Five years ago the answer to the question – will my phone work in Costa Rica? – was just a simple no.
A couple of years ago the addition of new networks in Costa Rica and changes to phones in the U.S. meant the answer changed “yes it will probably work.”
Now the big question is “how much will it cost?”
Please Note: There are still places in Costa Rica where no cell phones work because there is no coverage.
If cell phone access is very important to you check in advance that the places you are visiting have cell service. Many eco-lodges, isolated beaches and remote boutique resorts have no service – even satellite phones often don’t work because of the forests and steep mountains.
The Magic List of What Works and How Much it Costs…
I know the magic list is the only reason you’re reading this page. It’s the only reason I would be reading this page.
In 2019 the cost of international plans* range from $0 – $120 (plus per minute charges) per trip. That could be as much as $480 for a family of four to keep in touch for a week of vacation which seems pricey but it’s still cheaper than roaming charges (see below).
Verizon recently expanded their “TravelPass” to include Costa Rica for $10 per phone per day which is extremely expensive. The TravelPass doesn’t include any extra minutes or data. It just allows you to use the minutes and data from your existing plan while you’re in Costa Rica.
T-Mobile is a little different and by far the best overall if you’re from the U.S. They don’t have an international service that can be added separately. All of their “Simple Choice” plans already include some form of international service. The un-discounted** rate $35 a month per phone plus taxes for unlimited data with unlimited talk & text domestic includes unlimited international data and text and reduces the cost of international phone calls from $2.69 a minute to $0.25 a minute.
In early 2020 T-Mobile rolled out an international “Premium” service with guaranteed maximum data rates for an extra $15 a month. We heard reports that some expat residents with the standard plans were experiencing slow speeds and “throttling” but our experience was the opposite. Traveling around the whole month of March we frequently saw LTE and even 4G data rates using our standard plans and continued to see free roaming to the fastest available network on Kolbi, Movistar and Claro…so way better than any Costa Rican phone plan.
AT&T offers 3 different 30 day “Global Passport” packages priced from $30 to $120 that include free texting, reduce the cost of voice to $0.35 – $1.00 a minute and include 150 – 800 MB of data.
Sprint is the only major carrier we’ve found that offers their customers a plan in Costa Rica without extra charges. You must sign up in advance for the “Open World” program which includes unlimited talk and text plus 1 GB of data.
**Please Note: Full service plans are usually available at a discount. For example we recently signed up for T-mobile at $35 (plus $8.65 taxes) per month for unlimited data, talk & text, unlimited free video and music streaming data – at home and internationally. That’s unlimited everything everywhere for about $1 a day…in Costa Rica the main partner is ICE/Kolbi which has by far the best coverage of the networks in Costa Rica but our T-mobile plan also roams for free if one of the other providers has better signal.
*Please Note: Just because you sign up for a plan doesn’t automatically mean your phone will work.
Although most phones now work there is no comprehensive, reliable up-to date list of devices that do or don’t. Some of the phone company website sign up pages for the international plans above also have a “phone checker” which may help.
If you’re not on a plan with one of the above carriers or can’t find out if your phone is compatible you may have to make that dreaded call to customer service…
“… if you would like to buy something, please press 1
if you would like to be told that you’ve contacted the wrong department, please press 2
if you would like to be transferred and then disconnected please press 3
if you would like to be put on hold for a very long time and then disconnected please stay on the line and we’ll disconnect you as soon as someone is available to do so…“
…and to be absolutely certain your phone will work you will have to fly to Costa Rica and make a call.
Just Leave it Turned Off
The simplest and most sensible answer to the question “will my cell phone or smart phone work in Costa Rica?” is “who cares?” Really.
Wouldn’t it be a great excuse to keep work from bugging you on the beach “sorry boss no signal”? Doesn’t it sound like a nice change of pace to not read a text, tweet, e-mail or status update for a few days. The best advice is “You’re on vacation in Costa Rica, give yourself a break!” will the world grind to a halt if you check out for a couple of days?
One of the main reasons people used to want G3 data available was to use live GPS navigation. However, now you can pre-load all the required maps and information for free and data is no longer required for navigation (see instructions).
Use Free WiFi for VOIP Calls on Your Own Phone
None of the band, plan, carrier, CDMA, GSM or other cell phone stuff matters if you are using WiFi. You are really just using your phone as a little computer and not a phone at all the features should work for free whenever you’re in a hotspot.
While connected to a WiFi hotspot you can tweet, facebook, snapchat and instagram to your hearts content for free. You can also use VOIP services like FaceTime, Skype etc. make local or international phone calls for free via the internet instead of utilizing a cell phone tower. You’ll be limited to hotels and restaurants or other hotspots but still be able to check in a few times a day.
Free wi-fi is very common in Costa Rica and ironically one of the few places you might have to pay extra to connect are “All Inclusive” destination resorts.
If you’re under 30 you may not have ever heard of roaming but back in the olden days of cell phones each provider only had small patches of coverage. When you left town your phone service would be handed off to another carrier who would charge you about six bucks a minute to use their towers. Roaming is still the way it works internationally unless you sign up for a plan in advance. You may have unlimited everything on your home plan but it’s unlikely that includes international roaming in Costa Rica.
It would be impossible to even begin to list all of the things to look for in the fine print, but a couple of cautionary examples might help.
One company charges $15 per MB of roaming data in Costa Rica. That’s Mega not Giga so an old rerun of “Friends” on Netflix will cost roughly $7,500.00 (yes…that’s seven thousand five hundred U.S. dollars not Costa Rican colones). Phone calls are $2.69 a minute and texts are $0.50 each.
I met a gentleman in Playa Carrillo who said he’d shut down his U.S. based i-phone after seeing the bill for his first nine days of usage. The total was slightly over $3,000 and that didn’t even include the six or eight bucks data usage it cost him to view the bill online.
Another woman was asking her travel agent to help after running up $1,800 in charges in less than a week on a “free” cell phone that came with her rental car.
These were not unintelligent or naïve people. Both were successful and tech savvy; they were simply out of their element and caught by surprise. To the best of my knowledge since they had agreed to the agreements and made the calls their appeals were unsuccessful.
Just because your phone works and you have an “unlimited” everything plan back home, don’t assume that unlimited applies in Costa Rica or your phone bill may end up costing more than your vacation.
If You Roam Text Your Friends
Texting is generally much cheaper than calling although you should be careful because your “unlimited” texting may not apply in Costa Rica and even $0.10 can add up if you do it enough.
Get a Costa Rican Phone Number
If you truly cannot live without a cell phone but your provider doesn’t offer a reasonable international plan or your phone doesn’t work see getting a working mobile phone in Costa Rica.
Recently we had more friends than usual visiting us 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.