Finding Free Wireless Internet in New Zealand

Last modified on January 2nd, 2014

New Zealand: Beautiful, but hard to stay connected

Unless you are coming from Australia, you’ll likely arrive in New Zealand and be instantly surprised with how hard it is to find usable Internet, or how much money you have to pay to get online. Sure, some coffee shops give you 30 minutes of free time with the purchase of a coffee, but that’s hardly enough time to send a few emails or check in with friends and family on Facebook. If you want to do anything useful, such as upload photos or do a few online chats with people back home, you’re going to find it very difficult all over New Zealand unless you’re willing to shell out $3-$5 an hour whenever you do find it. Even if you do shell out any money to get online, you will likely have a bare-bones data-cap to contend with, often only 50MB or so for a one hour session.

New Zealand: Beautiful, but hard to stay connected

I was in New Zealand in 2011 for a period of one month, and probably spent close to $150 to be able to use the Internet during the day for my job back in North America. That’s a huge bummer, but not completely unmanageable, especially since I knew I would likely have to shell out extra money before arriving. I lucked out a little bit in that I just missed the Rugby World Cup by one week, and most of the downtown core in Auckland was set up to provide free wireless internet, which I was able to make use of more than a few times.

I was hoping in the two years since being here that the Internet situation had improved in New Zealand, but I actually think it’s gotten worse. For one, the Rugby World Cup has moved on, and with it so did the 24-7 free internet in downtown Auckland. It’s been replaced with a new system that allows each person to receive 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi per day.

I doubt most Kiwis care too much about the lack of usable Wi-Fi in their country, and several Auckland businesses have even expressed displeasure at the current system of free 30 minute Wi-Fi, saying it encourages people to simply sit in coffee shops and restaurants without ordering anything (which happens in other parts of the world as well). But as a tourist, it’s definitely a huge disappointment when you have to pay every time you want to use the internet, or spend $5 on a coffee in Starbucks or Esquires just to get 30 minutes of usage. Since so much of New Zealand’s economy is based on tourism after The Lord of the Rings and Avatar movies, I definitely hope they make a concerted effort to improve the situation.

As is, New Zealand is one of the most expensive destinations in the world for tourism, often costing more than $1,000 just for a plane ticket to arrive. And once you do arrive, you’ll likely spend $150 or more a day, even when making a concerted effort to save money. So asking tourists to pay every time they want to get online feels a bit like adding insult to injury, especially since the Internet is essentially ubiquitous in many parts of the world, including most third-world countries I’ve been to. I remember being in the middle of a rice-field in Bali, Indonesia, and being able to find fast Wi-Fi without a data-cap. Ditto for Peru, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina and pretty much every other first, second and third-world country I’ve ever visited (up to 31). So there’s really not much of an excuse for a first-world country like New Zealand in this day and age.

Last year Stephen Fry visited New Zealand to film his parts for The Hobbit and he urged Kiwis to publicly revolt against their ‘pathetic’ internet:

[New Zealand has] has probably the worst broadband I’ve ever encountered. Turns itself off, slows to a crawl. Pathetic

I think Comcast style throttling… for the economy it’s disastrous, for visitors for everyone. It won’t stop illegal bit torrentinf [sic]. Makes as much sense as closing a lane of traffic because there’s congestion.

Yes, kiwi land is remote, but if Avatar can be made here and NZ wants to keep its rep for being the loveable, easy-going, outdoorsy yet tech savvy place it is, then pressure @telecomnz into offering better packages.

Come on New Zealand. You’re world champions at rugby & filmmaking. Pressure the providers to stop [NZ] being a digital embarrassment.

Most Kiwis agreed with his assessment, but many basically responded saying if he didn’t like it he could go home. But as someone who has traveled to many countries, I personally find the Internet in New Zealand lacking. If Bali (another very small island) can have Wi-Fi in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard for me to understand how New Zealand can’t make it happen.

If you’re looking for some magic formula to find free internet in New Zealand, unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You best bet is to check out coffee shops as you pass by and ask ahead of time which ones offer free Wi-Fi. If you’re in Auckland there are a few open Wi-Fi networks on Queen Street that you can often hit while sitting on a bench. Starbucks currently offers 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi with a purchase, and Esquires offers a full hour. You’ll have to make a purchase to use it, which will set you back at least $2.50 or so, even for a water.

You can also get a one-month Vodafone Travel SIM for $55 NZD which includes 2GB worth of data and allows tethering. I picked up one myself in the Auckland airport, and have been using it in my unlocked iPhone 5, mostly to send text messages back home and occasionally fire up Google Maps. 2GB goes pretty quick if you’re uploading photos and video, and likely won’t last you more than a few days if you are tethering to a computer. But it’s another good option to have if you need to be online while in New Zealand or are trying to do occasional work remotely.

So while you can find a few places that offer ‘free internet’ in New Zealand, you will almost always have to make a purchase and be limited in both time and data when you use it. It’s not ideal obviously, but for now it’s likely all you are going to be able to find.

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