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Of course, you want to use your cell phone in Costa Rica! This guide will help you navigate everything you need to know- from using your existing cell phone in Costa Rica to purchasing a Costa Rican SIM card to using an eSIM.
Table of contents
- About Cell Phones In Costa Rica
- Using WiFi vs. Getting A Data Plan
- Do You Need A Data Plan In Costa Rica?
- How To Use Your Own Cell Phone In Costa Rica
- Where To Get A Costa Rica SIM Card
- Pin it!
About Cell Phones In Costa Rica
Just like most places in the world, cell phones are ubiquitous in Costa Rica. Most everyone has one, more specifically, most everyone has a smartphone. Because not as many people in Costa Rica have a computer, cell phones are used for almost everything, and most people communicate and do business through the WhatsApp platform (more on that later.)
You can purchase cell phones in most cities and towns in Costa Rica- although you will expect to pay a premium for them as the taxes on electronics in Costa Rica are pretty high. In general, monthly cell phone plans and data are much cheaper in Costa Rica than in the United States, which is an advantage for people traveling to Costa Rica. If you are moving to Costa Rica, the best bet is to bring your own device and set up a plan when you arrive.
If you are trying to decide if you should take a phone to Costa Rica, my answer is yes, if you generally use one where you live now. I wouldn’t buy a new cell phone just to go to Costa Rica as landlines are still common in most restaurants and hotels, and you can still find internet cafes and computers in many areas as well. But if you use your cell phone at home and want to continue doing so in Costa Rica, this guide will help you to do so cheaply and easily.
In general, you will not find a lot of people in tourist areas trying to steal your cell phone. You should, however, be aware of where it is and your surroundings when you use it. But that’s just good practice for traveling abroad anyway.
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Using WiFi vs. Getting A Data Plan
The first thing you need to decide is if you even need a SIM card in Costa Rica. You’ll definitely have to take some vacation time to purchase a prepaid SIM card and get it installed, or you’ll pay international usage fees from your current cell carrier. If you aren’t even sure you need data, this section of the post is for you.
WiFi Access In Costa Rica
Most businesses in Costa Rica have free wireless internet access for customers- this includes restaurants, cafes, and some stores. Almost every hotel also has wireless access for guests, and even many public parks in bigger towns have wifi access.
You may have to ask for the password, but otherwise, you can expect to connect to wireless when you are dining and where you stay at night.
This means that if you are ok with not having data throughout the day, or not having it consistently, you probably don’t need to worry about doing anything with your cell phone in Costa Rica. You can just put it on airplane mode when you are not using wifi and you should not incur any data usage charges.
The question I most get when people are deciding whether or not to have data in Costa Rica is what to do about navigating in Costa Rica if you rent a car. I have found that saving maps offline on both Google Maps and Waze works perfectly fine.
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Cell Service In Costa Rica
As far as cell service in Costa Rica goes, almost the entire country has 4G coverage, and the areas around the capital have 5G. If you choose to use your data or buy a SIM card in Costa Rica, you will have good coverage in the majority of places that you go.
However, many areas in Costa Rica have absolutely no signal. In many national parks, near volcanoes and deep in the rainforest, there is no cell signal. Sometimes these areas will have wifi and not have data. So you need to think carefully about your itinerary when you are deciding if you need a data plan in Costa Rica. If you are spending a week off the grid, then you aren’t going to have cell phone service no matter what you do, and buying a data plan is pointless. If you aren’t sure if you will have data where you are, makes sure to ask your host or the front desk at your accommodations what the situation is.
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Do You Need A Data Plan In Costa Rica?
The first question you might want to consider is if you want to have data everywhere you go, or if you are ok using wifi when you can get it. Consider the following:
- Will you need to communicate with locals while you are there?
- Do you feel more comfortable using data to navigate a rental car?
- Do you need to accept phone calls and texts from home most of the time you are traveling?
If the answers to the above are all “yesses”, then you need to get a data plan in Costa Rica and you can skip to the next section.
If you are not all “yesses” however, let’s take a look at some considerations that might help you decide if you need a data plan in Costa Rica.
If you need to interact with locals through a regular phone line, then having a cellular data plan is a great idea. But if you and your family are going on your own from place to place, you may not need to make any calls or texts when you are out and about.
If you are wondering about navigation, you may be able to rent a GPS from your rental car company for cheaper than it would cost you to use data on your phone. A trick my friends at Adobe Rental Car taught me is to download the navigation app WAZE on your phone. The map will load your whole route and track it for you even if you are offline. So you can just preload your trip on wifi and not need data while driving.
Remember also that most phones have a wireless calling option, so you can make phone calls to most numbers via wifi rather than using cellular data. WhatsApp is king in Costa Rica, and you can make local calls and text via wifi to anyone with a cell phone.
If you need to get international calls and texts (for example for work) then you may want to just consider getting a SIM card as the rates for almost any international plan will be more expensive than just getting the SIM card in Costa Rica, as data plans are fairly inexpensive in Costa Rica.
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How To Use Your Own Cell Phone In Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, you have three options if you want to use your own cell phone:
- You can ask your local carrier to put you on an international plan and pay a daily fee to access data
- You can purchase a SIM card in Costa Rica and put it in your phone and pay-as-you-go
- You can install a virtual eSIM card and access local data
For the second two options, your phone number would change while you are abroad. All of these options require a bit of advance planning before you leave home for your trip.
Using Your Plan From Home
If you are planning to use your cell phone plan from home, you need to call your current cell phone provider and find out what international plans are available for Costa Rica. I will say that Costa Rica has a sort of convoluted phone system (run by the national electric company, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, or ICE), and not all standard international plans apply to Costa Rica.
Make sure to call your cell phone carrier and find out the rates specific to Costa Rica (and ask about Costa Rica, don’t just assume that all international plans will work). Let your carrier know when you will be gone, and don’t forget to cancel when you get home so you aren’t paying for the plan unnecessarily.
In recent years, many of the large cell phone providers in the United States have made it easier to just do a daily rate- you pay for the days you use and you don’t pay for those you don’t. It is usually about $10/day.
Purchasing An International SIM Card in Costa Rica
If you decide that you want to buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card in Costa Rica then you need to know about how cell phones work in the US so you can get your phone ready ahead of time.
In the United States, many of our cell phone companies provide a subsidiary for purchasing the phone from a specific carrier (such as AT&T or T Mobile) under a contract for a certain amount of time. These phones are locked so that you can’t go to another carrier under the contract while still using the phone. This means you also generally cannot take a phone abroad and just use a prepaid SIM.
To use a chip abroad, you need to have an unlocked phone. Most carriers will unlock your phone, but it is a process you need to request and can take up to two weeks. Some cell carriers will not unlock your phone so you won’t be able to use a SIM card at all. Make sure to call your carrier and find out these details.
I almost always choose to get my phone unlocked and pay for a SIM card because the price for my data for a week is usually under $10, which is less than one day of data if I use the plan from my US carrier.
Using An eSIM In Costa Rica
Recently, many new cell phones are not even equipped with an option to put a SIM card in the phone. New phones are moving to the eSIM model.
If you have a phone that only accepts eSIM, or you prefer to use an eSIM rather than a traditional SIM, it’s important to keep in mind two things.
First, you need to find out if your carrier requires your phone to be unlocked in order to use an eSIM. Some carriers require it, and some do not.
Once you find out you can use an eSIM in Costa Rica with your mobile phone, you will need to get an eSIM from an online provider. Currently in Costa Rica, eSIMS are only provided with a fixed cell phone plan. Great for residents, but not really for tourists.
The only eSIM option I have found as of this post’s update (January 2024) is Airalo eSIM cards. You can get data for a set number of days, and the price is super reasonable. It’s not as inexpensive as SIM cards, but you don’t have to track anything down.
You just download the app and pay for the data you need. When you are ready to activate it you just do so in the app and can use it right away.
The only downside to Airalo, as of now, is that you do not get a local phone number with Airalo, so you are confined to wireless calling. I haven’t found that to be a problem in Costa Rica at all.
UPDATE: I just found Airalo Discover, which does allow you a local phone number for an additional fee.
Where To Get A Costa Rica SIM Card
So, assuming you have decided a data plan is right for you and your phone is unlocked, you are now ready to get a SIM card in Costa Rica and install it into your phone. Here’s exactly how that works in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Cell Phone Companies
There are three main prepaid cellular phone companies in Costa Rica: Kolbi, Liberty, and Claro. Kolbi is a national brand, and I chose it because I love to support Costa Rican national products. If you are traveling throughout Central America, just know that your Kolbi will not work in other countries.
Liberty is a Spanish company that has become very popular throughout Latin America. Claro is a former subsidiary of Verizon that is now owned by a Mexican telecom group.
The three companies seem to work equally well as far as coverage, and their rates for data are comparable. If you want to support Costa Rican business, then make sure to buy Kolbi.
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Where To Purchase SIM Cards
There are three main places to find a SIM card. The first is the San Jose International Airport (I think Liberia too but I haven’t been there). When you land there are representatives of Kolbi who can get you a chip and a data plan right at the airport. This is a good option if you are short on time, but you will pay a hefty premium for the convenience. A prepaid card usually costs 1,000 colones (just under $2) and the last time I was at the airport they were charging $35.
The second place you can purchase the cards is actually from the agency office of the cell phone company. You can ask where those are located around the country- there are a lot.
If you are flying into San Jose, you will find these offices right in the City Mall, about 1 km from the airport. On the second floor, you can enter the agency and they will sell you the card and the amount of data you need for your stay.
Expect to spend about 30 minutes in the office, you will need to show your passport. The advantage here is the person who works with you will install the chip for you. Make sure not to lose your chip from home as your data is stored there and it is irreplaceable!
You can also purchase a prepaid chip in a ton of small businesses all over the country. You’ll see the logos for the three telecommunications companies near the doors to the store, and you can purchase the card there.
The disadvantage here is that you then have to call to activate the card, and that means you need another phone. The prompts to activate will be in Spanish, and sometimes when I have done this option I can’t activate the card without a Costa Rican national identification number (meaning my passport number won’t work.)
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that you can definitely use your cell phone in Costa Rica, you may just have to do a bit of legwork on the front end to make sure you have everything you need to do so.
Welcome! I’m Christa, a Spanish teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. We’ve spent over 25 years living in and traveling to Costa Rica with our daughters, and this website is my love letter to all things Costa Rica- and to bilingual parenting too. You can read my full story here. Thanks for stopping by!