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.
I HAVE A BLAB BLAB PHONE, CAN I USE IT IN COSTA RICA?
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.
OKAY, WHAT TYPE OF PHONE DO I NEED?
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!
COOL, I GOT THE CORRECT PHONE, WHERE DO I GET A SIM CARD?
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
I’M GOING TO COSTA RICA FOR SEVERAL WEEKS, IT IT BETTER TO JUST RENT A PHONE?
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.
WHAT ABOUT USING HOTEL PAYPHONES?
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.
WHAT ABOUT JUST BUYING A PHONE?
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.
WHAT DOES TICO TIMES RECOMMEND?
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.