Cell Phone Service In Costa Rica – PrePaid SIM, Types of Phones

Nokia 3120 Classic

The Nokia 3120 Classic is just one of many phones you can buy cheap off of eBay and will work nice in Costa Rica with a prepaid SIM card.

A couple of years ago we wrote about cell phones in Costa Rica and since that time, things have changed.

About 2-4 times a week we get questions on  whether or not someone personal  phone will work in Costa Rica.  So this is all about common questions and answers on Costa Rica cells phones.

One of the first things you have to remember, Costa Rica is not smart phone savvy and as of now it is limited to G3, but everyone is Costa Rica seems to have a cell phone, and they do have a fairly good cell phone service. In the tourist areas the phone service is excellent, but when you get into the sticks you will have problems.

Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE, pronounced “ee-say”) is the leading government owned monopoly of cell phone service.  Cellular phones from  the USA will generally not work here. And do not believe your US cellular company claiming  it will – most of the time the service personal is trying to get you to buy a International Card, a cost that will drain your pocketbook.

To put it bluntly, it  depends on who your carrier is. If you carrier is a CDMA type (no removable SIM card) (like what Verizon, Sprint, Alltel) you won’t get any service in CR, unless you have a GMS (Global Services for Mobile) type of phones. T-Mobile and AT&T are just a couple that use GMS. Or you can use a compatible world phone, a special type of phone that companies like Telestial offers.

GEEKISM read Difference Between GSM and CDMA.

However, some systems in the USA have offer roaming service in Costa Rica.  But beware, the  roaming rates can run between $4.00 to $5.00 per minute and the service may not be what you want.  Their network is limited. Some US companies customer service personnel will claim their SIM card  applications work with most phones, but in reality they have no clue to what they are talking about when it comes to Costa Rica.

You need a GSM phone that is UNLOCKED and works on the correct band. Now, if you understand geekism,  there are four bands (frequencies) that GSM cellular phones work on. In Costa Rica, they use 1800Mhz, so the phone MUST work on that band. Most tri-band (850/1800/1900) and all quad-band  (850/900/1800/1900) phones will do. Some dual-band phones will work too. Just about ANY 1800 band PHONE will work.  To find out your band, you have to dig  into your cell phone user guide or find out about it by doing online search entering make  and model of your phone.

The below LINKS are from ICE  with manufactures, and it will direct you to the make and model that ICE supports. Please note, these links do change!


We would  recommend you buy a prepaid SIM directly from the phone company (ICE) at San Jose  International Airport. According to some locals, these SIM cards are not offered in ICE’s stores because they don’t want locals buying them, but there are many cell phone retailers that sell SIMs. In fact, it only takes about 20 minutes. People can bring in their phones from outside the country. However, if they  require unlocking, prices  ranges in price from ¢10,000 to ¢14,000. The cheapest GSM phone in Costa Rica goes for ¢30,000 or around $60USD.

Tip: Beware, places like Craigs List have phones for sale all the time, many times these phones are stolen, so buyer beware!

When you arrive in CR, first you will go directly to immigration and then baggage claim. In baggage claim,  there is a small desk on the right side against the wall near the luggage  carousel and the restrooms. There is also one upstairs, but sometime that one is closed – and why would you want to go back upstairs again and hassle with customs? Both places will say ICE on it. You can buy your prepaid SIM there. You can buy one for  ¢2500 (about $5), ¢5000 ($10), or ¢10,000 ($20). The local call rate is about ¢40 colones a minute, or around 8 cents a minute. The rate to the US is about ¢160/min (about 30 cents).

Incoming calls (local and from US) are free, but they could cost the person on the other end a lot.

In CR, you only pay for outgoing. If  you plan to call the US, get a ¢5,000 or ¢10,000 SIM.  If it’s only for local calls, get a ¢2500 SIM. If your minutes are running low, you will  get a text asking to buy more and they will give you a number to call, which is MASTER Pago, a Costa Rica Banking/Trust Service, that sells prepaid items.  They will ask for your  passport and it is a secure company to do any type of credit card transaction

Well that depends on you and how important is that phone. You can rent a phone (or just a  SIM) from many tours companies that advertise they do rent phone. Many Companies like  travel agencies and car rentals do rent, but they charge anywhere from $10-$15/day just for local calls and making a call to the US, you are back up to the 4-$5 a minute, in otherwords, it can be a ripoff. Also we have heard horrid stories on some of these off-the-wall cell phone rental companies. Usually a hefty deposited is required and your credit card number is on file. Just shop around and you can find some where the price is around $5-$7 USD a day.

See,  Cell phone rentals in Costa Rica

If possible avoid using any hotel phone especially ones that have this huge sign that says “Low Rates to US.” They will ask for your credit card and you have about a 90% chance it is a scam. The hotels get a commission from it.  They will charge you about $50 for a 5 minute call. My friend got ripped off big time when he got a message to call his office, and after 20 minutes his bill was around $600. The hotel sided with the phone operator who claimed the rates were given to him and he agreed.

Making a local call on a hotel room line is okay, it will cost you a few dollars for a couple of minutes, just do not make a habit of it.

In Costa Rica, only person that has a legal address and ID can in a sense purchase a cell phone line ( i.e. a phone number).  A phone with no line is also known as a paperweight.  However, the wait for a line and to go through normal channels is known to take months. However, for a few extra bucks (about twice) and know someone who has an in with ICE,  that time can drop in half.

Phones do come in very handy and it depends on your needs. If you plan to use it lets say around 5 times a day, renting would be your best bet from a reliable rental place.

If you rely on a phone for business (like we do)  we would suggest buying a cheap phone off eBay for $50 and then buy what SIM card that fits your needs. If you are are going to make a lot of calls, we suggest traveling with laptop or Netbook (Netbooks are going real cheap since the ipad has come out. I bought a brand new one off of Craigs List for $100)  and load Skype and Magic Jack ($19/year) – that way you can make an unlimited amount of calls to the US for almost nothing.

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  1. Arthur says:

    I purchased a unlocked lg-A275 dual sim phone on amazon for around $30.00. I got a SIM card at the SJO baggage claim area for 1mill colones ($ 2.00 USD) received 30 minutes and it worked great for incoming and outgoing calls. Only deducted minutes for outgoing calls.incomeing calls were free

  2. Hey admin I wonder if you can help me my girlfriend is in CR at the moment she has got herself a kolbi prepaid sim, she is struggling with it, she can’t dial anyone or text. How can she fix it?? Can she get Rim/bis for her blackberry?

  3. rainer says:

    Referring to Christina
    How will persons call me on the unlocked phone with an ICE simcard? Can the phone only be used on an outgoing basis?

  4. Steve S says:

    Below is Bill Maes post from last year which I found very helpful, but there has been one change (noted inline);
    – I used a 3G SIM Card in an unlocked 2G phone with no problem, also in an unlocked 3G phone.
    – ICE Kolbi PrePaid (Prepago) SIM Cards are available in front of Gate 5 and Luggage Claim Carousel 1. Just ask for a card and don’t forget the SIM Unlock Code on the card the SIM is attached.
    – Many places in the country offer the recharging of prepaid card, but it is difficult to find a prepaid card.
    – To change to English after buying your SIM card, dial 1150 and press talk, enter the number 5 to change, then 2 to change to English, then 1 to confirm.   Since this menu can change, listen for the word "idioma" to make sure "5" is still correct for changing the language.
    – Text 1150 to get your account balance sent to you.
    – Dial 1150 to recharge, get account balance or transfer your balance to another ICE Kolbi Prepago SIM Card.

  5. Guillaume g says:

    Where in Liberia airport is the PUNTA DE VENTA ICE STORES?:-)

  6. richard cromwell says:

    We are going to be flying into Liberia instead of San Jose.  I read that you could purchase a reasonable phone that was good and buy minutes for it  at a koisk in the San Jose airport.  Can we do the same thing at the Liberia airport or city or is there another  spot we could go to outside of San Jose.   Thank you. 

    • I have a CR phone and want to know how to maintain my number when I'm away from CR. Last time it deactivated and I had to get a new number (and SIM). I have some credit on the phone but will not be in CR for over 6 months. It says the credit does not expire as long as the line is active…but how to keep the line active?

      • admin says:

        As far as we know, if you do not use your phone in X amount of days ( I believe it is 90 days the same time for a tourist visa) it will be deactivated. However, we have heard that “sometimes” your credits will still be there.

        • Michael Windham says:

          All you have to do is add a very small amount to you time…sometimes as small as a dime….just add a dollar to it!   

  7. gary jones says:

    What is the cost per minute to call US from Costa Rica using a ICE prepaid phone sim card in an unlocked cell phone.

  8. gary jones says:

    what is the cost per minute to call us from costa rica using a ice prepaid phone

    • admin says:

      Local calls are $0.05-$0.07 per minute and calls to the USA and Canada are $0.26 per minute.

  9. Diann Kuebler says:

    Bill Maes is providing incorrect information above, I believe, when he relates:  "You need a unlocked GSM cell phone that has the UMTS 850 frequency for the new pre-paid SIM cards sold at the airport."

     I believe the actual situation IS: "For 3G service you need an unlocked GSM cell phone that has the UMTS 850 frequency for the new ICE pre-paid SIM cards sold at the airport."
     If all you are interested in is voice service and texting and your cell phone has 1800mhz GSM that SIM from ICE should work.  NO DATA….but voice and text.  Some of us don't want bells and whisltes….only the basics.  However, I could be wrong.  I did a text session with ICE this day, July 24, 2012 and never got a straight answer if voice would work with a 900mhz/1800mhz Nokia 8120.  I believe it will, but I sure would like to be certain.  Admin, can you help in this regard???

    • admin says:

      To assure cell service in CR, the key is to make sure you have a unlocked/jail broken GSM phone and one that supports ALL frequencies. Many GSM phones support three bands (900/1,800/1,900 MHz or 850/1,800/1,900 MHz) or four bands (850/900/1,800/1,900 MHz).

      For example, I have the Motorola Atrix 4g (super smart phone) that is unlocked/jail broken and it supports ALL bands/frequencies. With said, its SIM is unlockable and then when I go to CR, I just buy ICEs local "prepaid" SIM at the airport.

      Sometimes it does take rebooting for it to be used. And to assure that I have no problems, I also have CyanogenMod which is a "FREE" aftermarket firmware for a number of cell phones based on the open-source Android operating system. It has variety of features & enhancements that are not currently found in Android, and one is performances, which allows it to lock into a cell signal better. Again with said, many times I can send/receive calls where my friends (who have local phones. particulary the iphone) can not …

  10. Silvia says:

    I will be in vista rica next month. I have a 4s iPhone through Sprint and I am wondering if other than letting sprint know that I will be in costa rica do I need to do anything?  I also have a blackberry world phone also through sprint  which is not activated at the time is this a better option and just getting a sim card or are there other steps to take?

    • admin says:

      It all depends on the type of phone you have, Sprint has smartphones, iphones, Blackberrys and Andriods in their service plans. If you have a iPhone 4s or Android and you plan to take it to CR, you better make sure it is unlocked/jail broken so it is compatible to CR's Internet Network. When you do have a compatible phone, UNLESS you buy a Costa Rica pre-paid ICE SIM card (which you can get at the ICE kiosk at the luggage area in San Jose airport) for the phone, it will be nothing but a paperweight.

      Otherwords, it has to have a ICE SIM card for the phone to work. And unless you have some type of international plan, you will not be able to call outside of CR. However, do not be fooled, some international plans do not work in Costa Rica even if the sales person tells you it will.


  11. Adele says:

    Does anyone know if ICE sells prepaid microsim card for IPADs?

  12. Cruise Boy says:

    I just purchased a Kolbi Prepaid SIM chip at the upstairs counter before customs at the airport. The employees were nice and helpful. I brought a jailbroken iPhone 4 on firmware 4.2.1 from AT&T US that is using an Ultra Gevey SIM as an unlock with the FuriousMod app so that I don’t have to go through the unlock procedure with every reboot. At first it would not work – the SIM could be seen but the phone would not log onto Kolbi ICE.

    The solution was to boot up with the chip, then go disable the SIM PIN number in Settings since all ICE chips come preloaded with a locked SIM PIN. After that, the Gevey SIM would successfully unlock the phone and the phone would find ICE. It seems like the Gevey works after performing a series of functions restarting the SIM search procedure so having the SIM PIN be requested after each unapparent restarting was not allowing the unlock process to finish.

    Also 3G works fine with this chip and is only $0.25 per day so Internet access is cheap. Calls locally are cheap too. Too bad we can’t have such rates in the US.

  13. Bill Maes says:

    18 February 2012
    – I used a 3G SIM Card in an unlocked 2G phone with no problem, also in an unlocked 3G phone.

    – ICE Kolbi PrePaid (Prepago) SIM Cards are available in front of Gate 5 and Luggage Claim Carousel 1. Just ask for a card and don’t forget the SIM Unlock Code on the card the SIM is attached.

    – Many places in the country offer the recharging of prepaid card, but it is difficult to find a prepaid card.

    – To change to English after buying your SIM card, dial 1150 and press talk, enter the number 4 to change, then 2 to change to English, then 1 to confirm.

    – Text 1150 to get your account balance sent to you.

    – Dial 1150 to recharge, get account balance or transfer your balance to another ICE Kolbi Prepago SIM Card.

  14. can we get a Costa Rica pre-paid SIM card for Iphone 4s?
    does Costa Rica pre-paid SIM card work for Samsung GT-E1150 that is 2G Network GSM 900 / 1800

  15. Bill Maes says:

    Complete conversation with Grupoice online chat 21 January 2012:

    Por favor espere. Un operador estará con usted en breve.
    Espere en linea por favor…
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Bienvenido Bill Maes al Servicio de Chat ICE, mi nombre es Cecilia Cordero, en que le puedo ayudar?
    Bill Maes dice:
    ¿Dónde puedo comprar tarjetas SIM de prepago?
    Bill Maes dice:
    I will travel to Costa Rica in February.
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    There`s lots of places where you can buy a prepaid card
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    In a ICE agency or in the stores that sells
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    prepaid lines
    Bill Maes dice:
    Are these businesses the places to buy? http://www.grupoice.com/wps/portal/kolbi_prepago_recargas_Puntos_de_venta_y_lugares_de_recarga
    Bill Maes dice:
    Or they just recharge?
    Bill Maes dice:
    Is there a list on Grupoice website of stores that sell?
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Yes, the puntos de venta that`s right
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    No they also buy recharge lines
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    No in this moment we don`t have a complete list, every day we have new stores
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    In this link you can see that they sell and make recharge
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Bill Maes dice:
    2G and 3G SIM cards available?
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Almost all the prepaid are 3G
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    in this momentç
    Bill Maes dice:
    SIM cards are not in short supply?
    Bill Maes dice:
    Plenty of SIM cards available?
    Bill Maes dice:
    Thanks you for your patient assistance.
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    You`re welcome
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    We don`t have short
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    We have plenty of lines there`s no problem
    Bill Maes dice:
    Thank you. You have been so helpful.
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    You`re welcome
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    If you have another question
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    I can help you
    Bill Maes dice:
    No, Thanks for asking.
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Ok thanks for using the ICE service
    Cecilia Cordero dice:
    Have a good day
    Bill Maes dice:
    You, also.
    Cecilia Cordero dice:

  16. Bill Maes says:

    From the Grupoice website is a list of Prepago recharge and resellers. Great information’


  17. Bill Maes says:

    You need a unlocked GSM cell phone that has the UMTS 850 frequency for the new pre-paid SIM cards sold at the airport.

    ADMIN, Don’t delete this post as this information does conflict with that in the article.

  18. Bill Maes says:

    I have been reading a substantial number of websites and blogs this evening and have found something that doesn’t show here.

    For the ICE Pre-Paid SIM card, purchased at SJO, you will need an unlocked 3G Network GSM cell phone with compatibility to UMTS 850 frequency band.

    Above it is stated that the pre-paid card from SJO will work with the 1800Mhz frequency. That Freq is the 2G GSM network that I have been using for 6 years..

    From the Kolbi website you can find a list of the phones sold for 2G and 3G networks:

  19. Christina says:

    So, if you have an unlocked phone and bring it there, all you can have right away is a paperweight line without its own number? Then, how do you handle having a group where you want several cell phones you are bringing each with their own cell phone numbers so that you can call EACH OTHER with when separated or in an emergency?

    If a line is a “paperweight” line, it would seem to me that you could only make outgoing calls on it, then. If you have no number, how does someone call YOU? This is very confusing to me. When we all go our separate ways, I want us to be able to call someone else in the group should there be a delay, they are lost, or there is an accident, etc.

    • Adrienne says:

      I have the same situation that you have.  It sounds like getting the phone and sim card is pretty expensive.  What have you found is the easiest way for your group to stay in contact if they are separated?

  20. Christina says:

    Can you buy these prepaid ICE sims over the Internet so you have them when you get there?

  21. becky says:

    What do you mean when you say the phone has to be unlocked? I have a Samsung Intensity II.

    • Carriers will lock their phones so the phone can ONLY be used with their cell service. A unlocked phone will allow the phone to work with many cell companies. Phones that can be unlocked are those with SIM cards.

  22. C Ulbright says:

    Can you purchase SIM cards that provide data as well as voice? I want to use google maps when traveling around.

  23. C Ulbright says:

    Do these SIM cards allow access to data as well as voice?

  24. Gerard says:

    #10 – I should add, you must check by dialing 1150 to maintain your SIM card.
    #12 – It’s called jailbreaking on an Iphone. Where did I ever come up with ‘bootjacking’? Duh!

  25. Gerard says:

    #10 – if you don’t let the minutes expire, and buy more time by rolling over the minutes, you can use the same SIM card, and number indefinitely.

    #12 – Bell Mobility is not on the GSM phone network. In Canada, Rogers and Fido are GSM. However, your phone MAY be an unlocked world phone, and if it has the 1800 band, and uses a SIM card, MAY work in Costa Rica. Bootjacking(unlocking) an IPhone can be a disaster waiting to happen. You have to do some research on your phone to find out if it’s compatible.Bell will try to sell you a roaming package, so it’s best to do this on your own. Another option, is to buy an unlocked GSM phone, with the 1800 band width, or as the article suggested, rent one from a reputable agency.

  26. I will be CR for a month in January and was wondering if we can get a sim/gms for Iphones? If it helps answer the question I am Canadian and my phone service provider is Bell Mobility.


    • admin says:

      Not knowing what model your iphone is, it must be one that is unlocked before it can receive a sim card.

  27. I go to Costa Rica for six months. Will the SIM card last that long, or do you need to buy more than one? BTW – I don’t see any lists of “Master pago” stores or sites?

  28. With the new free trade agreement is there any other options for renting a SIM at the airport besides ice? I have an unlocked Motorola razor which I believe will work just need to plan out the sim at the airport.

  29. MikeV says:

    can someone share info on cell service different providers cause the digits don’t coincide from US to Cobano CR New “8” is not helping me

    • admin says:

      Really don/t know what you are tying to ask. The added 8 was done several years ago. ICE (IPS) pretty much controls all cell sevice, however since the Free Trade Agreement, more outside companies are now competiting against ICE. And calling anywhere outside Costa Rica, one must use the international dialing format: 011 + 506 + ???? ????

  30. Thanks for the great info! Do you know if you can get a prepaid SIM in the International Airport in Liberia, Costa Rica? I am traveling there in July. Thanks

  31. Katie Arnold says:

    Thank you for your helpful research! I am a student traveling to CR and this has information has helped a lot!

  32. Vic Murillo says:

    Very useful article about cell monopoly in CR. Keep on the good work. We need you guys.

  33. Wyatt says:

    Incredible contribution, I seriously will enjoy updates of your stuff.

  34. Joe Mcpearson says:

    Wow! great ICE links, the 1st I have seen on any cr cell service, most want to rent you the prepaid phone and charge you an arm and leg. Great Tips! thanks!


  1. […] Droid and I have a Blackberry, so we’re good.   You can read more about how it works in this Tico Times article. . You need to have an unlocked phone (to allow you to use a different carrier’s SIM card.  Most […]

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