We always get a lot of questions about using American phones in Spain and on the Camino. It’s well known that American telecoms charge exorbitant prices for using your phone with a domestic plan overseas and it can be a shock when you return home and see the bill. There are a few options to handle this to make sure you have coverage but aren’t charged an arm and a leg.
First, you can check with your provider and see if there is an international plan available. They’ll normally let you switch onto that for a month and once you’re back in the US you can switch back to your regular plan. Call at least a month before you go, and then definitely call when you return to make sure your normal plan is back. If you want to receive voice calls on your current phone number, this is your only option but it will be more expensive.
The second, cheaper option, is to buy a Spanish SIM card (we can provide these for our tours). This will give you a local number and about 10GB of data for 15 Euros, which combined with WiFi in the hotel at night should be more than enough to get you through a Camino. There are two things you must check beforehand:
Make sure your phone is compatible with the European telecoms system (GSM).
AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM so they will work but Verizon, Sprint and US Cellular use CDMA so not all of their devices work. Newest phones will work everywhere but carriers have pages where you can check if your device will work. You can check Verizon's page here and Sprint's page here. You can also check manually by looking to see if your phone actually has a SIM card in it.
The second important thing to check is that your phone is unlocked.
If it is unlocked, that means it can use a SIM card from a different provider. If you bought your phone directly from a carrier (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) with a plan, it is likely locked because they don't want you taking out their SIM card and moving to another provider. Carriers have different policies on unlocking. For example, Verizon unlocks automatically after 60-days from purchase. Best option is to check with your provider and if locked, ask them if they will unlock it. You can find information on how to do this on your carrier's specific webpages. See AT&T's page, t-mobile and Verizon's page.
An optional but surefire way to check if it's locked is simply to change your SIM card with that of a friend who has a different provider and see if you can make a call. If it works, you're good to go.
For texting people back home, whatever phone strategy you are using you don’t want to use SMS which costs money, so make sure you and whoever you will be texting have installed a texting app such as Whatsapp (this is what ALL of Spain uses to text). This app just uses data to send messages, videos and pictures and it’s compatible with all phones so it just consumes your data plan (no extra cost).
In any event, while you are walking the Camino there are long stretches without Wifi and cellular coverage may be limited in spots depending on your route. Of course, in the end you could just turn off data all together, keep your phone in airplane mode and connect to wifi at your hotel in the evening. Walking the Camino is your chance to disconnect, so you really don’t need your phone for anything other than taking photos. Use the Camino as an opportunity to tell your friends, social media, and work that you’ll be gone for a while and will reconnect with everyone once you get back.