Costa Rica is a beautiful country, with amazing beaches, rainforests, waterfalls, and hidden swimming holes.

The jungles are rich with toucans, monkeys, lizards, sloths, and parrots. World class surfing and fishing can be found dotted along the coastline.

Nothing moves very quickly in this tropical paradise — including, it must be said, cellular data.

Costa Rica has the highest cost of living of any country in Central America. Prices for drinks, hotels, restaurants and groceries often remind me of prices in Hawaii, which is fitting given the scenery.

One of the few things that will not break the bank is buying and using a prepaid SIM card, which is a blessing given the lackluster speeds.



COMPANIES

  • We recommend Kolbi ICE for most travellers

There are three big providers for prepaid SIMs in Costa Rica. The state-owned Kolbi ICE is widely known to have the best service in the country. Kolbi is the name of the cellular service provided by ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad), the country’s electric company.

The other two players, Claro and Movistar, are traditional cell phone providers that can be found throughout Central America.

HOW

You can buy SIM cards at any of the provider’s official stores or at some of the larger electronics stores. I’ve read that they are also available in a vending machine at the San Jose airport but not verified that first-hand.

I bought mine at the electric company in the beach town of Quepos. The process was painless — a passport, an unlocked phone and a little cash is all that’s required.

Don’t sweat it if your Spanish is weak. Many Costa Ricans speak transactional-level English, so they can likely help you get what you need. I was able to purchase two SIMs using one passport with no issue.

ICE Electric Company

One important piece of info that I was not told when purchasing my SIMs was that I should not toss the plastic card the SIMs were originally attached to. Fortunately I did not.

As an extra security precaution (i.e. pain in the butt) Kolbi requires you to enter the four digit PIN on the back of that plastic card each time your phone is rebooted. No PIN, no service. Thankfully this can be turned off in the settings of your phone.

Costa Rica SIMs and PINs

COSTS

The Kolbi SIM card I purchased cost 1,000 colones (about $2 US) and included a modest balance (commonly called saldo). Using voice, text and/or data decrements your saldo.

The rep who sold me the SIM didn’t know how much data usage was included, but did say that if I used it exclusively for voice it would last 30 minutes.

I tried to purchase additional saldo before I left but was unable to do so because there’s a 15 minute window in which no changes can be made to new activations. I was now within that window and in hurry, so I purchased more later.

 

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TOPPING UP

It’s very easy to top up your prepaid saldo — just look for a store with the Kolbi logo, and tell the person behind the counter what you’re after.

They’ll ask for the name of the provider, your phone number and how much saldo you want to purchase. Saldo can be purchased in set increments using either colones (the local currency) or US dollars. I recommend using colones in order to get the best exchange rate.

It’s important to know that your balance will expire. With Kolbi, for example, 1,000 colones of saldo will expire in 30 days. 10,000 colones (about $20 US) will be available for 60 days or until you use it all, whichever occurs first.

You can also purchase saldo online at Recharge.com (some fees apply).

Saldo sign

COVERAGE AND DATA SPEEDS

I am using Kolbi on an LTE and HSPA+ compatible phone. While H+ is commonly seen at the top of the screen, speeds have been underwhelming. I’ve run multiple speed tests in beach towns, as well as in the capital city of San Jose.

he download speeds in the capital were more than double those at the beach, but when they top out at 1.92 Mbps it’s really not worth bragging about.

That said, the speed is enough to perform the basics and I do receive consistent, persistent connections. It’s just slower than I’m used to after coming from Guatemala.

It’s worth noting that all three providers advertise LTE capabilities with speeds as high as 15 Mbps (Kolbi) but only if you subscribe to a monthly plan (i.e. these speeds are not available on pre-paid plans).

Costa Rica San Jose 3G speeds

Kolbi 3G speeds in San Jose

Costa Rica beach 3G speed

Kolbi 3G speeds on the beach in Quepos

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.
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10 Responses

  1. Stef

    This comes right at the right time as I’ll be in Costa Rica in exactly one week. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Susan

    Thanks so much for the article. Can you tell me if the SIM card is specific to a phone, so my iphone 4s needs a different card than my husbands iphone 5? And does it use up data pretty quickly? I saw $2 was for 30 min of voice, what about data? Thanks so much for your input.

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      SIM cards aren’t phone specific in general, but there are a few different physical sizes of card. Unfortunately for you, the iPhone 4S uses a micro SIM and the iPhone 5 uses a nano SIM. If you really wanted to swap a card between phones, you could buy a nano SIM for the iPhone 5 and buy a SIM adapter that converts it into micro SIM size and lets you put it in the 4S, but it might well be more hassle than you can be bothered with. Data usage totally depends on what you’re doing with the phone.

      Reply
  3. Clay

    Hi there could I use Claro or movistar throughout Mexico Guatemala and costa rica? Instead of changing providers from country to country? Thanks

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      You’ll need to check with the provider whether you can and what it might cost, but in general you can enable roaming on a prepaid SIM card, but you won’t get local rates. In other words, the answer is likely “yes, but you probably won’t want to.”

      Reply
  4. Ronny Vargas

    Hi! I was born in Costa Rica and I’m taking my old 4s and give it to my mom. Lol

    I guess I can do this even if the phone has a sprint card right? And then my second question. You said I need the pin every time I reboot the phone but that can be turned off from settings. How you do that?

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      I wouldn’t be too sure about it working right now — not because it’s an iPhone 4S, but because it’s Sprint.

      According to a bunch of articles like this, and Sprint’s support forums, Sprint locked the SIM slot of its iPhone 4S for both domestic and international use, and you had to ask them specifically to unlock it. If yours isn’t, you can try calling them and asking.

      To turn off the SIM PIN, you go to Settings-Phone-SIM PIN, turn the option off, enter the existing PIN and tap Done.

      Reply
  5. Jackie

    Hi! Thank you so much for your article! Very helpful and nicely laid out. Thanks for making it so easy to follow and understand. My biggest question is whether I will get better phone reception (both calling and web browsing) using a SIM card or my Verizon phone as is with my international plan. I prefer using my Phone international plan because I can upload my pictures on facebook for free from my facebook App every day (and most places I’m staying at have free wifi so it won’t be any data used from my plan). I do not plan to use my phone much at all as we have tried to do all the research necessary prior to leaving so as to have stress free travel. However, there may be times I have to call our host because we cannot find their place or that I need to look up an address we have have forgotten. I have Verizon service and an iPhone 5. We will be traveling to Costa Rica and renting a car with gps. Thanks in advance for your advice!

    Reply
    • Dave Dean

      Hi Jackie,

      To answer your question about which will have better reception, you’d need to know which local cell company (or companies) Verizon partners with in Costa Rica — you’re using a local network either way. The company we recommend, Kolbi ICE, has the best coverage in the country — if Verizon uses them too, you’ll have the same level of reception either way. If not, you’ll have less coverage with Verizon.

      Reply

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