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Anyone who came to Costa Rica back near 2000 will probably tell you cell phones are a nightmare in Costa Rica. Fortunately, in 2010 things started to change for the best, and right now cell phone service is easy to obtain, for anyone, at any time.

CarriersEdit

Four cellular carriers operate in Costa Rica:

In that same order goes the signal quality and general preference. Kolbi and Movistar are pretty close, the rest have varying coverage and quality of service. TuYo is a reseller, that rents bandwidth on Kolbi's network. So their coverage is pretty similar. But you might as well go for Kolbi and get the full package than go for TuYo and get a part of it.

All these carriers have stores all over the country, where you can buy phones and lines. The stores all have the carrier's name (Kolbi Store, Movistar Store, etc). This is important because a carrier store is not the same as a cell phone store. See below. 

Where to buy a phone or lineEdit

Depending on what you want to do, you'll need to find a store that does it. Not all stores and service points have the same capabilities. Much like anywhere else in the world, you have carrier stores, cell phone stores, street corner vendors, and service points.

A cell phone store is a store that sells cell phones. That's their business, and the rest is optional. Most stores have agreements with cell carriers: they'll sell you an unlocked phone, equipped with a SIM card for their favorite carrier. If you want to switch carriers, you just change the SIM card, and that's that (you might have to buy the SIM card from another store though).

Cell stores will have just about any phone you can think of. From the cheapest made-in-china models, to the most outrageously priced top of the line smartphones and tablets. They'll fix your phone if it breaks, sell all sorts of accesories, and they're allowed to do stuff that carrier stores aren't... for example upgrade firmwares or unlock phones.

But, a cell store can't sell you a long-term plan. You can't buy one of their phones and pay it off as you go. They also can't solve problems relating to your carrier's network or billing. For that you'll need a carrier store, or a service agency.

Carrier stores are stores directly related to a carrier. They sell only models authorized by that carrier, and usually provide the full line of customer services. They can fix network problems, check your billing, and give you long term contracts. Most of the phones they sell are locked, meaning they can't be used with other carriers.

You can tell carrier stores from cell stores because they have the carrier's name, their colors, their logo, etc. A "Claro Store" is a carrier store. Same as a "Kolbi store" or a "Movistar store". Anything else is probably a cell store. The only exception is Tuyo, who sells their phones through Wal Mart and other retailers.

Street vendors and service points deal mainly with minutes. They'll sell you prepaid SIM cards with limited talk time, or load more time into your current card. They're all over the place and will advertise "recargas" in the window.

Service agencies operate mainly with Kolbi. They're special offices, where you go when all else fails. If you can't solve a billing problem, get your phone to work, or have some kind of limitation to sign a contract, you'll probably end up going to a service agency. Under normal circumstances, you should have no need to go to one of these agencies.

The absolute easiest solutionEdit

The absolute easiest solution for getting working cell service in Costa Rica is to head over to a cell store, and buy one of those low-end bar phones with a prepaid line. You can find $30 phones in most cell stores and Wal Mart; just buy one, turn it on, and you've got a working phone. You'll have no internet service though. But if what you need is a phone to ask for directions or call your hotel, and you're not tech savvy, it's probably the best solution. When you're done with it, leave it with someone who might want it, or take it home (just remember these will probably be 850 MHz phones that might not work back home). 

Prepaid SIM cardsEdit

Prepaid SIM cards are the ideal solution if your phone is unlocked and 850 MHz compatible. Just buy one, pop it in, and follow the activation instructions. Usually to activate your line you dial a service number and punch in a few codes given to you in the activation instructions. And you get a working cell line, that can make and receive phone calls, as well as give you internet service.

Don't lose the plastic card your SIM came on. It contains the unlock codes you need to type in when you turn on your phone.

These prepaid SIMs go for about 5000 colones ($9) if you buy them at carrier stores. If you buy from street sellers, you can get one for as little as $2. Once you've used them up, you can recharge them at service points, or if you don't mind losing your number, toss them out and get a new one. 

For $2 prepaid SIMs, try Central Avenue in San Jose. You can usually find the people selling SIMs around Plaza de la Cultura. 

To get internet service, you have to activate the "packet data" option on your phone. What comes next depends on your carrier:

  • Kolbi: by default you have internet service, billed by kilobyte (current rate is 0.00858 colones per KB, or 8.78 per MB.). Just turn on packet data and go. There's also hourly, daily, weekly and monthly plans you can purchase, that are a better deal than paying by KB. Be aware, these plans have a transfer cap, if you exceed the cap, you're automatically billed by KB for the excess.
  • Movistar: you also have internet by default, billed by the kilobyte . Just like Kolbi, if your phone is transferring data, the KB get billed. You can also get hourly, daily, weekly and monthly plans . Rate per KB is 0.0086 colones. 
  • Claro: internet by default, is billed by the kilobyte . They also have plans you can purchase, identical to Kolbi and Movistar. Rate per KB is 0.0086 colones.
  • Tuyo: no internet by the kilobyte. You have to purchase a data plan , like with other carriers. Tuyo's longest plan you can purchase is 1 day.

Remember that most SIM card balances expire after 3 months or so. Once it expires, you lose it.

If you're going to be spending a while in Costa Rica, a prepaid line might still be your best bet. You'll only want to switch to a contract if you're going to be talking a lot or texting a lot on a daily basis, or if you're constantly forgetting to load more minutes into your SIM card and find yourself out every time you need to make a call.

When you're done with your SIM, leave it at the front desk of your hotel or pass it on to another traveller (don't forget to include the plastic card with the unlock codes). If you keep them to take back home, most prepaid SIMs will lock up after a month or so of not being recharged, and after about 3 months, they'll be automatically discarded and the number reassigned to another person. So they won't be useful if you decide to come back in a few years.

Contract linesEdit

If you're going to be spending more than a year in Costa Rica, and you know you'll be doing a lot of talking and texting, you might want to invest in a contract. Contracts are the same as anywhere else, and work just like your regular old phone line back home. You get billed according to your carrier's conditions, at the end of the month. You never need to recharge your SIM card and can have the service  billed automatically to your credit card.

You can also opt for a phone-included package, where the phone of your choice is included and paid off month by month. These packages usually last for 12 to 24 months and require resident status, plus a down payment at the start. So, they're not for everyone. Remember that these packages also have interest involved, which means at the end you're going to pay market price on that cell phone you get, plus interest, which can sometimes add up to double the cost of just buying an unlocked version of the phone.

A contract line will cost you anywhere from 6.000 to 10.000 colones minimum, per month. Some carriers include basic internet service, others don't. Check conditions at the agency before signing up.

To get a contract line, visit a carrier store. They'll give you the full detail of conditions and costs. Be sure to shop around at different carriers, you might find your ideal service package at the carrier next door.

If you ever go back home or don't need the line anymore, remember you have to terminate your contract. If you don't, you'll keep getting billed. Most companies will keep billing you service for two or three months, then terminate your line for lack of payment. And depending on the plan you had and how much you owe, they may eventually take you to court, even if you're long gone. In the end they'll make a mess of your credit history, and might even give you a couple headaches with your credit card company. So don't forget to terminate your contract when you're done with it.

Like I said, contract lines are not for everyone. And unless you meet "high use" criteria, you're probably better off just getting a prepaid line.

SMS and MMS (Multimedia messaging)Edit

SMS works out of the box with all cell phones. Nothing unusual about it.

All carriers support MMS, but as an added service you have to activate it. Check their sites for more information on how to activate.

Although with internet service being widespread and all sorts of apps and doohickeys that transfer photos and video... does anyone actually need MMS anymore?

RoamingEdit

Unless you have a very specific need for getting roaming service with your carrier back home, don't. It's easier and way cheaper to get a prepaid SIM for your cell phone here. Roaming is normally a headache waiting to happen, if it turns out your phone doesn't completely understand the local network and can't route your calls correctly.

Same thing if you're travelling from Costa Rica to Panama or Nicaragua. No point in using roaming cell service. Just get a SIM card over there.

BlackberryEdit

Blackberry service is supported in Costa Rica. Kolbi is the best carrier for use with Blackberry. Ask at the Kolbi store how to get your BB pin working with a prepaid phone SIM.

3G tabletsEdit

If your tablet works on the 850 MHz band, there's no reason why it shouldn't work with a local prepaid SIM. Unless, of course, it's locked by your carrier. Claro sells the Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom here, which means at least those two work on their system.

If your cell phone is stolenEdit

If your cell phone is stolen, and you're using Kolbi as your carrier, dial 1193 from any phone to report it. Kolbi will block your phone's serial number from their network. The blocking notice will be transferred worldwide, and your phone will no longer be able to function in any of the 219 countries that subscribe to the GSMA agreement.

If you get your phone back, you'll probably need to visit a Kolbi service center to remove the blocking notice.