How to: get a phone (number) in Spain
One of the most important things when you go abroad in this day and age is ensuring you have access to a phone that works in the country where you are. You don’t want to be paying astronomical fees for roaming or international texting or find that you’re unable connect to the local network in the case of needing to make a call. Furthermore, you’re probably going to want the internet and access to GoogleMaps and Whatsapp* at your fingertips.
However, I know that obtaining a phone and/or SIM card and plan may be something you’ve never personally done before, so let me explain some of the basics to ensure you feel comfortable going about it in Spain. First off, here is some helpful vocab you’ll be happy to know before you start the process:
- liberar tu móvil: get your phone unlocked
- tarjeta de SIM: SIM card
- número de teléfono: telephone number
- prepago: pre-paid plan (generally consists of a small fee taken out of your account each month for data and limited calls and SMS)
- saldo: the money you load onto your account to be deducted each month when a prepago payment is due or used for phone calls/SMSs if you go beyond what is included in the pre-paid plan
- recargar (el móvil): to “fill up” your phone’s saldo (this can be done at your phone company’s store or website as well as at estancos [tobacco shops] and some other stores)
- contrato: contract (generally consists of a year-long agreement with the phone company and requires a NIE, or foreigner’s identification number, not a passport)
- datos para navegar: literally “data to surf,” using one or both of these words will help you express a desire to have internet or “GBs” (gigas) included in your plan
Now, first thing’s first― you must decide if you will use your American phone or buy a new device altogether for Spain. Using your American phone might feel like the most comfortable option but keep in mind that you will need to ‘unlock’ your phone in order to use it with a European SIM card and this might affect your plan back home. I highly recommend talking to your American phone company before leaving for Spain to find out what their policy is. Some companies will unlock it for you themselves whereas others will tell you that unlocking will break your contract, resulting in fees and issues with service upon your return.
If you decide to unlock and use your American phone, the next choice is whether to do so in the States or Spain. Each option comes with its pros and cons―in the US, you are familiar with the companies and can make a pretty well-informed decision about the reputability of the place you are taking it; however, this is usually a costly service. In Spain, it could cost you as little as 5€ but keep in mind that not every storefront that offers to liberar tu móvil can be trusted. If you go this route, be sure to ask around for the locals’ advice and, as a general rule, only go through with the service if the store is willing to unlock it while you wait.
If you decide to buy a new phone in Spain, there’s less preparations to worry about before you come, but still be sure to take some time to think about what you are looking for in your new phone. Perhaps you are only going to be in Spain for a few months and therefore it is not pertinent to have a high-quality operating system; however you DO want to have a decent camera. Or perhaps you want to take this opportunity to buy an awesome new phone that can replace your current phone when you return**.
Pro Tip: Shop around at a chain like The Phone House to get an idea of the models available as well as the phone plans of all the major phone companies. Whether you talk with an associate and purchase your phone/SIM there or simply grab their catalog to peruse at home and then go to the company of your choice, this can save you time and money as you’ll be able to compare side-by-side and choose the plan that works best for.
Whichever way you go, the final choice comes down to choosing a traditional plan (contrato) or a pre-paid plan (prepago). If you are staying for less than a year, you’ll probably have to go with the prepago option, but I absolutely recommend it either way. I’ll be honest with you, after 3+ years here, I still haven’t figured out what the draw of a contract is here in Spain. Perhaps it helps if you want to pay off an expensive phone month-by-month, but most people I know with a traditional contract pay 30€ (or more) a month, whereas I pay 10€ for pre-paid. (Perhaps the draw is in bundle packages that include phone, home internet, TV, etc. but that's another conversation.)
I tend to go for the smallest package as I have wifi at home and don’t make many phone calls or send any SMSs, but my prepago monthly plan still comes with 2GB of data, 50 minutes for calls, and some SMSs. There are small fees for calls or messages after I use those up (which is deducted from the saldo I load onto my account), but I personally almost never need to pay for more. As long as I stop into an estanco (tobacco shop) to recargar el móvil before the day that my monthly fee is deducted from my saldo, I have no issues! Additionally, you can top off your balance online or at your phone company’s store.
Pro-Tip: Be sure to keep tabs on what day your month “starts” with your phone company. I have received some different information over the years, so ask exactly when your payments will be due each month as it may or may not be the numerical date that you open the account. Either way, if you have prepago, you should receive a text message reminder the day before.
*If you’re looking to fully integrate into the Spanish social scene (as well as academic and professional scenes, to be honest) it is essential that you get a phone on which you can use Whatsapp. Everyone―literally, EVERYONE―from your madre to your teachers to your classmates will expect you to have a Whatsapp account.
** I’ve never bought an ‘awesome’ phone, so to say, but I HAVE transferred over my SIM to the Spanish phone when I got back home. In contrast to the way most plans work in the US, Spanish phone plans are attached to your SIM, not your phone, so devices are never ‘locked’ and can be used wherever you go with a SIM card from that country.