Cell Phones in Costa Rica. Renting, ICE and Coverage

At around $10 a month, just about every Costa Rican has a cell phone. At

At around $10 a month, just about every Costa Rican has a cell phone

Time and time again, I get questions about cell phones, whether or not US cell phones will work in Costa Rica. First, let’s make it very clear; Costa Rica is not like the US cell phone companies,  where there are a bunch of “competition.” Costa Rica has only one cell phone company, and it is a government run and operated monopoly, Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE).

“Okay. No big deal,” you say, “I’ll just get an International SIM card for my personal phone.” Buzzz, Wrong!

In order to have an International SIM card, one has to be interfaced with the current phone company, and ICE has not made any International agreements, at lease any that I know of at this writing.  Now rumor has it, ICE will have “some” SIM cards, but for what phone? is one of those questions that I expect will not be answered soon. Look at it this way; if they do issue SIMs, it cuts the government’s monopoly out of lots and lots of money. And we can not have that can we?

Cell phones from the US rarely work and when they do, service is bunk. More important, roaming charges can easily run to $5-$20 per minute. If you are so lucky to get service, you will probably have a heart attack when you get your bill!

Your best bet is to rent a phone from a reliable service in Costa Rica and there are many and most will deliver the phone to you when you arrive either at the airport of hotel.  Costs are fairly reasonable (about $80/month with deposit)  and you will not have the hassles. However, never rent from companies who will mail them to your US business or residence.  Obviously, there is no way of testing the phone if you are in the US it see if it works in Costa Rica, not counting the fact, the phone may be damaged in shipping and shipping anything from Costa Rica, can take weeks.

Well, now you say, “Hell with it, I’ll buy a  phone in Costa Rica, then axe it.”  Think again!  Only citizens and LEGAL residents of Costa Rica may own a phone  (this is the same if you want a landline). And it could take 3-4 months to get one, unless you know someone, who knows someone, who can grease a few palms here and there. However, service is cheap, about $10/month and one of the reasons why just about every Costa Rican has a phone.

Tip: If you do need to make a call, most Costa Rican’s will gladly loan you their phone to make a quick and important call.  I can not tell you how many times I have borrowed a taxi driver’s phone to make a call.

Probably one of the biggest draw backs is the coverage. Because of the terrain, cell phone coverage is only about 80% of the whole country. The areas with the best are the heavily populated beach resorts,  major inland cities (like San Jose, which has the best coverage) and areas like, Arenal Volcano.

One of the hottest phone systems is MagicJack (and what I use); this cool little device installs very nicely into mini-laptop like the 3K RazorBook 400 CE Netbook (less then $200). In fact, these little applications are being set up in the US (so you get the US number) and shipped in dozens to Costa Rica. Anywhere there is WyFi (which most hotels have)” ET can call home”. Service is sometimes sketchy, but for unlimited calls for $15 a year (their 5 year plan) – well I rest my case.

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