Cell Phones

For those who would like to have a cell phone down in Costa Rica (all the locals do, you may as well too!) and don’t want to pay the absolutely outrageous phone charges that companies in the States would charge to use your phone here, well you have come to the right place!  Before ever leaving the States, my mom and I talked to just about every cell phone carrier available and while all had “international” plans, they were first off quite expensive, and second not at all what I needed.  What each of the carriers considered an “international” plan was to allow you to call from the States to various countries in the world.  However if you were in a different county and wanted to call the States, well that wouldn’t be covered in the plan and would cost you even more of a fortune!

Luckily, the prepaid SIM card came to the rescue!!  I learned most of this information once I got in Costa Rica and talked with people so here is the full skinny on what to do, where to go and what to expect:

Before you get to Costa Rica:

  • Determine whether your phone is capable of being used in Costa Rica.  This is done quite simply: if you have a SIM card in your phone currently, you are all set.  If not, you may want to look into getting a phone that does have a slot for a SIM card.  If you don’t know what a SIM card is, might I suggest Google? 🙂
  • Call your cell phone carrier customer service line, tell them you will be going out of the country and that you need to have the code that will UNLOCK your phone.  This is a VERY important step!!!  They may run a quick check on the type of phone you have to ensure it is capable of being unlocked (i.e. it has a SIM card/slot) but it is quite fast and easy.  This method is also the free method.  There are some people who will charge you to get your phone unlocked and it’s really just not necessary.  The code will be a long series of numbers.  Be sure to write this number down and store it somewhere where you will recall where it is and that you will have it with you when you need it.

Once in Costa Rica:

As mentioned in my La Fortuna post, ICE (e-say) is the local utility company.  They are also responsible for assigning you a prepaid SIM card.  The easiest way to find an ICE location is by simply looking around for the tallest tower (like a radio tower in the States but much shorter) and go to where it is located.  Or you can always just ask a local:)  Now some tips when going to ICE: avoid going at the end/beginning and middle of the month.  This is the time when locals go there to pay their utility bills so they are very crowded.  Get there when they open.  Most open around 8:30am.  I suggest this trick because you at least have the chance of being within the first 5 to get there and therefore will probably only spend about a half hour waiting for your number to get called instead of a couple of hours wait.  And yes, they do serve people in order of the ticket number you get, so be sure to look for the ticket number dispenser when you arrive (it’s red).

Once you get called, simply tell the clerk you would like a prepaid SIM card.  They will take some information, ask how much you want to put on the card ($5, $10 or $20) and then will give you your card along with your receipt that will have your new phone number listed on it.  To this day I still have to refer to that receipt when telling people my phone number as it’s still not committed to memory.  It’s really quite humorous when people ask for your number… instead of asking for your number they ask “do you know your number?” because for some reason, not knowing ones number by heart is actually quite common here!  Well, at least among the expats…

Now along with the SIM card, they will also give you the accompanying card that also has VITAL information!  It is the size of a credit card and contains 2 very important numbers that you absolutely will need if your phone ever shuts down and turns back on.  So whatever you do, do NOT lose this card either!!  If/when  you power your phone off and back on again, it will ask you for your “pin” number.  It gives you three tries to get it right and the “pin” number is on the original card they give you at the ICE store.  I had an incident in Bocas where my phone died and when I went to turn it on, I had no idea about the pin required to turn it back on and almost got completely and forever locked out of my phone because I didn’t know what “pin” number it was looking for!  Luckily I did retain my original card and looked to it for help… hence when I discovered the value of the card!

The gentlemen assisting me at the ICE store was quite helpful and he basically took care of entering in all the necessary information in my phone in order to turn it on (i.e. pin and PUK numbers that are written on the “credit card” given to you at ICE).  Once the phone prompted him for the UNLOCK code, I provided it to him and it fired up with no other problems.

And that’s it!  I originally paid for $10 worth of service and to this day (it’s been over a month and a half now) I still have not had to recharge it.  I’ve made several lengthy local calls, calls to the States, texts and even a call to Italy and it’s still going! I’ve heard that prepaid cards expire after 90 days if unused, but I’m really not sure how true that statement is… Something else to investigate at some point!

Now if and when you do need to recharge your prepaid SIM card, you can do so at literally just about every store you pass!!  Just look for the carrier symbol of Kolbi with a little green cartoon frog that states “recarga” below it, and you’ve found yourself a recharge place!

One last thing to point out, your phone will now ONLY work in Costa Rica.  Once you cross the border to another country, your phone will no longer have service.

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