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Costa Rica 101: Using your cell phone in Costa Rica

June 20, 2019

One of the better parts of any vacation is disconnecting from the rest of the world.

But whether it’s for safety or convenience, it can still be useful to have a working cell phone when you visit a new country. Thankfully, it is downright cheap, and relatively simple, to use your own cell phone during your Costa Rica vacation.

Here’s how to use your cell phone in Costa Rica:

1) Unlock your phone and confirm compatibility 

Depending on how you purchased your phone, it may be locked, or restricted to one specific service provider (e.g. AT&T, Verizon, etc.). If your phone is locked, you may not be able to use it with Costa Rican carriers.

Contact your wireless service provider to check if your device can be unlocked for a trip abroad. Each provider has different policies (here are AT&T’s; here are Verizon’s), but if you meet the requirements, the unlock process is quick — it’s usually done by inputting a special code on your phone.

If your carrier will not unlock your device, they may offer you a temporary international plan. While useful, these can be significantly more expensive than buying a SIM card in Costa Rica.

Finally, while most modern cell phones have the hardware to connect to network frequencies around the world, it’s still worth double-checking before going through any more trouble. I recommend visiting Frequency Check and inputting your device type to see a table showing whether your phone will work on Costa Rican carriers.

2) Buying a SIM card in Costa Rica

Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) both have kiosks selling SIM cards for kölbi, the state-owned mobile service provider.

At Juan Santamaría International Airport near San José, look for the storefront at baggage claim after you’ve passed through immigration. At Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia, you’ll see it after you exit the customs area.

If you don’t get a SIM card at the airport, you can visit a kölbi authorized vendor almost anywhere in Costa Rica. Click here for a list of locations. 

You’ll need your passport to purchase a prepaid SIM card, which costs 1,000 colones (about $1.70). The kölbi staff will help install the SIM card into your phone.

Keep your original SIM card in a safe place, since you’ll want to install once you return home. Hang on to all kölbi documentation, including the plastic card that has your SIM pin on it, for the duration of your trip. 

3) Buying additional data or minutes on your kölbi SIM card

As of June 2019, a new prepaid kölbi SIM card includes 6,000 colones worth of domestic phone calls, text messages, and internet access. That alone may be enough for your vacation.

As of June 2019, your balance spent at 40.351 colones per minute on the phone, 0.008588 colones per kilobyte of data, and 3.021 colones per SMS text message.

You can also pay at the kölbi store for additional data when you purchase your SIM card.  This can be done à la carte or with a package. The “de todo” package, for example, includes 200 text messages, 34 call minutes, and 150 megabytes of data for 2,500 colones, or about $4.30.

You can also buy recharge cards at 23,000 different locations across Costa Rica — including most grocery stores and pulperías.

Check your balance by dialing *888#. If you’re staying in Costa Rica for a significant period of time, it might be worth creating an account in kölbi’s app for iPhones and Android phones, which allows you to purchase data directly.

Tips for using cell phones in Costa Rica

  • The vast majority of Costa Rican drivers use Waze, not Google Maps or Apple Maps, to navigate. Waze has community-sourced traffic information and will alert you of road hazards, police traps, etc.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of Costa Ricans use WhatsApp rather than sending text messages through their carrier.
  • If you have Google Maps, you can save areas for offline use while you’re on Wi-Fi to reduce your data usage later on.
  • Most populated areas of Costa Rica have solid cell coverage. However, coverage can be spotty in the mountains.
  • Your kölbi SIM card will expire if it goes unused for several months, so it’s not worth keeping for next year’s vacation to Costa Rica.
  • There are other wireless service providers in Costa Rica other than kölbi. They include Claro, Movistar, and Tuyo. All work similarly to kölbi and may be more convenient if you’re traveling throughout Central and South America.

Do you have ideas for our Costa Rica 101 series? Let us know by emailing: alejandro@ticotimes.net. 

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