Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb

the techie expat’s guide to smartphones in Spain


I’ve  been referred to as a “techie” person for as long as I can remember. Having a natural knack for all things tech is a great thing in today’s world, but it means you’re often fielding tech questions from less-techie friends, advising people on gadget-buying decisions and helping troubleshoot when dreaded tech snags arise. I truly do enjoy helping my friends and family with any and all of these things, but I find that a lot of times I am answering the same questions over and over.  Most of the questions I’ve been getting more recently since I became an expat deal with the likes of having a smartphone abroad, so I decided I should write some posts that answer some of these questions in a concise, step-by-step manner. So here you have it, the first post in what will be a series of tech-advice related posts from yours truly, @meggr the tech geek (or @meggr la friki, como dicen aquí 🙂 )

Despite the ubiquity of smartphones, there are a handful of expats that still stick to modest flip phones: either because they dig the simplicity and off-the-grid-ness of not having a smart phone, or because they simply aren’t aware of just  how do-able having a smartphone abroad can really be. This post is mostly written for the latter, although I would argue to the former that a nice balance can be struck between reaping the numerous benefits of having a smartphone as an expat while still staying relatively off-grid and low-tech.

1. Acquire a global phone. Most newer smartphones are global, which simply means that they have a GSM radio and a SIM card slot. You can read more about it here. I recommend buying the phone in the US either on eBay or Amazon. Electronics are more expensive in general in Europe, and you’ll have way more options (and much cheaper shipping) buying online in the US. For an even better deal, buy a used or refurbished model. The most I’ve paid for a global phone is $250, and that was a refurbished HTC Droid Incredible 2 just after it was released to the market two years ago. That phone is STILL going for $150+ on eBay. Do your research, find a good phone with good reviews, and if you take good care of it you can get most of your money back selling it on eBay when you decide to move on to a newer gadget.

2. Unlock the phone. You can buy them already unlocked on eBay, but unlocking it yourself is pretty easy (you buy an unlock code for $3-5 on eBay and follow a few simple steps) If you don’t want to mess with the unlocking process and can’t seem to find the phone you want that is also already unlocked, you can go to any number of places that have a sign outside that says “Liberamos moviles! (We unlock phones!)” and they will do it for you for 10-20€ ($13-25.)

3. Decide on a mobile carrier and plan. Pay-as-you-go plans are the rule here, not the exception like in the States. And they are SO CHEAP! I have my phone service with Orange, and my plan is called Tarjeta Tarifa Delfín (Dolphin Plan…adorable, I know.) I pay 4.20€/week ($5/week) for unlimited data and 50 text messages. I have not once used all 50 of my text messages because EVERYone here uses a free texting app called WhatsApp (more on that in an upcoming post.) Calling can get a little spendy (15¢ to connect + 9¢/min), but the beauty of Orange is that every time you add money to your account, they give you a “prize”. The prize is almost always free calling minutes or an extra 5€ added to your account to use towards calling minutes. What US cellphone service gives customers free minutes/money simply for paying their bills? Pretty sure none.

4. Keep the minimum “saldo” (balance) on your account at all times to ensure connectivity. For my plan, this minimum is around 5€ to cover my weekly plan, although they send me a message when it gets below that and give me a few days to add money to the balance before suspending my service. You can add money to your account in a variety of ways: at ATMs, in convenience stores, even in the checkout lane at most supermarkets! I opt for paying by debit card on Orange’s website.

4. Enjoy the numerous ways a smartphone can enhance your life as an expat/traveler/wanderer, but don’t let it control your life and/or keep you from being present in the real world. Leave it at home sometimes. Put it away when you’re dining with friends.

I hope this can offer some help to anyone confused by the world of cell phones in Spain. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and just give up when everything is run differently than you’re used to and also not in your native language, but overall it’s so much cheaper than it is in the US that it’s completely worth the trouble to get it all set up.

Happy connecting!


Author: meggr

American expat in Spain. tech enthusiast. fitness fanatic. eclectic musicophile. wine and coffee aficionado.

3 thoughts on “the techie expat’s guide to smartphones in Spain

  1. Useful stuff! I live in Barcelona and have stuck with the €10 Vodafone phone (I think it was actually free, and the €10 were for minutes). I hate cell phones and am pretty sure a nice one would get robbed here in about .02 seconds. But everyone really DOES use WhatsApp…so I’m sadly coming around to the idea that a smartphone could be handy.

  2. This is so helpful! (Even a few years later) Thanks so much for posting. Do you know if there’s an all over Europe prepaid plan? I’m planning on traveling EU for the summer, then living in Spain for a year.

    • I’m not sure about an all-over Europe prepaid plan…it’s been a couple years since I lived there unfortunately, so lots could have changed by now! Best of luck and enjoy your travels!

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