Adapting,  How to,  Living Abroad

How to: Get a Phone (Number) in Spain

Dear Mike,

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. Even if you will only be living abroad for a short period of time, you don’t want to be paying astronomical fees for roaming or international texting. There’s also nothing more alarming than finding out you’re unable to connect to the local network when trying to find directions to your accommodations late at night or making an emergency phone call. Because the process of getting set up with a new phone, a new SIM, and/or a new phone plan may look different in Spain than your home country, we want to provide you with the basic steps as well as some useful Spanish vocabulary for completing this process.

Some helpful vocab to know before you start the process:

  • liberar tu móvil: get your phone unlocked
  • tarjeta de SIM: SIM card (pronounced more like ‘seem’ in Spanish)
  • 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 may require 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

Step one: Decide if you will purchase a new phone or only a new sim card

Now, first thing’s first—you must decide if you will use your current phone or buy a new device altogether for Spain. Our personal experience involves original phones from the US so we will use that example. 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. In most cases, it is considered a breach of contract (especially if you are still making payments on your phone in the US), so be leery about unlocking your phone without researching first! We 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 the phone will result in fees and issues with service upon your return.

Unlocking your current phone to use in Spain

If you decide to unlock and use your current phone, the next choice is whether to do so at home or in Spain. Each option comes with its pros and cons—in your home country, 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, in the US at least, 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.

Buying a new phone in Spain

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.

We’ve never bought an ‘awesome’ phone, so to say, but Dani has transferred over an American SIM to her Spanish phone when she got back home. This concept of needing to ‘unlock’ the phone doesn’t exist with Spanish phones because, in contrast to the way most plans work in the US, Spanish phone plans are attached to your SIM card, not your device. As such, Spanish devices are never ‘locked’ and a Spanish phone can be used wherever you go with a SIM card from any country, given that the SIM is of the same size. Thus, you use the same phone from Spain with multiple SIM cards (ie. one for the US and one for Spain) without any additional hassle.

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.


Step Two: Decide on a traditional or pre-paid phone plan

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 we personally recommend this for most people anyways. Unless you are a family looking for a family plan (multiple mobile phones) or you are an individual who will be contracting your own internet and paid TV plan as well (thus want a bundle deal), there’s not much of a draw to having a traditional phone contract in Spain.

Dani personally stayed on a prepago plan for her first six years in Spain and feels like it saved her a ton of money because she doesn’t use a lot of data, SMS, or calling minutes. Perhaps a contract would help if you want to pay off an expensive phone month-by-month, but most people we know with a traditional contract pay 30€ (or more) a month, whereas you can pay 10-20€ for pre-paid. By all means, don’t overlook the bundle packages if you need to contract a phone, home internet, satelite TV, etc but keep in mind that if you are moving in with roommates, these utilities may already be in place.

Pro-Tip: Be sure to keep tabs on what day your month “starts” with your phone company. We 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, like Dani, you have wifi at home and don’t make many phone calls or send any SMSs (most everyone communicates via Whatsapp in Spain), you can opt for one of smallest prepago monthly plans. These tend to come with 2GB of data, 50 minutes for calls, and some SMSs. There are small fees for calls or messages if you go over the amount laid out in your plan (which is deducted in the moment from the saldo you load onto you account). If you don’t have enought saldo, you will simply not be allowed to make complete the action. However, as long as you recargar el móvil regularly (and ensure there is enough on it the day that your monthly fee is deducted from your saldo), you’ll have no issues!


A Word to the wise about phones in Spain

Keep in mind that, because your phone plan is attached to your SIM card, you can switch phones at anytime you’d like without needing to get your phone company involved. Your phone number will automatically transfer to the new device as the SIM is what the number is registered to. For the most part, this makes things more seamless in Spain than you may be used to back home.
However, be aware that everytime you insert your SIM card into a new phone or anytime you turn off and on your phone, you will be asked to enter the PIN. This is not your personal PIN or pattern that you set on your device; this is the PIN associated with the SIM card. As such, it is not a PIN you can set yourself, but you can find it printed on the plastic card that your SIM came out. Do not throw that away until you are certain you have memorized the PIN!

Personally, we don’t ever throw ours away and, in all honesty, we will carry it or a note of the PIN with us for the first few weeks or months of having a new SIM. It never fails, it’s in the worst possible moments that you’ll forget it. Dani definitely fell into the trap of turning off her low-battery phone an hour before she was meant to meet up with a friend to ensure she would have enough power to contact them later, only to realize when she turned it back on she didn’t remember the PIN! Save yourself some headaches and commit it to memory or keep it on hand.

There you have it, the basics you should know when you’re looking to get a new phone or simply a phone number in Spain. Is there anything we missed or that you’d really like to know? Just ask in the comments below!



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