December 2020

By IL‘s Ecuador Insider, Donna Stiteler, and Guest Contributor, John Williams

How to Use Your Smartphone in Ecuador

By Donna Stiteler

I had four smartphones—but didn’t know how to use apps on ANY of them—before I moved to Ecuador. I also had no idea what the difference was between a “locked” and “unlocked” phone. My telephonic communications skills were rudimentary, to say the least. And that was fine for my life in the U.S.

However, once I moved, figuring out how to use my U.S. phone abroad was of the highest importance—since my sisters in the U.S. are likely to call the Ecuadorian embassy if they haven’t heard from me about four times a day!

Because I am smartphone-impaired, I needed to learn fast. Today, I’m proficient enough to communicate both locally and internationally. And try not to get cellphone envy when I say this—but I can do this for as little as $3 a week.

Here’s what I learned when I brought my U.S. smartphone to Ecuador…

Bring an Unlocked Smartphone With You

Out of my four phones, only one of them was “unlocked,” which allows me to use it when traveling abroad. When you have a “locked” cellphone, it means you can’t change out your SIM card, and switch from your U.S. data plan/network. If your phone is locked, it’s best used as a paper weight abroad.

Smartphones are expensive and easily stolen, so it’s best to bring an unlocked phone with you rather than pay $500 to $700 to buy one in Ecuador. With an unlocked phone, you can be up and running in Ecuador in just minutes.

The cost here is so low, it’s hard to spend more than $20 in total for your new SIM card, network access, and all the data you need for a month’s internet access.

Where to Buy a SIM Card

You can buy a SIM card at virtually all major airports these days, where you’ll usually find kiosks on the same level as car rentals. Ecuadorians are notorious for their kindness, so don’t be shy about asking for assistance. Tell them what you need as far as phone calls, texting, and data.

There are also plenty of tiendas in downtown Cuenca that sell SIM cards. The two most popular carriers are Claro and Movistar. The tiendas usually have a poster on their door detailing what they offer.

How to Pick Out Your SIM Card and Service Provider

You want a SIM card that will access 4G, so you’ll be able to pick up free internet at restaurants, coffee bars, or hot spots around town. When buying your card, look for basically any photo of a phone or WiFi signal on the SIM packaging. If you don’t see these, ask where you can find one. Cuenca and many of the larger cities in Ecuador are now installing 5G as well.

You can communicate for free on apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and any other social media apps, when you’re on WiFi—whether you’re in an internet café or sitting on a park bench. Cuenca is continuing to build more hot spots—locations with public access to WiFi. You can get online for free in places like Parque Calderón, the Flower Market, San Francisco Market, San Sebas Plaza, and other popular tourist destinations.

Make sure before coming to Ecuador that you ask the people you frequently communicate with to download WhatsApp or Messenger, apps used frequently in Ecuador that offer phone calling, texts, and video chats virtually anywhere in the world for free. With my sisters in Florida, we continue to video chat on Messenger, and it’s just like we were still living next door to each other.

I suggest not trying to install the SIM card yourself. The vendors will be happy to do so for you. Also ask them to call the number associated with the SIM card company that’s on the packaging the card/chip comes in, and it’ll activate the card/chip. Make sure you keep your original U.S. SIM card in a safe place, because you’ll need it to convert back to your U.S. phone when you return to the States, simply by switching out your SIM card.

SIM cards come with or without local calling/texting, and also with or without data, so make sure you choose what you need. A lot of my friends skip local calling/texting phone options because they can do it free on apps, as long as they are on WiFi.

Figure Out How Much Data You Need

Ecuadorians live off of WhatsApp. Stores, restaurants, and hotels post their WhatsApp connection on their Facebook pages. I soon realized I could do without a local Ecuadorian cellphone service plan, as most of my communication is done on WhatsApp, iMessage, Messenger, etc. But because many expats don’t utilize apps, I still carry the phone-calling feature for my app-impaired friends that prefer to “dial.” Keeping phone service is also useful when verifying hotel reservations, making restaurants reservations, traveling to other areas in Ecuador, or to call my driver when I get lost. But my need to use local calling/texting is minimal.

However, I do need data. A friend of mine once told me, “Remember DATA = Internet.” Data is the lifeblood of living abroad—when you can’t find WiFi. Some SIM cards come preloaded with data, but with some you need to load the data separately. Make sure when you are buying your SIM card that you memorize the word for data, which is datos (not a far reach), so you get what you need.

How much data you need is based on how you want to use the internet. If you are in a spot that doesn’t have free WiFi, you’ll be stuck if you’re phone doesn’t have an internet connection. Data on a phone allows you to access the internet through your service provider (such as Movistar), so if you get lost hiking the Andes mountains, you can still make that WhatsApp call (probably).

Most tourists can last on 2GB of data for five to seven days, but a data hog like me—I sometimes like to shoot videos or download apps on the go—I need more.

My current play-as-I-go plan costs me $7 a week. This gives me 2GB for internet browsing (about 89 hours) and an additional 2GB for Facebook/Messenger (about 680,000 messages), plus 100 minutes of talk time (which can also be an additional 100 minutes of data use if needed). Any time I can get on free WiFi, it of course doesn’t count against my data, but if I slip up and start shooting 4-minute videos, this might use up 1GB. I can play about 68 videos on YouTube before I use up another 1GB. A gigabyte also gives me about 15 hours of Google Maps, to assuage my fears of getting lost while hiking in the Cajas and surrounded by bears.

Again, this is why you need to tell the vendor how much you intend to use the internet. But note that they will probably low-ball how much data you will use, as most Ecuadorians know how to use free WiFi and are not dependent on paying for internet to go about their business. As a new expat you’ll have to learn these tricks.

How to Put Saldo (Money) on Your Phone If You Run Out of Data

Sometimes I forget to put saldo on my phone and my service lags. I could choose a monthly plan that automatically refills my phone, but I prefer to pay as I go.

There are tiendas dotting most streets in downtown Cuenca that allow you to put saldo on your phone if you run out of service. Don’t be alarmed if your phone stops working or starts working slower—it most likely just needs a monetary refill.

Because I have trouble remembering my phone number and also which company operates it, I tape a note on the back of the phone with the phone number and carrier (which in my case is Movistar), and go to the nearest tienda with a sign outside saying “Movistar.” I usually hand them the phone and tell them the amount to put on the phone—usually around $24, which gets me through the month. And voilà, the phone will ding when the saldo is loaded (this takes only a few seconds). I’m in business.

Making International Calls

I make international calls on my phone via Messenger for the most part. Even my 90-year-old Aunt Bert uses Messenger. It’s less hassle than trying to use the phone-dialing function, which requires inputting country codes and can lead to unexpected roaming charges if you do it wrong.

Basically, the rule of thumb is Ecuadorian cellphone to Ecuadorian cellphone OR U.S. cellphone to U.S. cellphone. For international communication, use apps like Messenger or WhatsApp (but you do need a data allowance or to be on WiFi for that)—or Viber, FaceTime, Skype, Google Voice, Zoom, etc. International calling plans are available but expensive, and not often used—precisely because there are cheaper options.

Don’t Get Rid of Your U.S. Phone

Most expats have two smartphones (or at least two SIM cards)—one to use in the U.S. and one to use in Ecuador.

When I travel back to the U.S., I still use my U.S. phone, but I am too cheap to purchase a U.S. plan from the likes of AT&T or Sprint, especially considering I’m only in the U.S. for short periods of time.

Without a carrier plan, I can still use my phone in the U.S. by resorting to finding free WiFi services in restaurants, coffee shops, or on free WiFi hot spots in public places. I can still use my apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, or Skype to call, text, and video chat with family and friends.

I recently bested my game by asking one of my sisters to include me on her AT&T family plan, so now my U.S. locked phone works good as new while in the U.S.—I have a phone number, can make phone calls, and I have unlimited data. But if you don’t have kind sisters, and you need to make actual phone calls—rather than just use your internet apps—you can purchase a “burner” phone at a convenience store and/or a pay-as-you-go plan.

If you decide to use your smartphone in the U.S. without a carrier plan, just plan on going to Starbucks a lot.

The Pleasant Surprises Continue in Ecuador

By John Williams

John has got his priorities right in Ecuador. © John Williams

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the pleasant surprise I had not long after I moved to the coast of Ecuador in late 2017. That was when I found a beautiful golf course less than 30 minutes from my home on the beach. The pre-move research had indicated that there were some golf courses near the biggest two cities—but Santa Marianita, where I had chosen to live, was many hours’ drive away from those big cities.

However, it’s only a 30-minute drive to my pleasant discovery, Montecristi Golf Club. I play twice or more per week, at an average cost of about $20 per round, including the use of a new ClubCar golf cart. At 70 years of age, I am still playing a lot of golf and competing in the national tournaments. In fact, I ended up as the Amateur National Points Champion for Seniors (60+) for the 2019 season. That was another pleasant surprise.

But, as mentioned, I am 70 years old. At 70, you find yourself qualifying a lot of statements about yourself by adding “for a 70-year-old” at the end. That is not a surprise, it is a reality. So, even being relatively fit and healthy, for a 70-year-old, some of my body parts are showing wear and tear. Currently my left shoulder is acting somewhat worn-out. I think maybe the 70-year-old trying to hit the golf ball like a 40-year-old may have something to do with it.

The shoulder wasn’t getting better—so I visited the orthopedic specialist. Dr. Juan was recommended by numerous friends and in “gringo” forums. OK, this shoulder thing doesn’t really sound like a pleasant surprise, does it? The pleasant surprise came when I learned my fee for my first visit. Including diagnosis and ultrasound analysis, the cost was $40. That’s not $40 after insurance. And it’s not a $40 co-pay. It is just simply $40.

Next came the MRI scan he ordered. Well, actually it was three MRI scans, one for each shoulder and one for the upper spine/neck, all done on a modern Siemens system. That little exercise cost me $750 for all three scans. In the U.S., I would have paid $750 to $2,500+ for EACH scan. So, I can certainly mark that experience as a pleasant surprise.

Should I quit golfing? Or have my shoulder fixed? This was the choice I faced. And you probably know already what I decided. It was a good time to plan surgery to repair the smallish tear in a shoulder tendon; drain and repair a cyst that has formed under the tendon; and trim the shoulder blade bone that is rubbing on the tendon. This surgery is technically known as a Shoulder Arthroscopy with SLAP (Superior Labrum Anterior and Posterior) Lesion Repair.

After meeting with Dr. Juan and going over the details of the procedure, I asked about the cost. The estimate he gave was $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the details of what needs to be done once they are into the surgery. But he expected it to be approximately $2,500. That price includes everything. Now THAT is a pleasant surprise. For comparison, in the U.S., the national average all-in cost for this surgery is $21,050.

I have scheduled the procedure for January after the last National Open Golf Tournament of the 2020 season is over. Then I expect to be all ready for the 2021 golf season. You can see my priorities.

In Ecuador, our tranquil rhythm of life starts when the sun rises at 6:30 every morning and sets into the Pacific Ocean at 6:30 each evening. At this pace, I feel darn good for a 70-year-old… In fact, I feel better than I have in 20 years.