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Buying a SIM Card or eSIM in Costa Rica

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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. Travel eSIMs are also an option, although you’ll usually pay more for them.

However you decide to do it, here’s what you need to know.

Companies

  • I recommend Kolbi ICE for most travelers who want a physical SIM
  • An eSIM from Airalo or Nomad is the most convenient if you only need data

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.

Liberty (formerly Movistar) is in second place in terms of coverage, while Claro is the most recent entrant to Costa Rica but can be found throughout other Central America countries. 4G/LTE is available with all three providers, although speeds aren’t great.

Travel eSIM for Costa Rica

While it’s not exactly difficult to buy a local SIM, there’s still a certain amount of hassle and waiting around that goes with it. It’s the cheapest way to stay connected in Costa Rica, though, so if you’re on a budget, it’s the way to go.

If you’re happy to spend a bit more to avoid messing around with phone stores and balance recharges, though, it’s worth taking a look at travel eSIMs as well. I use them in much of the world these days, especially if I’m not in a country for long.

Being able to buy and set them before I leave home or wherever I happen to be is a real time saver, especially when (as in Costa Rica) you can’t buy local SIMs at the airport on arrival.

As for which company to go with, it depends a bit on how long you’re staying and how much data you need. I’ve found Airalo cheapest for small data packs of 1-2GB, while Nomad is typically better after that.

Like most travel eSIMs, it’s data-only: you don’t get a local number. I use apps for everything from communication to transport these days, so the lack of a local number very rarely matters to me, but you might have different needs.

If you’re new to eSIMs, they offer big benefits to travelers in terms of how quickly, easily, and (often) cheaply you can get connected when you arrive in a new country. Most recent phones support them, and you can read all about them here.

How to Buy a Prepaid SIM Card 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 it’s now closed, 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.

ICE electric company branding on a store in Costa Rica. Car is parked outside the building. A cell phone tower is visible behind.

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.

Two plastic SIM card packets with Kolbi branding and empty cutouts for the SIM cards, sitting on a scratched table.

Prepaid SIM and eSIM 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 bought it later instead.

If you use data on a casual rate like I was, you’ll pay 8.6 CRC (~2c) per MB, or a little under $20/GB. That’s why you’re much better off buying one of the bundles, which start at 1500 CRC ($3) for 1GB of data, valid for 15 days.

Many other bundles are available, some that only include data, and others that have calls and texts as well. Just pick the one that matches how long you’ll be in the country and how much data you expect to use.

Airalo

While none of the travel eSIM companies offer amazing value compared to what you get with a local SIM, they’re still not too bad if you don’t need large amounts of data.

Like I mentioned earlier, Airalo is usually best if you only need a GB or two to see you through, while Nomad is typically cheaper after that.

I’ve compared many of the travel eSIM companies in the past: here’s how the best of them stack up price-wise in Costa Rica.

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 15 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 2 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

  • 10 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9

  • $17

  • $22

  • $31

  • $58

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 15 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 2 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9

  • $17

  • $22

  • $31

Validity Period

  • 7 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

  • 30 days

Data Amount

  • 1 GB

  • 3 GB

  • 5 GB

  • 10 GB

Price (USD)

  • $9

  • $20

  • $28

  • $45

Topping Up

Kolbi

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 if you don’t use it all. With Kolbi, for example, 1,000 colones of saldo will expire in 30 days, while 10,000 colones will be available for 60 days.

Airalo

Topping up with Airalo (or any of the other travel eSIM companies) is done by logging into the website or app. You just select your Costa Rica eSIM, hit the top-up button, and buy the same package again.

The top-up packs have exactly the same pricing and duration as the original eSIMs: there’s little difference between topping up your current eSIM and buying a new one, other than not having to activate it.

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Coverage and Data Speeds

I am using Kolbi on an LTE and HSPA+ compatible phone. I often got LTE in San Jose, but in beach towns, the little icon at the top of the screen flipped between LTE and H+ all the time.

Unsurprisingly, the download speeds in the capital were more than double those at the beach, but none of them were super impressive. That said, the speed is enough to do what I need to, and the connections are consistent, if slower than I’m used to.

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.

If you’re going with an eSIM, you’ll likely get better coverage with Airalo than Nomad. The former uses both the Claro and ICE networks as needed, while Nomad only offers service with Liberty.


Check out our guides to SIM cards and eSIMs in 65+ other countries here.

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16 Comments

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

    1. Avatar Ken Weary says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Stef.

      Pura vida!

  2. 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.

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      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.

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

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      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.”

  4. Avatar Ronny Vargas says:

    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?

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      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.

  5. 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!

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      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.

  6. 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.

  7. Hi

    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

  8. 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?

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

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