How To Use Your Cell Phone In Costa Rica
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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 and the answer to the question- do you even need data in Costa Rica?
Table of contents
- About Cell Phones In Costa Rica
- Using WiFi vs. Getting A Data Plan
- Cell Service In Costa Rica
- How To Use Your Own Cell Phone In Costa Rica
- Where To Get A Costa Rica SIM Card
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- Pin it!
About Cell Phones In Costa Rica
Cell phones are as popular in Costa Rica as they are in the rest of the world- it seems like everyone has one and uses it as a tool for everything from shopping to communication to photography equipment. For this reason, cell phone safety, in my opinion, is not a huge deal in Costa Rica as most people have one.
Related post: Safety Tips For Costa Rica
You can purchase cell phones throughout the country, and the most popular brands are iPhone, Samsung, Nokia and Huawei. There are dedicated cell phone stores in most metropolitan areas. Expect to pay quite a bit more for a new cell phone in Costa Rica than you would in the United States, as the import taxes on electronics are steep.
You can also use your own cell phone in Costa Rica, which I will share more about below. 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 in the cheapest and easiest way.
RELATED POST: Costa Rica With Kids- The Complete Guide
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.
Cell Service In Costa Rica
On the contrary, while almost all of Costa Rica has excellent 4G cell service and data, there are still many rural areas that do not have cell phone coverage at all.
Especially in 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.
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 local ticos while you are there?
- Do you need to use data to navigate a rental car?
- Do you need to accept phone calls and texts from home most of the time you are travelling?
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 really 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.
Related post: Driving in Costa Rica
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.
If you are needing 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.
How To Use Your Own Cell Phone In Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, you have two options for using your own cell phone: you can use your cellular data plan from home in Costa Rica and pay for the international charges and keep your current phone number, or you can put a SIM card (or chip) into your phone and use a local number.
Either option requires a bit of advance planning before you leave home for your trip.
Using Your Plan From Home
If you are planning to use your 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 you 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.
Purchasing An International SIM Card in Costa Rica
If you decide that you want to buy a phone chip in Costa Rica (and truth be told, I always choose this option) 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.
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 and so you won’t be able to use a SIM card at all. Make sure to call your carrier and find out these details.
Related post: Coronavirus in Costa Rica
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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 in 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, Movistar and Claro. Kolbi is a national brand, and I choose 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.
Movistar 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- but if you want to support Costa Rican business, then make sure to buy Kolbi.
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.
Related post: Money in Costa Rica
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, but if you are flying into San Jose, you will find these offices right in the City Mall which is 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.)
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Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by
Hello. Great information.
My question is I wanted to purchase a SIM card in the United States, prior to our vacation, not in Costa Rica. Will this work?
Hi- I haven’t done it but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, I think it would just be more expensive.
Thx for the info. Do you know if I can buy the latest iPhone here in the US from Amazon unlocked to use in Costa Rica?
It looks like you can! Check this link: https://amzn.to/38hUkP4
I hav us cellular. My phone is unlocked but said a SIM card won’t work cuz Costa Rica doesn’t support CDMA iphones? Costa Rica has GSM? Do you know if US cellular works with SIM cards?
Oh I have never heard of this! It’s good to know it might be an issue, but unfortunately, I don’t know the answer! Pura Vida! ~Christa
Cellular networks in the US have either supported CDMA or GSM and the phones manufactured for those networks were either/or. So, you might have had a Verizon iPhone SE and your friend might have a T-Mobile iPhone SE but you couldn’t decide to leave Verizon (cdma) and take your iPhone over to T-Mobile (gsm) for a better deal – it wouldn’t work. This is almost entirely a moot point with most networks having phased out these technologies, with Verizon being the final holdout, having scheduled their curtain call on their cdma networks for December 2022. All the CR networks are gsm, so whatever phone you want to use a CR SIM card in has to be a GSM compatible phone. However, most US cellular plans have incredibly affordable international add-on packages. For my part, I don’t usually bother – maps.me (gps map and directions that works without data or cell connection) and WiFi have been sufficient every time my family stays in CR. This last time, a solo trip for an interview, I prepaid to use my iPhone on CR networks on a roaming basis, which kept me connected as I drive cross-country twice. If you’re looking at moving to CR, then I would suggest buying a phone in CR to ensure it will work out purchasing a dual-sim phone that allows you to use both your American/home sim and CR sim in the same phone.
This is SUCH good info. Thank you and pura vida!
That is correct CDMA is not supported in Costa Rica. So you must go with another Carrier.
Christa, I am an 82-year-old Australian that got stuck in Costa Rica when the CR border closed, in March 2020. Now that the Australian border has opened, I need to get Transit Visa to enter the US, so I can get a flight home to Australia. But I am having trouble getting a visa from the US Embassy here because I am neither a citizen nor a resident. They have now requested that I come for an interview but the earliest time for that is November 2023. I cannot even apply for an expedited interview because that is only possible if I can input a cédula to start the process. So I am going to need help from various sources: Australian embassies, politicians in Australia, Homeland Security in the US, etc. So, although I have never used a phone in CR for the 2 years and six months I’ve been stuck here, I need to have a phone now, so that anyone I write to for help, using my iPad, can call me (from the US, or from Australia). I use my iPad, and Wifi, for all my data needs. So All I need is to be able to supply a phone number that I can be reached at, when I write to seek some help from some (probably) government agency. I don’t use a mobile phone in Australia, either, so I’m not much used to thinking about phones. But I do have a mobile phone here (bought in Australia) that I can get a SIM card for. So, for the need I have, what would you suggest? Should I get a SIM card for my mobile phone, from Australia? Or should I buy a cheap local phone, just for making local calls and receiving international calls? I am living in Cartago, but I can easily get the train out to Alajuela, to go to City Mall. That seems like a good idea, to go to Kolbi there, so they can set my phone up ready to use.
Hi Merrall! Thanks for writing. I would take your phone to the Kolbi office (and there should be one in Cartago at the ICE office) and get a SIM that works with your phone from Australia. If they can’t help you with that, then I’d buy a cheap phone in CR to use for immigration needs. Pura vida and thanks for writing! ~Christa
I’m hoping you can help me. I have relocated to Costa Rica from the United States in January of this year. My unlocked T-Mobile One Plus 8 worked perfectly with a Claro SIM card. However, I damaged my phone recently and had to get a replacement phone shipped which was the same phone. However, it came locked. I had to get T-Mobile support to finally unlock it. Now it still does not work with my Claro SIM card. I was told by T-Mobile support to go to the Claro office and have them adjust the APN settings on my phone because apparently my phone does not recognize that I am no longer in the United States now. Is this something that you recommend me to ask of Claro? Or should I try Colby or Liberty at this point? I thank you for responding.
Hi! If you are just using a SIM and they are super cheap, then I would try Kolbi. If not, I would definitely ask to have the APN settings adjusted. Best of luck and pura vida! ~Christa