How to stay connected on your next trip to Costa Rica
Assuming your mobile carrier offers an international call plan, using your cell phone overseas can be hugely expensive. However, now days it’s easier than ever to stay connected. Smart mobile devices let you connect anywhere there is a hotspot, and Costa Rica’s mobile network providers began rolling out 4G in March 2015, thus allowing for connection so long as you have a pre-paid data plan.
If your cell phone is unlocked, you can simply buy a pre-paid SIM card at a kiosk in the airport or at many other places around the country. If it isn’t, you can always pick up a phone while you’re at it. Your phone must be a quad-band and unlocked.
At the airport, venders only sell Kölbi (a subsidiary of ICE, the state phone and power company). Other carriers such as MoviStar and Claro, also sell SIM cards and phones. Some phones may require a half-sized SIM (or mini-SIM). iPads and iPhones must be unlocked and they use mini-SIMs. Unlike other cell phone companies in the US, Verizon’s iphones are unlocked. Usually the vendor has to cut them to size; be sure to pay after you install and test the cut SIM. Recharging your pre-paid minutes is easy and can be done at just about every corner store; just look out for the sign for your mobile carrier.
Check with your U.S. mobile carrier to see if they offer “world devices”– Verizon, for example, does. A world device is a device that can be used in the U.S. as well as more than 220 other countries. It is built with one or more of the following technologies, in addition to CDMA:
- 4G LTE
- Dual Band GSM
- Quad Band GSM
- UMTS Capabilities
If you want to unlock your phone, and if you can find the IMEI number, you can probably unlock your cell phone using a software code. There are also a number of technicians in Costa Rica that are able to do this for you. The IMEI number helps to generate an unlock code to enter.
Avoid cheap disposable cell phones; they often have horrible service and you won’t be able to access the Internet or applications that require it. If you need reliable service, get a 3G or 4G phone with a good pre-paid SIM installed, or rent one while here.
Choose your carrier carefully; coverage is not universal in Costa Rica. The best network coverage is in and around San José, Guanacaste and along the Pacific coast from Puntarenas to just south of Quepos. Upload and download rates are about equal, but Kölbi’s reliability is reputedly poor with frequent outages. Most knowledgeable users prefer Movistar or Claro for better performance in the Central Valley, especially streaming. On the other hand, Kölbi has better coverage areas for some beaches. If you’re traveling around, it’s probably a toss up. If you’re going to be in one place, like Los Sueños Resort, you might want to check the coverage areas on each carrier’s website (though I have found Kölbi to be my best bet there).
There are some great aps that allow you to communicate without breaking the bank. WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app that uses the same Internet data plan you use for email and web browsing. It’s free to message, as you don’t incur SMS data charges.
If you can access high-speed Internet, such as Wi-Fi or 3/4G connections, you can make or receive free calls using VoIP (Voiceover Internet Protocol) technology, such as Skype, Google Voice. A dongle, plugged into your laptop, can also give you an inexpensive access alternative, especially if you use a pre-paid SIM. It’s easiest to sign up for, and download, Skype service on your computer or mobile device in the U.S. and simply bring it along with you.
You can also forward calls to your smart phone, or to a local or regional number, using apps such as CallsFreeCalls or TollFreeForwarding.
Technology in Costa Rica is rapidly catching up to the standards of North America and Europe. As 4G continues to roll out across the country, it will be ever easier for the answer to “Can you hear me now?” to be “Yes!”