Keeping in touch - using a cell phone in Spain

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Note: The phone reviewed below is for international travel and originally was done in 2003. Since 2003 there has been a few advancement in cell phones, I have modify this review to reflect some of those changes. At the bottom of this page is a description of the current situation for international cell phone purchase and rental.

On this page:
More Spain Trip planning articles:
Spain Travel Agent - a recommendation
Safety - pickpockets
Overview - my thoughts on Touring Spain
Use the map to select a city in Spain

Standing at the top of an ancient Moorish tower overlooking the Mediterranean, I think about my wife who was unable to come with me on this trip. My watch indicates it is 2:10 P.M. Counting back by 6 hours, I realize my wife should have arrived to work by now, and I can test out how well the cell phone works in Tarragona. Dialing 001 before the area code, the phone barely rings and I am hearing her voice.

Photo above - Cellular Abroad's National Geographic Travel Phone 2009 Model, new models now avialable - International Cell Phone Solutions Click Here Explore1a
Approached by Cellular Abroad to promote their international cell phones on this website, I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to test out a phone on my Oct. 2003 visit to Spain. It was my travel companion who convinced me to check out the phone. He pointed out to me that a phone usable around the world, using domestic rates of the countries visited, was an excellent tool for the international business traveler. After using the phone for three weeks, I came to appreciate its usefulness for the vacation traveler as well.
Advantages for the traveler:
  • Make emergency calls easily.
  • You don't have to coordinate your touring plans around access to a phone. This is particularly important when you are dealing with several hours of time difference between you and the person you are calling.
  • Much easier for family members/business associates to contact you.
  • International SIM cards mean you can travel through approximately 60+ different countries, retaining the same phone number and cellular plan.
  • Save money. You will need to check the current rates (this can be done at the Cellular Aborad website) but historical, there has been a cost advantage with using the domestic cell phone rates in Spain.
  • Voice mail and text messaging will ensure you get important messages
One of the drawbacks (or assets, depending on how you are looking at it) of the Cellular Abroad cell phone is that you are not signing up for a local U.S. cell phone carrier; this means you must buy or rent the phone from Cellular Abroad. Normally one signs up for a phone plan and the cost of the phone is absorbed by the monthly fees. The R50m Ericsson phone I tested accepted T-mobile SIM cards that worked with a monthly or a prepaid phone service. So, in addition to being used overseas, the phone can be used in the U.S. with a local U.S. phone number. (Note: Not all T-mobile offices can provide you with a SIM card. To find the closest office, I had to call their national customer assistance number.) A Cellular Abroad representative told me AT&T also can provide cellular plans for their phones.

For the casual traveler getting their cell phone unlocked or a cell phone rental maybe the best option. I recommend purchase of this phone for business people and travelers who go overseas at least twice each year and will clock a number of minutes in phone calls during their travels. The cost savings I obtained by using a local Spain cell phone carrier were comparable to a pre-paid phone card. Compared to regular phone cards and U.S. cellular services that provide phones usable overseas, the Cellular Abroad cell phone offers substantial savings on a per minute cost basis.

Note to Husbands: Calling your wife to share your fantastic day on the Mediterranean coast, just as she is starting her long day at work, may not be the best way to let her know you are missing her.

Information about buying or renting a phone for use in Spain. (2009 update)

This information is applicable for other countries such as Ireland and the UK as well as the system and service is comparable.

Many travelers ask if their current phones will work in Spain. The answer is, perhaps, and if it does – at a price. The below information is a quick guide that will give you valuable money saving information regarding cellular service in Spain as well as other European countries.

If you currently have a carrier that uses the GSM system, such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Rogers in Canada, you have a good chance that your phone works overseas. Your cell phone must have the 900/1800 networks to work in Spain. Ask your service provider, or better yet, check the manual as many customer service representatives are not well informed about international cellular service. There is also a very limited selection of handsets from other providers that work overseas. If your phone does work overseas and you choose to “roam” with their service in Spain, be prepared to pay approximately $1.00-$1.25 for US carriers and $2.00 for Canadian carriers – plus tax – for all calls including those you receive, per minute. A much better solution is to unlock your phone and use a Spanish SIM card and pay the local rates. In the US, getting your phone unlocked is a matter of asking your provider for the unlock code. They will give you the code for free. In Canada, you will have to find a physical store that can unlock it for you. This may cost around $25.00.

Once you have an unlocked cell phone, we recommend the Lebara Spain SIM card offered by Cellular Abroad, a Los Angeles based company. There are several Spain SIM cards on the market, but this particular one caters specifically to tourists traveling in Spain or foreigners living in Spain. Rates are excellent. Besides the unlimited free incoming calls from anywhere, you will also get free cell phone to cell phone calls (hint: get the other party traveling with you to use this service), and rates to the US and Canada are a low $0.07 per minute. The service is prepaid so you do not need a contract.

Renting a Cell Phone
What if your cell phone will not work in Spain? In that case, you will need to either rent or purchase a handset. Cellular Abroad offers the same Lebara service with cell phone rentals as well as Spain SIM card and phone packages. We recommend renting a cell phone for Spain only if you are not a frequent traveler and if your trip is only a week or two. The price of purchasing a phone and Spanish SIM card package is not much more expensive than renting one, plus, you can use the phone in 200 other countries as well – including the US or Canada.

Please note that a Spain specific solution will only work in Spain. If you are traveling to other countries, consider the National Geographic Travel Phone – which is also available for rent and if you already have the phone, once again, you can pick up just the SIM card. This service works in nearly 200 countries and offers free incoming in 80 so it is ideal for those who travel to multiple countries. Go to Cellular Abroad for more information on this service.

Cellular Abroad - International Cell Phone Solutions Click Here , use this link to locate a phone for use in one country or multiple countries.

Go to: Keeping in touch other options for communicating back home.

Next: Spain Travel Agent - a recommendation


Spain Travel Agent
Cellular Abroad's National Geographic Travel Phone - International Cell Phone Solutions Click Here 




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This page last updated January 2012
The information on this page comes from my five visits to Spain with update info provided by Cellular Abroad in 2009 .