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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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).
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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 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).