Cell Phone Service in Costa Rica

Traveler Information
Cell Phone system explained and recommendations
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Which phones works where!


Visitors to Costa Rica often ask if their cell phones from their home country will work here. Cellular phones from Europe will often work here, but I have no idea of the roaming charges.

Cell phones from the USA generally do not work here and when they do, I have heard of roaming charges that can easily run to $4.00 per minute.

I'd suggest calling your carrier, but the feedback I get is that even the customer service personnel at US cell phone carriers often have no idea what are the roaming charges. You find out when you get the bill! I recommend that if you need reliable communications here in Costa Rica, rent from a cell rental company actually IN Costa Rica as they know what works where and can handle service issues or other problems.

Be VERY wary of renting phones from companies who mail them to you in your home country! First, they have no way of testing the phones before they mail them to you as they are usually in the same country as you are! A Costa Rica phone cannot be tested in the USA for example. Further, they could be damaged in transit regardless of the service used to ship them and again, you will not know until you arrive. That means it is possible that you could get off the plane with a phone that does not work. Finally, should you have a cell phone problem while in Costa Rica, there is no easy way to assist you! For satellite phone info, click here.

Some folks ask me if they can just buy a phone here with a number installed. The answer is yes as long as the number is on a pre-paid SIM.

Pre-Paid SIMS are exactly as the name implies. You pre-pay for service and when the money runs out, no more service, though some SIMs will still allow incoming calls as those are always free in Costa Rica. There are maybe 5-6 companies selling pre-paid SIMs but for sure, they are not equal. Some have better coverage, some offer more flexible texting services internationally. Choosing the right SIM is not a task for those who do not have solid (technical) Spanish skills as it is rare the cell phone stores have English speaking staff. See more below on Pre-Paid SIMs.

Now as to buying a phone here? Phones here sell at near retail prices. That is a shocker to those from the US who are accustomed to buying a new phone on a 3 year plan and paying $30.00 for a Samsung S4. Here, an S4 runs about $700-$800.

So are there no plans? Yes, but obviously this implies you will be living here for 2-3 years and that eliminates the tourists.

Also, the cell phone companies in the US get special pricing and that makes the whole thing work. In CR, either the cell phone carriers do not get this special pricing, or they keep the discount as profit. Still, I suppose if you live here, maybe a better deal than paying full retail.

If you have an unlocked quad band phone (not common in the US) you can probably come here and just buy a prepaid SIM. Should work. No guarantees.

Pre-Paid SIMS

Pre-paid SIM can be purchased at the San José airport and about a zillion other locations country-wide. Pre-Paid SIMs can be recharged at the same zillion locations all over the country, so using a pre-paid SIM is a pretty simple deal..

Using a PrePaid SIM in Costa Rica means you must have a quad band unlocked cell phone. The vast majority of US cell phones are NOT unlocked and some (maybe many) are not quad band. They are locked to the company providing the cell service and a pre-paid SIM here will not work.

The airport only sells SIMs from ICE, the old government monopoly phone company. Their SIMs work fine, but I prefer prepaid SIMs from MoviStar as they give better coverage, offer faster Internet with flexible billing (like by the day) have better customer service, and generally work quite well. Saying that, my son who lives in London cannot call me on my Movistar equipped cell phone! When connected, he is told that my number does not exist! Fortunately we use Viber, WhatsApp, and Line to communicate with no issues. Actually, anyone with a Smart Phone should have all three of these apps. Pretty handy apps!

Some phones (iPhones and others) may require a half sized SIM (mini-SIM) and as those are not sold here pre-cut in many locations, the vendor must use a die type machine to cut them to size. if he knows what he is doing, no biggie, If not, the cut SIM ,ay not work. Hint: Don't pay until you have installed the cut SIM and prove it is working.

iPhones and iPads

Pre-paid SIMs work just fine in iPads and iPhones (the iPhone must be hacked or otherwise unlocked), but Apple uses a mini-SIM, so if you buy a pre-paid SIM here, the vendor must cut (trim) the SIM. While not hard (if you know what you are doing), one slip and the SIM is destroyed. I again suggest that you not pay until you see that it is working. Internet plans vary by vendor. I will be blogging on this shortly, but choosing with of the several companies is not easy. I use Fullmovil in my iPad 3 as I can turn off the Internet service and thus not pay when not in use. For everything else I use MoviStar that offers the most flexible Internet service and by far, the fastest.

Other Stuff

Cell phones are extremely popular here in Costa Rica.  Nearly everyone has one and generally they work well.  Service is also very cheap at just over $7.00 per month. Probably one of the reasons that everyone has a cell phone is that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain home phone service, so this is their only solution.

There are two cell phone systems in use:  3G and 4G. The 4G system is now available as of around October-November 2013. I have not tried it and probably will not until I upgrade my phone. I use the Internet on my phone only for email, FaceBook, and a few apps. I am not a power user.

If renting a cell phone here, 3G is just fine, but you should insist on 3G phone or rent from a reliable cell phone rental company.

Buying a Cell Phone and Line in Costa Rica

CAUTION! Be real careful buying real cheap disposable cell phones sold by ICE and other companies as they often have truly lousy service. You get what you pay for. If you really need reliable service, get a reliable 3G or 4G phone with a good pre-paid SIM installed or rent one while here.

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions - Cell Phones

Can I bring my phone from the US and use it there?
Is there cell service all over Costa Rica?  Where is there cellular service?
What about satellite phones?

Can I bring my phone from the US and use it there?

You can bring it, but it likely won't work.  If they did work, travelers were shocked to find a roaming charge of up to $4.00 per minute on their bills!  Also, as the only phones from the USA or other countries that will work at all are 3G and some 4G phones.


Back to FAQ

Is there cell service all over Costa Rica?

No.  About 85-90% of Costa Rica has 3G cell service. Probably the same with 4G. Obviously, the more remote your location, the more problems you may experience.


Back to FAQ


What about satellite phones?

Besides being expensive to use, you generally must be line-of-site to the satellite.  As the satellite is in low orbit here, that can be a problem as mountains and trees can interfere.  Generally, stay away from satellite phones.

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