It’s a secret!!! So tell everyone! You can get a cheap Costa Rica cell phone service while you visit the country….and it works very well. Roaming on your world phone can cost your hundreds…so can renting a phone here in Costa Rica. I am visiting Costa Rica for a few months. My girlfriend asked me to write about my cell phone experience, so here goes. You may be interested in this if you are visiting Costa Rica and want to have a local cell phone. The reason this is a secret is that so few know about this program. Even the employees of the only phone company, ICE (pronounced esay), don’t seem to know about it. You will have one chance to buy the SIM card you need and that is at the Juan Santamaria International airport (SJO) on your arrival in San Jose. The ICE kiosk is located between the baggage claim and the customs area. As you walk away from the baggage conveyors, look to your right for the small ICE desk, if you get to the customs X-ray machines you have missed the ICE kiosk. Since the prepaid program is intended for visitors, it makes sense that the kiosk is located in the airport and you will be required to show your passport to the ICE employee selling you the SIM card.
I know…I know…you need more info….OK…here is everything I know:
Costa Rica cell phone frequency for GMS phones is 1800, this means that you will need an 1800 band GSM phone. To understand this, google it or call your local cell phone company. If you have a “world phone” that takes a SIM card you most probably have a GSM capable phone. In my case, I called my USA cell carrier, Verizon, and told them I wanted to get a phone that would work with a Costa Rican prepaid SIM card on an 1800 band GSM network. They only had two phones that would work so I ordered one and it was in my pocket when I arrived at the San Jose airport. There are a number of sources for low cost GSM phone in the USA…one is Ebay.
You need to know how to unlock and configure your phone for GSM service. There are so many phone manufactures and configuration settings that understanding this is something you will have to learn for your particular phone. The ICE employees will give you a set of instructions to activate you SIM card and your cell phone service. But again, you need to unlock and configure your particular cell phone for 1800 GSM service. There will be actions needed to set up your specific cell phone. If you have a world phone, from your USA cell phone provider, your best reference may be your own USA international customer service…..call them BEFORE you come to Costa Rica….carefully go over the steps to configure your phone for the local system here….write the configuration steps down and have it with you. I would suggest calling them back on a different day and get another person to talk you through the steps and compare …. to be sure you have it correct.
Copy the section of your phone owner’s manual related to GSM service and if all else fails, you can do what no one does and read the instructions!!! Between your phone instructions and your USA international customer service you have a good chance of success.
You need a little cash to buy the SIM card at the airport. Approx 5 USD gets you a month of service and approx 80 minutes of local talk time or 15min of international calls, 10 USD get you a 45 days and approx 160 minutes of local talk time or 30min of international calls, and 20 UDS gets you 60 days of service and approx 330 minutes of local talk time or 60min of international calls. The ICE desk will take US bills $20 and under. ICE will give you an information sheet with: their phone number, how to buy additional minutes, how to activate your SIM Card / phone service, how to check minute availability.
Ok…even the most careful planners like me fail…sort of…in my case new SIM card would not activate because my phone’s “tones” were not compatible with the local service…..the work around was pretty simple and was give to me by the ICE representative after a few “help me please” calls…..I put my SIM card in my girlfriend’s Costa Rica cell phone….followed the instructions to active my SIM card … then put the SIM card back in my phone….and success….I have a low cost local cell phone….a lot of trouble you say….well yes….it took a couple of hours…but consider this…..I paid a $300 Verizon bill last year after roaming here with world phone Verizon so kindly loaned me for free..the Costa Rica cell phone rental service I tried was even more costly … so you have choices! I will keep the prepaid for local calls and use Skype for VOIP international calls. Between those two methods my cell phone and international calls cost me 70% less than just my cell service in the USA.
I am putting this here for those of you that are already in Costa Rica when you read this because I don’t recommend it. You can buy a phone here. The cheapest will cost at least $100. If you do that, be sure you keep the receipt and take it with you to the ICE office. You will have to find an ICE office that knows about the Prepaid program and has the SIM cards for sale so call, call, call, get a name and go see that person at that office. An American friend of mine was able to get the prepaid card at an office not in the airport but in San Jose proper. He and I returned to that same office a week later and the employees there knew nothing about the prepaid program. If you buy a cell phone here, you will have to search for an ICE office that has the SIM cards and knows about the program OR return to the ICE kiosk at the airport….but remember, the airport desk is between the baggage claim and customs and I don’t know how you would pull that off after you left the airport. I can tell you this….most ICE employees will tell you that it is not possible to get a prepaid chip….so expect that only the ICE employees selling the prepaid cards at the airport will know about the program. One note about discussing this with Ticos. Ticos have to apply and wait for a cell phone number…everyone refers to it as an “a line.” So a visitor getting a prepaid SIM card and cell phone service in a few hours is really simple and convenient compared to a Costa Rican national getting new Costa Rica cell phone service….so keep that in mind.
And last but not least, it is important to be aware that Costa Rica cellular connection is not infallible, the connection may not be good in some remote areas and sometimes even in some buildings.
For you process oriented folks here is a flow chart.
Get an 1800 band GSM phone (Costa Rica Cell phone frequency)
Have instructions for unlocking and configuring a GSM phone in Costa Rica
Have your USA customer service number for help with your phone
Have a copy of your owner’s manual GSM configuration instructions
Stop at the ICE kiosk between baggage claim and customs at SJO airport
Buy the SIM card
Read the ICE instructions and active your service
Call ICE and /or your customer service for help if you need to
Be Patient!!!you are not in Kansas!
Make a friend and give them a call!
Pura Vida, Charles the Gringo
This time it got even easier. The ICE representative activated my prepaid SIM card right at the kiosk next to the customs area at the airport. This time there were no instructions to follow…..they did everything….I just showed my passport and paid for the SIM! The process took 5 minutes.