Mobile Phones in Spain

Mobile phones, or moviles, are becoming more popular for the traveler both for safety and convenience. They give you peace of mind whether it's to call for help in an emergency, catch a cab late at night or reserve a hotel room. If you are traveling with a group of people and several of you have a mobile you can inform others if you are lost or will be late. Mobile phones also allow friends and family members abroad to contact you easily. Incoming calls are free, although the people calling you will end up paying more than calling a fixed line. Under just about every circumstance it is better to buy or rent a phone once you arrive rather than bring one with you. In some cases if your phone supports the systems used in Europe you can buy a SIM card and start making calls on the first day.


Topics in this section

Before you get to know the mobile phone system in Spain you'll want to brush up on the vocabulary. Below are some of the common words you'll hear or need to know to understand mobile phones and get what you want when buying a phone.

Spanish English description
tarjeta card type of prepaid mobile phone all non-residents and residents can purchase
contrato contract type of mobile phone only residents can purchase
teléfono fijo fixed line home or public phone, land lines which are not mobile phones
compañias telefonicas service providers,
companies offering mobile phone service such as Amena, Movistar and Vodafone
mensaje de texto text message written message readable by mobile phones
tarifa plana flat rate or
24/7 plan
one charge for all times and days of the week. Variations will be tarifa plana for fixed lines, same provider lines or all lines.
tarifa franja horario time scale plan charge depending on what time you make a call
plan del grupo group plan plan allowing you to identify 1 or more users with the same provider for cheaper calls and text messages between those phones
WAP WAP Wireless Application Protocol, or a language similar to html for mobile devices allowing them to contact and read information from servers and urls.
SMS SMS Short Message Service - a SMS compatible phone generally allows you to send and receive text messages.
tonos ringtone incoming call alerts or rings you can download
polifonico polyphonic phones which support better sound quality for ringtones and other multimedia, allowing you to hear instruments and other sound effects.
manos libres hands free connect a headset or other device so you can look like you're talking to yourself in the street
tarjeta SIM SIM card Smart card inserted into a mobile phone for subscriber authentication and roaming. Can be inserted into many GSM mobile phones to allow you to use them on while in Spain or Europe.


Most Spaniards cannot live without a cell/mobile phone, or movil. (Note: For those of you traveling from the U.S., the term "cell phone" or "cellular phone" in English is not commonly used. While people who speak English will understand you, it's better to refer to it as a "mobile phone" or "mobile"). I think every study-abroad student gets a mobile phone the week they arrive. Spain does not use the same system for mobile phones as the U.S., although there are now mobile phones which can be purchased in the U.S. that can be used throughout the world. I do not recommend you buy one of these phones. Beware of charges for calls when using them - they're almost always more expensive than using a mobile phone purchased here once you arrive, especially if you plan to be in Seville for an extended stay. I recommend purchasing or renting a cell phone when you arrive in Seville. There are two types of mobile phones in Spain: tarjeta (card) and contrato (contract). If you are not a resident you must purchase one with a tarjeta. Only residents can buy phones with a contrato, or contract agreement. There are many advantages to the tarjeta system, so don't worry. You can add money to your card on many, many places, including: grocery stores, kiosks, a provider's store (ie: Vodafone, Orange, Movistar - there are many locations). To use an ATM to recharge your mobile you must have an account in Spain. This is a good reason to open a non-resident account. A non-resient account also generally gives you online bank account access, and almost every bank allows you to recharge your mobile online. When purchasing you generally have three choices when of providers: Orange, Telefonica Movistar and Vodafone. Some notes about mobile phone use in Spain:


When purchasing a phone make sure you check the rate plans for each service provider - there are different rates for calling different countries (something I recommend you do from a fixed line). There are also different rates for calling which are based on your plan type and what type of phone you are calling to.

Receive calls free

Although you may run out of money on your card, you can still receive calls (including international) at no cost to you! Most services allow you to send a message to the caller that let's them know you are out of money on your phone and cannot return the call. If you plan to have friends and family call you on your movil have them check the price for the call. A call from the U.S. to a movil in Spain will always cost more than a call to a fixed line in Spain.

Minimum usage

If you go a month without adding a minimum amount of money to your card your per-minute calling rates may go up, as is the case with Orange. You'll generally get a message on you mobile phone telling you to add a certain amount of money before a specific date to avoid the increase in charges.

Calls to and from fixed lines

Calls from fixed lines (your house or public telephones) to mobiles are generally much more expensive. For example, a local call from a fixed line to another fixed line will generally cost you 0,20€, while the same call to a mobile phone will cost you between 0,60-0,80€. Depending on the calling plan you elect you may be charged a flat fee for all calls or significantly more for calls to fixed lines. The latest statistics showed the number of calls from fixed lines to mobile phones in Spain represented 4% of all calls, yet 26% of all charges! The EC is planning on taking companies to court to normalize the charges, something that will benefit all callers.

Calls to and from other mobile providers

Calls to other mobiles using a different service provider than your own will generally be higher than calls to someone using a mobile phone with the same service provider. An example: You have Orange and call a friend with Movistar and are charged 0,49€ per minute. Then you call another friend with Orange and are charged less, say 0,12€ per minute.

Text messaging

Text messaging is available for all companies, and is a popular way to communicate. Most allow you to mail messages to mobile phones over the internet, although you will be limited to the amount of messages you can send in a given month. Banks such as Cajasol, also give you 50 free text messages per month if you have a bank account with them.


There is a difference in coverage for each provider. From my experience here Orange has the poorest coverage of them all. When I've been out with several people I've noticed in many places that my "Orange friends" often don't have coverage while my "Vodafone friends" do. Movistar, a part of the Telefonica monopoly, offers the best coverage (of course it's easier when you dominate the market!), but rates tend to be higher. Still, all of this will vary depending on your exact location. In my apartment, Orange has the best coverage, while Vodafone is spotty and Movistar users must go outside in our patio to talk. This is the opposite of the general rule!


Ringtones, images, games, sports updates, etc. are perhaps more common than in the U.S. Many announcements on tv, internet, even candy bars push downloads and info you can get by dialing a specific number.


It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving in Spain, either with it in your hands or using a hands free device. Police will more often than not ticket you for doing this, so it is best to pull over or wait until you get out of your car.

After understanding how mobile service works you're ready to dive into selecting a service provider. Note there are advantages to each plan and they all hit you with big charges some way or another. Promotions come up every few months making things cheaper. These prices will change over time. Every company will charge you a 0,12€ connection fee. For some time I had posted information about individual plans, but as these change so much and my time could be better spent reviewing more important things than what it costs to make a call, I will cover some of the ways calling plans are structured:


The same flat rate for making calls no matter what time, and with some plans no matter what provider or type of line (fixed or mobile). This is my favorite, so I don't have to worry about big charges depending on what time I call or who I am calling (fixed line, other mobile provider). I like to be able to call when I want, and do a lot of daytime calling.

Time Scale

If you make most of your calls at night or during a certain time, this type of plan may have some advantages for you. A typical plan may break the hours down like this: 0:00 - 08:00 (cheapest); 08:00 - 16:00 (most expensive); 16:00 - 24:00 (cheaper). So if you make almost all of your calls in the afternoon or late in the evening, you could save some money.

Group plans

Group plans are another way to avoid higher charges. Many companies allow you to add callers to your group as long as you all have the same company for your service. All calls made to mobile phones within the group have a lower charge. If you are studying here and have a group of friends this can be a great advantage.

Friend plans

All companies also give you an even lower rate when you pick one other caller instead of a group. Simply identify one other caller who you can connect with for about 0,03€ per minute. Perfect for novios y novias.

Bonus plans

One example is Vodafone, which has some plans that give you 10 Euros in credit for every 20 Euros you spend. If you have a good amount of call volume, this can cut your calling bills by about a third. In general you must spend the 20 Euros during a month period to receive the bonus.

Data plans

If you want to use your mobile to surf the internet using the phone as a browser, or using it as a modem connected to your computer, you can also buy bonos specific for data consumption. These give you a lower rate and are used for tarjeta type plans. For contracts you can connect at a general, per usage rate, or you can subscribe to a data plan. Consumption is generally based on bandwidth used (MB downloaded), and not on time connected. Like calling, there is always a connection fee for usage added on top of the consumption.

Orange   (www.orange.es)
Movistar   (www.movistar.com)

Amena card for international callsIt's rare you will find an international calling plan for places like the U.S. and Canada (and most of Europe) that is economical, at least from your provider. You may have to go the route of the calling card to get the best rate. It used to be that Eurodirect was the best deal around, and they still charge you 2.8 cents per minute for calling to the U.S. from a movil. But you also use your minutes from your provider as you have to dial the equivalent of a local number to use the card. So if a local call on your mobile costs you 15 cents per minute with your calling plan then each minute is costing you 17.8 cents a minute. Amena started marketing a new card which beat Eurodirect, but you had to be an Amena customer. Then this went away for a while, likely as Amena was losing money left and right. Now it appears Orange (formerly Amena) is marketing something similar, where you can buy a 5€ card which will get discounted rates per minute to the U.S., Canada, a lot of Asia and Europe. I still cannot find detailed prices on their web site.

A couple of options exist where you can contact the people via internet to get more details. One, OnSpanishTime.com, is run by Jeremy of multimadrid.com, and they do a great job contacting and explaining everything to their customers. I am researching some local alternatives where you can stop by a store and take care of everything when you arrive. You can also purchase a SIM card to use your GSM phone in Spain. This gives you a "local" telephone number while in Spain, and the card can be mailed to you before your trip. More information on buying a SIM card after you arrive in Spain is in the next section below. If you are only around for a month or two it may still be worth buying a phone. Some local shops will buy back your phone for a reasonable price, making it about the same price as renting a phone. Make sure you check on the terms and the buyback amount before you purchase.

Helpful Information & Links

OnSpanishTime.com (mobile rental)
Spainsim.com (SIM card purchase)


If you have AT&T/Cingular, currently the only major U.S. provider which uses SIM technology or at least doesn't tend to lock your phone, then you may be able to buy a SIM card and save a lot on calls within Spain as well as receiving calls from people back home. If you are from another European country, or from somewhere else, chances are you will have no problem buying and using a SIM card. The SIM card gives you a Spanish telephone number which anyone can call. Most of the providers in Spain offer very economical SIM cards. For example, Orange and Vodafone currently offer a SIM card for 18 Euros, and you get 12 Euros of free calls. That's a cost of only 6 Euros. If you will be in Spain for a while and have an address you can also send off a coupon and get an additional 6 Euros in calls for free. In the end your SIM card is free! A few notes if you decide to buy a SIM card and use your mobile from home:

  • Memorize the PIN number which comes with the SIM card, or at least have it written down in several places. If you turn off your phone or the battery dies you will need to enter this the next time you turn it on.
  • Consider how you will charge the phone. In many cases you can bring a converter and use your existing charger. If you will be in Spain for a longer time you can buy a charger when you arrive. I have seen that almost all mobile phones are dual voltage, and using my Spanish Nokia charger for two friends phones from the U.S. worked just fine. The chargers in both cases were exactly the same except for the prongs for the outlets, which were specific to their respective countries.
  • If you have friends in Seville consider what provider they use (Orange, Vodafone, Movistar) as calls between the same providers are in most cases cheaper.
  • Consider the calling plan when you purchase a card and determine the best option for how you will use the phone
  • Should you register the card in your name? If you do not you may not be able to make changes to services and plans later. Or as happened to a friend of mine someone may be able to register the card with the same number. This was an error on the provider's part, but it was a hassle getting his number back because his name was not registered to this number and he spent several days being out of contact. If you plan to pass along your card to someone else it may be easier to not register it in your name. If you do pass it along to a friend or someone after you leave and it is registered they will need your name and your passport number or whatever type of ID number you used when registering the card.
  • Consult your provider in your home country before leaving. When we inserted a SIM card in my brother's phone it blocked incoming calls. It took us a little time to figure out this was a simple setting in the phone, and we didn't need any assistance. However, when a friend was recently visiting and we tried the same card the phone asked for a security code at start-up (not just the PIN number). With a phone call to his provider in the U.S. we could have likely solved the problem, but he wasn't in Spain long enough to make it worth it.


Who wants to type in the complete word? Text messaging is inventing a lot of new vocabulary for ease of use and speed in typing. Most is based on the pronunciation - if it's shorter and sounds like the consonant, vowel or complete word then it will be adopted. As well, use of slang and Andaluz where letters are often dropped in pronunciation, is common. Just a few examples are below in random order. More will be added as I run into them.

Text Abbrev. Spanish (example)
t te
q que
k qu- ("t kiero" = "te quiero")
y ll- ("yamar" = "llamar")
stas, stamos, stais estás, estamos, estais, etc.
ao -ado ("estao" = "estado")
pq porque
d de
1 un
cn con
pa para
x por
x ch- ("chula" = "xula")
mu muy
m me
l el
ls los
bso beso



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