unlocked.

    The US has millions of places where you can buy a sim card.. You do need to be aware that some of the US mobile phone frequencies are different and ensure that YOUR phone will work the way you need it to.

    From my experience in 2007 T-Mobile was probably about the best. It’s very easy to buy a sim and to update its value. (just as it is here in Australia)

    Kind regards


  8. Hi Irene

    I have a US el cheapo phone — but it isn’t a smartphone on which I can get data such as emails, websites etc. I really don’t want to buy yet another phone just for two weeks.

    I’ve also gone down the route of activating a phone in the US. It’s long and fairly painful (I think the longest it took was about 3 hours of to and fro on several phone calls from my family member’s phone).

    Also, with a new phone, I have to set up all my contacts again — also a long and painful process — and let my close Aussie contacts and my US contacts know my new number (I may have to do the new number notification thing with a global SIM too).


  9. The info collected about users is for crime control in general. Everytime we log on we have a unique number. I’m no techo but many of you will know this. All providers of services are reqd by law to keep records of these numbers for a certain time.

    Then when a crime is commited online they can track back through that number and the details Rhonda filled in.

    I am no expert on all this but i believe if you want to go online secretly you need to do it through an internet cafe because you are not personally identified.

    I have heard the details of an Australian investigation of an online crime that successfully went to court and the person was found guilty. All the details that were collected are used to work back to identify the perpetrator. It was not a terrorist crime.

    So beware big brother is alive and well.

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