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10 Things to Know About Getting an International Cell Phone

So I moved to Spain and needed a cell phone.  Below is an article about that learning process (most references are for Spanish phones), but I’ve traveled a lot and have had a SIM card in a few other countries… the process is 98% the same (if you are planning to move else where)…


10 Thing to Know About Getting an International Cell Phone | HOLE STORIESWhile still in North America:

01 | Must be a phone with a SIM card

First of all, what the heck is a SIM card?

It’s a tiny little chip that is all the information your phone needs in order to work.  It’s basically your cell phone number (and service).  If your phone breaks, just pop out the SIM card and put it in and older phone that you threw in your drawer 2 years ago.  Bam!  Just like that, you have a working phone again (with the same phone number and service).

How easy is that?  Every country in the world uses this system, except for the good ol’ USA (surprise, surprise)…

USA doesn’t really do the SIM card thing, but there are some providers that use SIM cards (AT&T, Sprint, T-Moblie, etc.)  What this means is if you already have a phone with a company that uses SIM cards (definitely not Verizon), you might be able to use your own phone overseas – yay!

But how?


02 | Ask you cell phone provider to unlock phone

If you’ve been with your cell phone provider for quite some time now, you might be able to get your phone unlocked.  Just go into the store and ask if they can do it.

However, I wanted to buy a phone online (because it’s 10 times cheaper), and then go into the store to have them unlock it… they said they wouldn’t do it because I wasn’t a customer.


03 | Buy an unlocked phone online

Perhaps you have an international friend that has an old phone you can use (which was in my case)… or perhaps you don’t care about the phone and buy a cheap $20 phone (just something to make calls)… but I think most people nowadays want a new smart phone.  OK, well, you’ll have to buy one – and buying online is the way to go.  Just remember: the phone must be “UNLOCKED.”


When you get to Spain:

04 | Choose a SIM card provider in Spain

Now that you have your unlocked phone in Spain, you need to get a SIM card.  Deciding on which SIM card (cell service provider) to buy can be a very confusing and daunting task, but let’s try to get through this together, ok?

There are quite a few different companies, and deciding which is best for you is tricky…  Some of the more popular companies are:

  • Movistar
  • Vodafone
  • Amena
  • Hits
  • Másmovil
  • Orange
  • Yoigo

Here is a list of providers for cell service in Spain (as of September 2014, when I was searching)


05 | MIN, SMS, and GB

All companies break down the service in three ways: MIN, SMS, and GB

MIN = Minutes
This is the amount of talking time you’re allowed

SMS = text messages
If it says 100 SMS, then this means yoe can send 100 text messages (however, see “Whatapp” below)

GB = Gigabytes
This refers to your data, if you have a smart phone.


06 | Prepaid vs. Contract

Years ago (and still in some other countries), you used to just walk into a store and by a bottle of Coca Cola, box of cigarettes, and a new prepaid SIM card (with whatever amount of money you put on there).  Pay, and leave.  Easy.

You then would walk out of the store, but the SIM card in your phone, and use it until the $10 you had on the card is done… then you could just throw the card away and buy a new one (if you wanted to, but it was [and still is] easier to just put more money on the same card).  But you understand how this works, yes?

Nowadays, even the prepaid cards are a hassle!  You have to go to a cell phone store (not just a random convenient store) and fill out some paper work, show them your passport, and then you’re allow to get the card… Then, you can’t just use the amount of money until it’s finished (that would be too easy), you must “recharge” the card every month with X-amount of money.

“Contracts” are exactly the same (basically), but the rates are a bit cheaper and you need a bank account in order to get a one.

So which is better?  Well, this is what I’ve gathered from my many many questions to the people working in the stores (with help from my translators):

Prepaid cards have a set amount of money on it and when the money is done, the service is cut off.. you can then put more money on it and continue to use it just the same…

Contract SIM cards will not shut off… they will continue to work and you might end up owing the company money next month if you happened to go over your allotted minutes and/or data.

So what’s my vote?  Prepaid.  Even though it’s a tad more expensive per minute, I don’t want to give the company power to charge me $60 if I accidentally went over one month and didn’t know… But to each his own – you be the judge of what makes you comfortable.

If you do go the contract-route, you need your NIE number & Bank Account FIRST.


07 | Recharges & Money Increments

As covered above, prepaid cards must be refilled.  I think this is the more popular option, so I wanted to go over this a bit more… As well as fill you in on the “money increments” and no one ever tells you about (surprise)!

Companies don’t deal with giving you change.  “Nope!  Your money is ours!”  Not only do they NOT give change, they only accept payments in certain increments (usually €5, €10, €15, €20,…).  What this means is that you can not go into the store and put €3 onto your card to make a few phone calls… If you think you need €3 on there, you MUST give at LEAST €5…

OK OK…  Example:

Let’s say you want to buy a SIM card that costs €6 for the card, and has a €10 monthly plan… you must pay with €20 (because the cost would be €16).  This leaves €4 on the card to use for calls and megabytes for the internet… If you happen to use nothing of the €4 (because you stayed under your allotted minutes and data usage), then congratualations!  You now have €4 that still can’t be used for anything else besides minutes and megabytes for next month!

The next month rolls around and now you still have that €4 on there… and you need “recharge” every 30 days (of €10), so, well, there’s nothing you can do put just give them another €10… and that €4 is still on there!  Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll EVENTUALLY use it… some time… perhaps?

Ask about this when you buy a SIM card… every company is different (but every company seems to be a pain in the ass)!


08 | Call Every Month or Simply Recharge?

Speaking of “pain in the ass,” how annoying would it be to have to deal with a company EVERY month?  Well, thanks to my awesome Spanish translator (my host family that has really helped me a lot), I found out that some companies require that you call EVERY month in order to keep the plan you want –  the plan does NOT simply roll over (like any logical person would assume).

So you say “Yes! This is great! I want the €10 per month plan!”  And they sign you up, give you the card, and then a little after the first month your card stops working because you ran out of money… How?!  Because you didn’t call them at the beginning of the month and say “I want to keep the same plan,” so instead, the company switched you over to the 20 cents per minute plan with a 40 cents connection charge (see next section) for every call…

In the US, this would NEVER fly.  Oh no. Never.  Are you kidding me?  I sign up for one thing and then because I don’t do this annoying process over again EVERY month, you just take it upon yourself to SWITCH what I agreed to pay?!!!  Welcome to the rest of the world –  things don’t always make sense and threats of giving them a bad Yelp review doesn’t fly…

Moral of this section: Get a SIM card that you can simply “recharge” every month and any store (for your own convenience).


09 | Connection Fees

Companies advertise their per minute rates, but they don’t really advertise their connection fees.  This is a good thing to ask about when comparing companies…

A connection fee is the price you’ll pay to simply “connect” to the other line (0 minutes of talking).  Then, every minute after that is an additional charge (which is what will be advertised).

I really like companies that do not have a connection fee, but then might cost 10 cents per minute…. versus a connection fee of 20 cents and then 5 cents per minute.  Well, I guess it depends how long you talk on the phone, but phones in Spain are just for quick communicative/informative purposes, not socializing for 5 hours at a time…


10 | You Call, You Pay.

That about says it all.  The caller pays for the call – the receiver pays nothing.


Well, I know I said “10,” but oh well – here’s more!

11 | Spaniards Don’t Use Phones to Call…

The majority of Spaniards do not use the phone to make calls…

99% of Spaniards never text…

So what the heck do they use their phones for?  Apps, internet usage, and a doorbell…

There’s an app called “Whatapp” which is like texting (SMS), but only works within WiFi (or uses just a tiny bit of your data)… EVERYONE uses this to communicate… Texting through the phone’s normal plan doesn’t happen… it just doesn’t.

As previously mentioned: if you complete a call, you pay for that call.  But what qualifies as a “completed” call?  If the person answers.  If the phone just rings on the other end, then the call was never completed.  What allows it for someone to use this loophole as an extended doorbell… Perhaps your date is in the car downstairs waiting for you… He/She will simply ring you once, you will see the missed call, look out the window, and see that your ride is waiting…  And no charges.  Clever, huh?


12 | What is “IVA”?

It’s a tax (on everything).  Usually, whenever you see a price, it’ll also have the price after the “IVA” (sometimes, it’s super small, so look carefully).


What I ended up doing

Well, I just bought data for €5 per month.  It was just a measly half gig of data, but I figured I’d buy the cheapest, and see how much I use in one month.  If I need more, I’ll buy the second cheapest (1 gig) next month…  I can still make phone calls (and receive calls), but it costs about 20 cents per call (like using a pay phone).  It’s been one month so far, and I haven’t made a call yet – data is all you’ll need.


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