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, though — 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 won’t break the bank, however, is buying and using a prepaid SIM card, a blessing given the lackluster speeds.
There are three big providers for prepaid SIMs in Costa Rica. The state-owned Kolbi ICE has the most customers and the best coverage. 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. 4G/LTE is available with all three providers.
How to Buy a Prepaid SIM in Costa Rica
You can buy SIM cards at any of the provider’s official stores or at some of the larger electronics stores. There was also a store at San Jose airport, but we’ve been told by a reader that it closed last month, with the nearest place to buy a SIM now the nearby City Mall.
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 was 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.
One important piece of info that wasn’t mentioned when purchasing my SIMs was that I shouldn’t toss the plastic card the SIMs were originally attached to. Fortunately I didn’t.
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.
Prepaid SIM Costs
The Kolbi SIM card I purchased cost 1,000 colones (about $1.75 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 it later instead.
If you use data on a casual rate like I was, you’ll pay 8.6 CRC (~1.5c) per MB, or a little under $15/GB. Data packages start at 50MB valid for a day for 200 CRC, going up to 2GB valid for 30 days for 4000 CRC. You can find more details on packages here.
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If you have a recent iPhone or other supported device, a prepaid eSIM is also a good alternative, often at surprisingly cheap rates.
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 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).
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.
The download speeds in the capital were more than double those at the beach, but when they top out under 2Mbps 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 20 Mbps (Kolbi), but whether you actually see those speeds is another question entirely.
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.
This comes right at the right time as I’ll be in Costa Rica in exactly one week. Thanks for sharing!
Glad you enjoyed it Stef.
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.
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.
Hi there could I use Claro or movistar throughout Mexico Guatemala and costa rica? Instead of changing providers from country to country? Thanks
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.”
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?
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.
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!
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.
Update: Cell Phone Carriers are no longer in San Jose nor Liberia airport as of November 2019. Funny enough, Kobe/Ice still has an advertisement in the airport, but I asked the staff and they said they were all moved out last month. Nearest place to purchase is the shopping plaza.
Thanks Jay — I’ve made a note in the article.
Will it be possible to by a SIM in Tortuguero? We are landing late at night in SJO and then being taken to Tortuguero early next morning
This article is very helpful – Thank you! If we purchased a Kobe/Ice SIM for my iPhone8 Plus do you think that the slower data speeds will affect our ability to use GoogleMaps and/or Waze for navigation?
Both of those apps will still work, but it may take longer to calculate routes etc. You can pre-download map areas to Google Maps for use while offline or in poor connectivity areas, which should help a bit — details here.
As of Jan 2022, there are no SIMs for sale at Liberia Intl airport, although there is good free wifi.
I decided to just buy an esim online, and it worked well everywhere I went (movistar towers).
I’d recommend a Central American regional eSIM to anyone who plans on visiting more than one country in the area, as buying a new local SIM at each land border will be hassle and inefficient.
All Costa Ricans, and all small businesses, use Whatsapp so a local number is not necessary.