When looking for a new mobile phone plan, or even after you've signed on the dotted line of your new contract, it's easy to forget you have certain rights. In fact, under the 2012 Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCP) and Australian Consumer Law (ACL), consumers have a bunch of them.

As a consumer of mobile phone products and services, you have the right to:

  1. Cancel your contract if the telco or salesperson has made false or misleading claims, or if the product or service doesn't do what it is supposed to.
  2. Compare phone plans in a way that's easy to understand, with access to critical information summaries outlining a unit price and key information before signing on to a contract. 
  3. Be protected from bill shock with data usage notifications and global roaming cost notifications.
  4. Have your phone last the length of the contract on which you've bought it.
  5. Have your disputes resolved in an efficient and satisfactory manner, and at no cost. 
  6. Pay your bill in a flexible manner if you're experiencing payment difficulties.

Useful telco resources

Your top six mobile phone and contract rights:

1. Cancel your contract without penalty under certain circumstances

While telcos are allowed to charge you if you terminate your contract early, under the Australian Consumer Law you can cancel your contract early without penalty under certain circumstances.

These circumstances include:

Jeannie Paterson, a consumer rights and contract law expert from the University of Melbourne, says that if consumers don't get what they're promised, they have a right to terminate. She also argues that if there are extra charges not disclosed in what's called the Critical Information Summary (CIS), consumers should be able to terminate their contract.

The two most common instances where the right to terminate are around coverage and price changes, says Paterson.

Coverage If you're told you'll get coverage in your home, then your phone must provide coverage. Optus recently had to allow its customers to cancel their contracts after it was found to have made misleading claims about its level of coverage. Check the telco's coverage map on their website or ask the salesperson before committing to a contract.

Price change You also have the right to cancel your contract early if the telco changes the terms of the contract, for example by announcing a price rise. While most telcos can and do reserve the right to change the terms, they can't force you to go along with it. If you don't agree, you'll have to cancel your contract, which can be tricky if you have a handset that may be half paid off. You'll either have to pay the telco out for your phone or return it and lose your equity in it, says Paterson. 

As an aside, under both the TCP and the ACL, telcos can't include unfair terms. What constitutes "unfair" can vary, but if ruled unfair by the court, the clause is void.

2. Compare phone offers free from misleading advertising

Choosing the best mobile phone plan can be confusing. The good news is all mobile phone companies must now provide you a CIS, which is designed to help you compare offers more simply. 

The CIS must provide you with unit pricing for:

  • a national two-minute mobile call, including flag fall;
  • a standard SMS;  
  • the cost of using 1MB of data; 
  • and it must specify 
  • the minimum monthly charges; and
  • say what is and isn't included in the offer. 

There are also strict rules under the TCP on how mobile phone companies can advertise their services, ultimately to avoid consumers being misled. Any important conditions, limitations, qualifications and restrictions must be included in the advertising.

As an example, a headline representation giving an overall impression of price that is subsequently qualified in the fine print is not allowed. TPG was fined for this in 2013. Its misleading advertisements suggested an unlimited internet service was available for $29.99 a month, however the small print said it had to be bundled with another service such as a home phone.

Telcos must also refrain from using terms such as "unlimited", "free" or "no exceptions, exclusions or catches" unless this is genuinely the case.

3. Be protected from bill shock with notifications

Data usage - data or expenditure allowance

Major telcos are required to send notifications via SMS or email when users reach 50%, 85% and 100% of their data or expenditure allowance within 48 hours (small telcos are only required to send notifications about call and SMS usage as of 1 September 2014). 

Once you reach 100%, you must be notified of the charges to proceed – but you could still be charged for any excess data usage during the 48-hour notification window, and it doesn't apply to usage outside of Australia.

Your telco also needs to offer you one other "spend management tool" such as internet throttling (where the speed slows once you reach your cap), hard caps (so you can't spend more than the cap until the next billing period) or call barring (where all or some outbound calls are restricted except 000, but you can still receive calls).

Global roaming 

Under the International Roaming Standard, telcos are required to send you an SMS outlining usage costs within 10 minutes of turning on your device in the new country, as well as giving you instructions on how to turn off roaming. Optus, Telstra and Vodafone have already begun doing this, and smaller telcos will be required to do so by 2016.

To avoid the high costs of global roaming, people wanting to use their mobiles when travelling should consider alternative means such as roaming data packs, pre-paid global roaming SIM cards and/or free Wi-Fi hotspots. 

4. Have your phone last the length of your contract

If you buy your phone handset by signing onto a two-year contract with a telco, the ACCC believes it's a reasonable expectation that any phone provided last the length of this contract. And provided any faults with the phone are not your doing, under Australian Consumer Law (ACL) you can return the phone to either the manufacturer or retail store where it was bought for a repair or refund within a "reasonable time" if it is not fit for purpose. 

Along with your rights under the ACL, OptusTelstra, and Vodafone now offer 24-month express repair warranties for mobiles on 24-month post-paid contracts. And Apple also has two-year express warranties for its products.

5. The right to complain

You have the right to have your complaint resolved in a fair, efficient and courteous manner and at no cost (except for in select circumstances).

If you run into trouble, the first thing to do is to try to resolve it with your telco. Urgent complaints must be resolved within two days, and non-urgent complaints must have a proposed resolution offered within 15 days and resolved within 10 days of you accepting that resolution. 

If your telco doesn't deal with it, or if it doesn't offer a reasonable solution, you can take your complaint to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO). 

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has published a guide on making a complaint that will get heard.

6. Access to hardship programs if you're having difficulty paying

If you're having trouble paying your bill on time due to financial difficulty or illness, but believe you could pay the bill if provided with a flexible arrangement, you should let you telco know this. All telcos must provide hardship policies and can't take debt recovery action while you're being assessed for their financial hardship program. 

Financial hardship programs may vary slightly from telco to telco, but should generally offer you a flexible payment option such as a payment plan. If you're deemed to be experiencing financial hardship and you'll be paying after the due date, ask your mobile provider to waive any late fees.