¿Where do cell phone recharges to Cuba come from?

Behind the proliferation of cell phone recharges to Cuba, there is the Cuban diaspora. But do you know from which countries are recharges sent, what’s the usual amount of credit transferred, how often Cubans send cell phone recharges to their relatives in the island? Using a recent survey of the recharge activity going through Fonoma from December 26- 29 of, I intent to answer some of these questions.

Users from 167 countries and 4672 cities

Geographic distribution of Fonoma users until February 2015

The initial surprise is that Fonoma users come from all over the world; the urban myth of the Cuban earning a living as camel tour guide in Egypt might actually be true. The data speak for itself: 167 countries and 4672 cities: Madagascar, Tamil Nadu, Luanda, Hialeah, you name it.

28% of all recharges come from United States

The lion’s share come from the US, with 28% of total recharges sent. No surprises here, about 1 million Cubans live in the United States. Brazil is second, with 13%, followed by Spain and Italy with similar share of about 8% each.

Recharges by country (26–29 December 2014)

It’s also significant that Cuba itself only accounts for 1% of the recharges. The vast majority of recharges originating in Cuba are sent by users that have previously recharged from abroad and do it again during a visit to the island.

Many recharges from Brazil and few from Venezuela

It’s well known that cell phone recharges are mostly sent by recent immigrants, who still maintain ties with friends and family back in Cuba. Data shows that Cubans who are temporarily residing abroad are even more active. For example, from Brazil , the second most popular country in volume, a significant number of recharges are sent by Cuban health care professionals from the “Mais Médicos” program, which in 2014 totaled over 14000 professionals in residence. At first, Cuban doctors had issues securing VISA cards able to be used in international transactions, but by now the Brazilian banks have issued the correct credit cards to them.

On the other hand, Venezuela, where tens of thousands of Cuban collaborate in similar programs, barely moves the needle. It’s surprising the degree to which the Venezuelan economy is disengaged from global finance. Virtually no one in Venezuela has access to PayPal accounts or Visa, Mastercard cards that grants the holder the ability to transact in USD or EUR.

Most common recharge amount is 40 CUC

The map below shows in different colors the geographic distribution of recharges by amount sent. Since the period analyzed coincides with a double recharge promo, in which the value sent is doubled by Cubacel — Cuban cellphone operator — with a minimum of 20 CUC, the most popular amount is 40 CUC (approx. $40).

Recharges for less than 20 CUC are almost non existent. On the other hand , the elevated number of 60 CUC recharges is consequence to a triple recharge promo that Fonoma often runs for first time users.

Origen de las recargas a celulares en Cuba por cantidad enviada (en CUC). Ver mapa ampliado

In Angola, deep pockets

The relatively discrete percentage of people from Angola, sixth country in the list with 6% volume, doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one thing, even though the internet infrastructure seems very poor, there are many satellite connections and proxies that do not reveal the real origin of the connections; the VISA and Mastercard networks appear to work quite well, there are few incidents in this regard.

But what stands out the most is that the number of recharges per user, both in number and amount sent is very high, showing that the Cuban community that has settled in Angola, where GDP grows steadily, is comfortable.

Recharges are sent mainly during promotion periods

Accumulation of recharges during promotion period December 26 -29 2014. Enlarge map for more details

Activity is concentrated during the Cubacel double recharge promotion period. On any given month, only about 5% of recharge volume occurs outside of the double recharge promo. The animation shows that activity intensifies right before the start of the promotion, December 26th. As of late, promotions are becoming a monthly affair that last four days, where the first and fourth days are the most active.


Cell phone recharges are a special form of remittances, as it could also be the remote payment of domestic services bill, such as gas or electricity, for relatives in the island. This phenomenon is not unique to Cuba and its diaspora, it is also a common pattern for other countries in the region like Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico that have a large number of migrants, especially in the US.

But perhaps what distinguishes us from other communities, is the diversity of countries and cultures where Cuban exiles have settled, and the clear evidence that many of them still maintain ties and bonds with family and friends on the island.

The circumstance that there is an active diaspora, exposed to great variety of cultures and experiences, also equipped with financial resources, is a hidden treasure that, when conditions are right, could resurface to play a key role in the country’s reconstruction.

One last thing…

If you'd like to surprise someone in Cuba with a recharge, take advantage of a promo in which a 5 CUC extra gift is added to the credit amount you send. Now, the promo is only valid for the first recharge, otherwise you'll bankrupt us :-)

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.