What it’s like buying smartphones in Venezuela, the country with a broken economy
Inflation, and more particularly hyperinflation, are often some of the most crippling symptoms of a failing economy, and overall, one of the worst things that can happen to a country’s economy. Some of the most painful historical episodes of hyperinflation include Germany in 1923 (Weimar Republic), Hungary in 1946, Yugoslavia in 1994, and Zimbabwe in 2008. In layman’s terms, hyperinflation is simply a very high and constantly accelerating inflation episode which quickly and constantly increases the price of all goods in a span of weeks, days, or sometimes even hours, in turn crushing people’s wealth and causing them to minimize their holdings in local currency. A country’s economy is often considered hyperinflationary when the monthly inflation rate surpasses 50%.
As you may know by now, one modern example of an ongoing hyperinflation episode is Venezuela. This economic debacle, caused by several factors, has quickly spiraled down into a grave economic and humanitarian crisis affecting people of all social classes. This has obviously heavily impacted the average Venezuelan’s pockets and changed people’s everyday life and spending habits in every imaginable way. One aspect that has obviously been impacted by the crisis is the smartphone market. Phones have become essential tools, and in a country where you can’t really afford to upgrade your phone every two years, you’ll find yourself squeezing out the full capabilities of whatever phone you’re currently using for as long as possible. Often, this requires switching to a custom ROM like LineageOS in order to extend the lifespan of a device, which is exactly what a big number of Venezuelans are doing.
I’m currently living in Venezuela and have lived here for several years now. In this article, I’m going to run down the overall experience of what it’s like to be an Android fan in a country like this, going through basic things like buying a smartphone, using a smartphone, and continuing to use it for the long-term.
Disclaimer: the current situation in Venezuela is very, very volatile, unstable, and hard to predict. Factors like inflation/hyperinflation as well as other humanitarian/economic aspects can get a lot better or a lot worse in the blink of an eye. As updating this article with updated information every time something changes will quickly get tiring, it is clarified that the information showcased here is up-to-date with the article’s publishing date.
How far does your dollar go in Venezuela?
Right off the bat, there are a couple of things I should mention for context. First off, the minimum wage (and the one most people earn) is currently sitting around 40,000 sovereign bolivars (commonly abbreviated as Bs.S. or VES) monthly. At the official exchange rate, which is around 10,000 VES for every $1, this gives you around $4 a month. That’s bad enough as it is, but then we have to take into account the black market exchange rate, which is around 12,500 VES for every $1 and is the one used by most people. This one gives us around $3.20 a month. Some jobs may pay up a little bit more, but this is usually the average for most Venezuelan workers.
I’m not going to delve deep into the humanitarian side of things, as this article is revolving more around Android than anything. But as you may guess, earning a minimum wage is not even enough for basic sustenance.
So, let’s say you want to buy a cheap phone, like a Xiaomi Redmi Go. This phone would normally cost $65 globally, but it will set you back $85-$90 in Venezuela because of added import costs, as Xiaomi does not officially sell phones in Venezuela, plus you have to count in additional profit for the store. If you’re an average worker, you’d need to save up several monthly payouts in order to even be able to buy it, immediately exchanging it for harder currency (USD, EUR, cryptocurrency) for inflation’s sake. For how long, exactly? Well, if you earn minimum wage, you’d need to save up for at least 21-30 months. This is without accounting for other basic expenses like food and other services that rank up higher in priority. Add those in and it’s virtually impossible to save up for a phone.
How do you get money if you need a new phone then? Some jobs, particularly those in transnational companies, pay way larger amounts, normally in hard currency. These are usually online, either as freelancing gigs or full-time jobs, but there are also actual, office jobs that pay in such a way. Other people, as a result of the “Bolivarian diaspora”, have family abroad which are able to send them money on a monthly or weekly basis, which is enough to allow them to sustain themselves.
How do you actually buy a phone?
So let’s presume that you have the money and you’re ready to buy a new phone. The most logical way to go is to go into a store and buy one. The go-to place for most people’s tech-buying needs in Caracas is the City Market mall, located in the Sabana Grande Boulevard on eastern Caracas. It’s an entire mall dedicated almost entirely to technology products, including smartphones, videogames, computers, and the likes. This mall has several stores fully stocked with phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S10+, the iPhone XS Max, the Huawei P30 series, and other current devices.
Store shelves in Venezuela showcasing devices like the Huawei P30 Pro, the Xiaomi Mi 9, the iPhone XS Max and the Samsung Galaxy A70—all of them way out of an average Venezuelan’s budget, but available for purchase nonetheless.
Aside from a few exceptions, like OnePlus devices (which are a very rare sight by themselves since they’re really hard to import, according to a store owner I asked), there’s a lot of variety, from flagship phones all the way down to entry-level devices. You might even come across some… odd… sights.
Apparently, some malls in Venezuela are still selling the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Yes, that one. The exploding one.
(Note 7 FE has a smaller 3200mAh battery.) pic.twitter.com/6aXDBvCCXB
— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) February 22, 2019
But going in and buying a device here isn’t a straightforward process at all. It’s actually a truly convoluted and complicated affair. Especially when you consider how little these stores actually deal with local currency at all.
For this article, I’ve purchased two devices there: a Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 and a Xiaomi Redmi Go. As we said before, some stores don’t accept the local currency because of its hyperinflationary tendency, at least for buying phones and more expensive pieces of equipment, such as game consoles. So these stores have had to diversify their risks by accepting several other informal payment methods, including dollars/euros in cash, wire transfers to foreign bank accounts (normally Bank of America, Citibank, Chase, or Banesco Panama), international credit cards, Bitcoin/Litecoin/other cryptocurrencies, PayPal, Zelle, Uphold, and other platforms. This is as messy as it sounds.
In both cases, I used PayPal for buying the phones in separate stores. Normally, the PayPal accounts of these stores are managed by someone abroad in order to ensure all transactions go smoothly, requiring the cashier to contact this person to make sure the payment was received properly. In the case of the Redmi Note 7, this confirmation process took around 20 minutes. The phone was then immediately handed over to me in its sealed box with its full invoice (with prices listed in bolivars) and 3 months of warranty.
In the case of the Redmi Go, the person in charge of managing the store’s PayPal account did not reply on time, requiring me to come back the following day to pick up the device. It was eventually dispatched and tested by a clerk in front of me, and the store was even kind enough to install a free tempered glass screen protector for me. I got the device, the invoice, and off I went.
It’s the same process for other stores, but your mileage may vary depending on the payment methods you have and which payment methods the store accepts. Some stores have also stopped taking a number of payment methods altogether because some people have figured out a way to swindle store owners and steal devices, further complicating things. So even if you find the phone you want and you have money to buy it, you may not be able to do so without going through weird hoops and workarounds. This is a far cry from the simple experience that most users have become accustomed to, often requiring a second visit to the local store to pick up the phone of your choice even if they had a unit available in the first visit.
How does importing work?
So what if I don’t want to go through all of this, can’t go through all of this, or the phone I want is not available here for purchasing yet? Your second option is to import it yourself, which is what I did with my current daily driver, the OnePlus 5T, back when it came out in 2017. But, again, this is not as easy as you may think. Just buying a phone online and having it delivered to your doorstep directly is a dangerous gamble: shipping companies like UPS and USPS often relay packages sent to Venezuela to the government-owned postal service company, Ipostel.
With little to no security and Venezuela’s seemingly high crime statistics, this means that something as expensive as a phone is almost guaranteed to “mysteriously disappear” on its way to you. Other companies like DHL and FedEx do handle and deliver their parcels by themselves since they have several offices in Venezuela and have their own trucks and staff, but recently, another issue has arisen: the United States government has imposed a travel ban of sorts, prohibiting US-bound passenger and cargo planes to fly to and from Venezuela, effectively disabling these companies from delivering packages from the US to Venezuela.
How in the world are you supposed to import stuff then? The answer is simple: this US ban only applies for direct and non-stop flights from the United States to Venezuela and vice-versa, but connecting flights and other types of transportation are not affected. Some freight forwarders and courier companies have managed to successfully import goods and circumvent this ban by either sending them through connecting flights or by sea. What do you do then? Your safest bet is to send your money to someone in the US, who can then purchase the device for you and make sure it reaches your hands safely. Upon receiving the phone, this person will send it to the freight forwarder, which will then handle the package and ship it to Venezuela safely. That’s the process I’ve used with most devices in my household, although, obviously, it was way easier and cheaper before.
Android in Venezuela
As you may have guessed by now, getting a new phone is a really convoluted process and one that most people can’t go through because they simply can’t afford such a thing. Those who do manage to buy new phones normally go for lower-tier ones that are more affordable than their flagship peers, like Samsung’s renewed Galaxy A line of smartphones (with the Galaxy A10, A20, and A30 being the most common), or Xiaomi devices like the Redmi Note 7, the Redmi 7, the Mi 8 Lite and the Pocophone F1.
Others, however, are simply stuck with what they have. It’s a really common sight to see older Samsung, LG, and BLU phones running Android Lollipop or even Ice Cream Sandwich, devices that would’ve been considered long obsolete in other markets.
These phones are also amazingly weak spec-wise. One of the most used phones in the country is the Orinoquia Auyantepui Y221 and the Orinoquia Bucare Y330, which are pretty much old, rebranded Huawei Ascend Y210/Ascend Y330 devices. These devices are leased by the government, which is why they are so common to see in the wild. But with a MediaTek MT6572 dual-core SoC powering both devices with an unimpressive 512MB of RAM and EMUI-based Android 4.2/4.4 on both, they’re very unlikely to get you places before you go mad out of sheer frustration.
These devices, as well as the software on them, started showing their age years ago, and it only gets worse. Plus, developers have started to drop support for older Android versions in their apps, which might not be much of an issue if your phone is running, say, Android 7.1 Nougat or Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but does become a major problem if your phone is running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean — an obsolete version of Android which a lot of phones in Venezuela are still running well into 2019. Yeah, it’s that bad.
Custom ROMs to the Rescue
So if you’re stuck with a 2012/2013-era smartphone and you can’t upgrade to a newer phone, what are your options? Some users, afraid of messing up their phones, end up staying in stock software, which is not that big of a deal if your apps still work with whatever software you’re currently using. But a lot of Venezuelans have started flocking to the XDA-Developers Forums in order to root or install a custom ROM on their devices, some of them becoming Android power users in the process. According to LineageOS’ stats page, Venezuela alone accounts for over 5,700 active installs. The most active devices in the country include:
- Samsung Galaxy S III (i9300, launched in 2012)
- Motorola Moto G (falcon, launched in 2013)
- Motorola Moto G 2014 (titan, launched in 2014)
- Samsung Galaxy S III mini (golden, launched in 2012)
- Samsung Galaxy S4 mini Duos (serranodsdd, launched in 2013)
- Samsung Galaxy S4 mini LTE (serranoltexx, launched in 2013)
- Samsung Galaxy S5 (klte, launched in 2014)
- Motorola Moto G 2015 (osprey, launched in 2015)
- Samsung Galaxy S4 mini (serrano3gxx, launched in 2013)
- Samsung Galaxy S4 (ja3gxx, launched in 2013)
There are lots of takeaways from this list. All of these devices are over 4 years old, and except for the Moto G 2015 (which launched with Android 5.1 Lollipop), all of them launched with Android 4.x, with the Samsung Galaxy S III launching with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich around 7 years ago–an operating system that, as of right now, is completely obsolete. The 12th most active device, the Galaxy S II, was launched with Android 2.3 Gingerbread over 8 years ago. These are devices that people have kept throughout all these years because they simply had no choice.
Now, we should mention that LineageOS’ global stats aren’t exactly composed of flagship, top-of-the-line devices either, but the differences are immediately stark. For one, devices like the Xiaomi Mi 3/4 (cancro), the Redmi 5A (riva), and the OnePlus One (bacon), which are the 3 most active LineageOS devices globally, are almost, if not completely, non-existent in the Venezuelan ecosystem.
Keep in mind that we’re simply talking about LineageOS. There are a lot of other ROMs, like Resurrection Remix, Pixel Experience, and crDroid, that aren’t accounted for, yet are still widely used in this market. We also need to take into account that older ROMs, like LineageOS 13.0 (which you’re more likely to find as CyanogenMod 13.0), also exist and are just as used, if not more, than the newer ones.
While Android modding is usually done because of enthusiasm in other countries, in Venezuela, it is done out of necessity. For the purpose of this article, I had a brief exchange with Twitter user @KalebPrime (known for a viral tweet over 2 years ago where he pointed out that Venezuela’s currency was worth less than World of Warcraft’s gold), who is currently residing in Venezuela. He was using an iPhone 5 until January when the battery died, so given how he couldn’t afford a new phone because of the country’s current situation, he decided to take out an old Samsung Galaxy S III out of his drawer, buy a new battery, a microSD card, and install LineageOS on it in order to revive it and get it up and running. His phone is currently running LineageOS 14.1. Being based on Android 7.1.2 Nougat, it is a far cry from current LineageOS 16.0 builds based on Android 9 Pie (LineageOS 16.0 is available for the Galaxy S III unofficially, but it might be slower/less reliable than the latest official version), but it works well enough for most daily tasks. Furthermore, according to Kaleb, it actually works better than the phone’s default software, and except for a few hiccups here and there (it’s a 2012 device, so it is to be expected), it is usable as a daily driver.
Kaleb’s story is one shared by many Venezuelans across the country: smartphones have become an essential pylon of our society, even in crisis-stricken circumstances. Basic access to instant messaging apps like WhatsApp for communication and social networks like Facebook or Twitter for information is absolutely essential considering the rapidly changing political and economic landscape of the country. So if your economic situation, and your current device, don’t allow you keep up with the rapidly advancing smartphone industry (which has already introduced us to concepts like foldable displays and in-display fingerprint scanners, which seemed inconceivable and unrealistic 10 years ago), you have to take advantage of whatever means are in your disposal to keep yourself connected.
One of those means is custom ROMs, and they’re definitely something that some Venezuelans have already started to take advantage. As the situation worsens, I fully expect those adoption numbers to keep going up.
The Bottom Line
Being an Android fan in a third-world country like Venezuela is a really weird experience for sure, but while the country is currently enduring a rapidly worsening crisis, the Android ecosystem remains surprisingly healthy, and it’s all thanks to custom ROMs. I’ve seen more people than ever recently using their devices with older hardware, but bleeding-edge software. And while this hasn’t been a trend that has caught up with the wider population—after all, older, more tech-illiterate people won’t give a damn about the software in their devices in the first place—more and more users are resorting to custom ROMs as an alternative to buying a new phone. LineageOS and other ROMs do manage to breathe new life into older smartphones, which spells good news for the durability and longevity of smartphones going forward.
Android and smartphones are also proving to be an indispensable tool for Venezuelan users, as they allow for basic communication (WhatsApp, Telegram) and banking (pago móvil services for instant money transfers between banks). During nation-wide blackouts and other emergencies, my smartphone is my only window to the outside world. So it makes sense to keep things updated and running well.
While living in a country like Venezuela, the closest you can get to newer tech, unless you actually have the money to fork out towards a flagship smartphone, is through a store shelf or through YouTube videos. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the latest software developments. Developers from our forums, and the custom ROM scene in general, not only bring the newest Android builds to an older phone to serve a niche enthusiast market, but they also have the potential to keep crisis-stricken nations reliably connected despite adversities and dire poverty, and still keep them in the loop with the latest and greatest in Android.