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Using Mobile Phones in Portugal
How to keep your U.S. cell phone number while living in Portugal
Note: I’m not endorsing any specific product or service here. I’m simply providing links to what we used for a reader’s reference.
If you intend to become a resident of Portugal, you should be prepared to have a Portuguese phone number – be it a landline, a cell phone or both. You should also have a U.S. cell phone number for times when U.S. banks, credit card companies or other services require authentication by call or text from a U.S. cell phone.
Prior to leaving the U.S., we did a lot of research on U.S. and Portuguese cell phone numbers and frankly, the more we read, the more confused we became. We consider ourselves fairly tech-savvy, but even for us, the options only created more confusion. We were looking for a reasonably simple solution.
To have U.S. and Portuguese cell phone service using just one cell phone each, here is what we did:
Before moving to Portugal, while we were in the U.S., we purchased unlocked GSM International Smart Phones with dual SIM capacity. I-Phones are also available with these features. GSM is the international standard. This resource describes GSM.
This link shows an example of the type of Smart Phone we purchased.
Make sure that your phones are unlocked for all carriers– this is important! Having an unlocked cell phone allows you to choose whichever carrier you want.
We found that it wasn’t easy to find international unlocked cell phones that were unlocked for all carriers at stores like Best Buy. For us, Amazon seemed the best option, but be aware that most unlocked international cell phones do not offer a warranty.
We had been using Consumer Cellular for years in the U.S. The service is great, and the monthly pricing is less expensive than other carriers. Consumer Cellular uses ATT and T-Mobile cell towers. We wanted to continue with their service once we moved to Portugal.
After we purchased our cell phones, we contacted Consumer Cellular and asked them to activate our new phones with WiFi calling and International Roaming. They sent us new SIM cards which we inserted into the first SIM card slot in our new cell phones. This allows us to keep our U.S. cell phone numbers which work here in Portugal and free of international roaming charges as long as we’re connected to WiFi, which is whenever we’re at home or someplace with a WiFi connection.
With Consumer Cellular, you can easily add or remove a data plan when traveling, so if you plan to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Portugal, you can increase or decrease your talk and text plans accordingly.
For a Portuguese cell phone number (note that you must have a Portuguese phone number for a variety of services in Portugal), you will contract with one of 3 internet service providers in Portugal (choices may depend on which area you’re planning to live): NOS, MEO or Vodafone. Most, if not all these service providers offer a bundle of services including internet, cable, landline, and cell phones. These bundles can often be cheaper than pulling together these options individually. Depending on the service provider, you will receive either an actual SIM card to place in the second SIM card slot on your cell phone, or a virtual SIM which you get from a QR code that the provider will give you. Our Smart Phones allow us to choose which plan to use the cellular data from.
Rechargeable SIM card - you can purchase a rechargeable Portuguese SIM card at the airport and other transportation agencies. We didn’t want to have to constantly recharge our SIM cards, so we didn’t go with this option.
Porting your U.S. cell phone number – some people have had success with porting their U.S. cell phone number to Google Fi. Since we’re never sure if Google is going to change their services, we decided not to go with this option.
Using iPlum – iPlum is a virtual phone number. Small and mid-sized businesses use this service, but some expats are using it as their U.S. cell phone number. We have used virtual phone services in the past such as RingCentral and Grasshopper, but mostly for business purposes where we wanted a phone number separately from our personal phone. This option didn’t suit our needs.
WhatsApp – this is an end-to-end encrypted free messaging and video calling app from Facebook. This is great for keeping in touch with family and friends in the U.S. as long as your family and friends know how to use the app. Since we have a variety of age groups in our family and circle of friends in the U.S. – some who are adaptable to alternative forms of communication and some who are not, we opted not to use this as our primary mode of communication. Plus, you must associate a cell phone number to the app, which makes it ineffective as a regular cell phone replacement if you’re required to use a U.S. cell phone for authentication purposes. We have noticed however, that many Portuguese business services use WhatsApp, so it’s useful to have the app loaded onto your cell phone in case you need it.
So far so good
We have been using our dual SIM cell phones in Portugal without any significant issues. One thing we have noticed is that group texts from the U.S. coming to us don’t seem to download - and texts with images from the U.S. to us do not download at all. It could be that we don’t have the settings down correctly but it’s not a big issue for us as most people who want to send us a text do so without images or use WhatsApp to communicate with us.
I hope this helps with demystifying how to use mobile phones in Portugal!
Until next time…