You have arrived in Spain, and perhaps you want to get local cell phone service. Where do you go? What do need to buy? This post will provide some tips and strategies for getting connected.
We will cover two potential scenarios that new arrivals face having moved to Spain:
- You have a phone that works in Europe, but you need a Spanish SIM card;
- You need to purchase a new phone that’s compatible with the European networks;
Shopping For A SIM Card Only
There are several options that are available, namely contract, semi-contract, and pay-as-you-go. Let’s dig into the various options, and cover the pros and cons of each.
Before I go further, I want to explain that service in Spain is different from the U.S. Generally, you get more for your money in the U.S. For example, with U.S. carriers, you typically get a larger data allowance, and more flexibility with a lower cost. Now while that’s a bit of a generalization, I’m just trying to set the proper expectation.
Also, when you arrive to Spain, it is likely you’ll be making more calls as you are getting settled. After the first couple of months, your calls, SMS messages, and data usage will level off. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any sort of “roll-over” of minutes, i.e. those unused minutes from one month get rolled-over to the next month. If you don’t use them, you lose them.
Let’s cover the SIM options.
This is just like it sounds. You sign up for a one or two-year contract for X number of Euros per month. You’re given so many minutes, with so many text (SMS) messages, and a certain amount of data transfer for a month.
I don’t recommend going the contract route, unless you plan on being in Spain longer than two years, or if you’re getting additional services with your mobile coverage. For example, many of the internet providers are also cellular providers, so you can get cable TV, internet, and mobile service all in one package.
When you have a contract, there’s some flexibility. Typically, if you’re over on your call minutes or messages, you’ll still be able to make calls, but you’ll wind up paying a fairly high per minute/per message cost. For data overages, it’s common that you’ll still be able to use data, but your data rate will be very slow. Remember those “old days” when you connected to the internet with a squealing modem? That’s about the right speed. Alternatively, you can purchase or activate more data in 100MB blocks until the next month’s billing cycle begins.
Potentially one bill that covers all of your TV, internet, and mobile services can make paying bills easier. Payment is easy, as the carrier will draft your bank account (this is common in Spain).
If you’re only opting for cellular coverage, that monthly fee you signed up for will most likely not be the fee you pay. When we had our contract, or bill varied from month to month. It was kind of frustrating, and when we did some digging, we found out one reason for this. We were making calls to customer support lines, and those are usually not free. The biggest con is canceling service. It can be a real pain.
I normally wouldn’t mention names, but this company’s behavior was so anti-consumer that I want to pass this on, so others don’t get burned. Stay away from a contract with Vodafone. When it came time for us to cancel, they made it needlessly difficult to cancel service. We had no problem paying an early-cancel fee, but the entire experience of cancelling cost us so much time, effort, and worry, that I tell people to stay clear of Vodafone. Not to mention we now have great no contact coverage with orange for less than 1/3 of the price on the contract.
With this option, you’ll have a monthly bill, but you’re not locked into a contract. Do you hardly make any phone calls, or are you on the phone constantly? Are you a miser or a glutton when it comes to using data? If you know how you normally use your phone, then you can better choose a plan that works for you.
These are handled in a similar manner to contracts. You’ll still be able to make calls or send messages, but you will pay a higher-than-normal rate. Same with data overages.
You gain flexibility, and are not locked-in to a multi-year contract. Payment is easy, as your bank account will automatically be drafted each month.
Typically it’s more per month than a contract, but it’s not huge. Also, you may get fewer call minutes, SMS messages, or data. For most people, the thing they’ll use the most is data, so if you’re going to have an overage, that’s most likely the cause. You can purchase additional data (albeit at a higher rate).
This is just like it sounds. You will pay for a certain amount of calls, SMS messages, and data per month. If you go over your allotment, you have to pay more. Ask about payment options. Do they support bank drafting, or online payments? Is it necessary to pay at the local kiosk? You’ll want to know the answers to these questions before signing up.
With the pay-as-you-go service, you’re generally out of luck once you run out of call minutes, messages, or data. And by out of luck, I mean, no calls, no messages, and no data. That can be very inconvenient, so more diligence is required with these type of plans. You’ll need to purchase more minutes, messages, and/or data online, or at the SIM store.
You’re paying for maximum flexibility. You’re able to get a Spanish phone number inexpensively, and pay for what you use.
The costs (per minute, per message, or per gigabyte) are more expensive. Depending on the carrier, payment can be tricky. Some of the low-budget carriers may not have the ability to do a bank draft, or they may not support online payments. This would require you to go into your local kiosk to make a payment. It’s not difficult, but it’s not exactly convenient either, so if you do need to visit a store, pick one close to your residence to make it that more convenient.
Conclusions For The SIM Option
No matter what option you choose, shop around. There are a number of places in town where you can purchase a SIM. Most of the obvious ones like the major cellular providers (Orange, Movistar, and (ugh!) Vodafone) will sell you a SIM card. Below the top-tier carriers, there are other carriers such as Yoigo which sell both phones and SIM cards for those on a budget. There’s also the locutorios which sell general SIM cards (like Digicell, Lebara, etc.). There’s always some sort of special deal going on somewhere.
When purchasing a SIM you’ll need your passport or NIE. If you’re going with a contract or semi-contract, you’ll need to have your bank details (IBAN) handy.
Shopping For A Mobile Phone
If you’re looking for a cell phone that will best utilize the various carriers in Spain (and the rest of Europe), then you may need to buy a new phone. Whether you’re coming from Canada or the U.S., you may find that your existing phone will not work, or if you do have a modern phone, you may find your 4G data speeds (LTE) are very slow. If you’re finding that your data connection is really slow, then purchasing a new phone may be the best option.
As with the SIM cards, you’ll have the same options. I won’t go over them again, but I will mention that if you go with a contract, most phones are subsidized by the carriers. That means you are paying less money up front for a phone and cell service, but in the long-term, you’re actually spending more on the phone with higher monthly fees.
Assuming you want to test out a phone before you purchase it, where do you go? Check out the carriers. They are normally going to have the latest and greatest phones (i.e. the expensive models). To see the broadest selection of phones however, there are a couple of local (or near local) stores. The Phone House (see map location below), has a large selection of phones, and sell the major carriers’ services as well.
Other Non-Local Options
If you’re willing to take a trip to Motril, Worten has a large selection of phones. And if you want to travel a bit farther, MediaMarkt in Plaza Mayor (Málaga) has a huge selection. The thing I like about this store is that their phones are arranged by cost, so if you have a certain budget in mind, it’s very easy to look at phones. (They also have good prices!)
If Granada is your town, you’ll find all of the carriers’ stores in the new Nevada mall. There’s also the FNAC store upstairs that carries a large selection of phones to view. Their pricing can vary from very competitive to “Ouch!”, so check online as well.
Once you have found your perfect phone, you’re not obligated to buy it at that store. Check around locally for the phone at your carrier of choice. Ask if there are any specials or discounts.
Buy Your Cell Phone Online!
Sometimes it is best to do all of your research in person and find the phone you like, but check out the phones online to see if you can save a bit of money. Many times it is cheaper on Amazon, if you are willing to wait a day or so for delivery. This is normally where you’ll find the best pricing and what we really like are all of the reviews. Just make sure you purchase an open (libre) phone that can be used on any carrier’s network (with the proper SIM). Check here for the latest libre cell phone deals.