It’s often difficult to get accurate information from U.S., Canadian or European cell phone companies about whether their phones or “unlimited” plans work in Costa Rica and how much it will really cost.
Sometimes the easiest, most reliable, economical and financially predictable way to have a cell phone in Costa Rica is to buy one or use a SIM card to convert your mobile device to a Costa Rican phone number.
We had more friends than usual visiting us in early 2016 and needed a spare phone for them to use. A new phone with texting and limited internet capabilities with a 30 day talk and data plan was just under $30 from the Kolbi kiosk in the Cariari mall east of SJO airport.
Prepaid SIM Cards
If you have an unlocked Quad-band phone you can buy a local Costa Rican phone number on a prepaid SIM card, insert it in your phone and dial away.
If you don’t have an unlocked phone or don’t want to risk your expensive phone while waterfall rappelling in the rain forest you can buy a cheap phone, stick the prepaid SIM card in and off you go.
Local calls are about $0.10 a minute but with either of these options you’ll still pay upwards of $2.25 a minute for international calls. After eight minutes your $20 prepaid card will be exhausted and the call will end (instead of running the bill up to a thousand bucks like it would if you were roaming).
Purchasing a SIM/Prepaid Phone
The easiest place to get a prepaid phone or SIM for your unlocked phone is in the airport. At the time of writing you had to pay in colones and cash only so you may need the airport ATM.
You also need your passport to register the phone number of your new SIM card.
Odds are pretty good they’ll speak English but it would be polite to try
“Quiero comprar un teléfono y un SIM prepago por favor” or “Quiero comprar un SIM prepago por favor”
Basic phones cost around $20-30. The SIM cards come in denominations from $5 to $20 and if you’re only making local calls for a couple of weeks $5 will probably be plenty. International calls can burn up $20 in a few minutes.
If you want a data SIM be sure to add “datos” or “internet” to your request.
Don’t lose your original SIM. If you do you will no longer have a working phone when you get home and it will be a pain to get it replaced.
Which Service Provider/Company to Use
A few years ago the government monopoly on cell phone service was opened up to competition and there are now several options. The biggest newcomers are Movistar and Claro.
While there’s a lot of discussion on internet forums, Twitter and Facebook about which company is the best it mostly centers around pricing, packages, traffic, local anomalies in coverage, and customer service for people who live in Costa Rica and want the best coverage at home.
For tourists the choice is quite easy. Go with Kolbi/ICE – the government backed company. There can be slightly cheaper plans and some say service is better from Claro but ICE held a monopoly for years and still much higher numbers of towers, stores, and market penetration. If you’ll only be there for a few weeks use the big company unless you get advance information from your hotel or resort that one of the little guys works better in their area.
SJO International Airport San José
In SJO international airport across from the baggage claim carousels is a blue counter with a sign that says Kolbi/ICE.
LIR International Airport Liberia
There’s a Kolbi counter just after you pass through customs. Recently a traveler informed us that he paid $2 for a SIM and $18 for 2 Gigs of data and local calling and texting.
There are Kolbi, Movistar, Claro and ICE stores everywhere, even in the smallest towns you’re likely to find at least one of them. At dedicated phone stores they will install the chip, make sure it’s connecting to their service, and make sure you know how to work it.
Refilling Prepaid SIM Cards
Once you have the SIM card you can refill it using a credit card on the phone, over the internet or by buying minutes at most convenience stores (pulperia, supermarket etc.) but it’s important to note that you cannot register a new number or get a new SIM anywhere except an official ICE (or other phone provider) office. If you don’t want to hassle with it in the airport, most small towns have an office, but expect lines, a lot of paperwork and hassle plus a trip to the bank to pay and get a receipt so you can return and wait in line again…
Text Your Friends Back Home & Have Them Call You
Incoming calls (local or international) are typically free on a Costa Rican SIM while outgoing international calls run about $2.25 a minute (again it may depend on your carrier and plan). Instead of dialing your friends at home, text them and tell them to call you.
When You Leave Costa Rica
You may want to hang onto the phone for future international travels but you might as well give the SIM card to someone who can use it. The SIM won’t work outside Costa Rica and unless you’re returning within a couple of months (some are only 30 days) the credit and the phone number will expire and you’ll have to start over again.