Category: Travel Tech & Gear

How to Use Your US Cell Phone in Costa Rica

I’ve been traveling to Costa Rica since 1999, but it wasn’t until a trip in late 2016 that I was able to use my US phone (and my US carrier) in Costa Rica.

And all my calls were free, both within Costa Rica and back to the US!

Or as a less excitable friend pointed out, they were included in the crazy-high monthly fee I already pay Sprint, my US carrier.

How it Used to Be (And Still Is, for Some)
On previous trips, I’d either bring an unlocked phone to Costa Rica and then buy a SIM card and a temporary service plan for that phone, or I’d buy a cheap phone in Costa Rica, complete with SIM card and temporary service plan. Those options still work. You can buy everything you need at the Kolbi kiosk at the Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, or from one of hundreds of stores, kiosks, or street vendors all over the country.

The four cell phone carriers in Costa Rica are Kolbi (state-owned), Movistar, Claro and TuYo (all private companies).  You can buy a low-end phone from any of these carriers for around $25, then buy a prepaid SIM card for texting, calling and internet use. Often a 5000-colon (US$9) prepaid SIM is sufficient for your average vacation, as long as you don’t make many international calls.

But I Want to Use MY phone
If you want to bring your own locked phone from the US and use it in Costa Rica, here’s what you need:

1. A phone that operates under (or can be switched to) DSM mode.
My Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, can operate as either a CDMA phone (the mode I use in the US, with my Sprint account) or GSM (the mode I switch to in Costa Rica). Once I land at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose, I switch to GSM mode (settings/connections/more  networks/ mobile networks/network mode/chose “GSM”).*

2. A US carrier with an international plan you can live with.
AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all have different options for international travelers, none of them free. Scour their websites and then call to ask detailed questions about their plans that apply in Costa Rica. Be sure to ask about roaming charges. It’s a hassle but it’s better to be safe than charged hundreds or even thousands of dollars you weren’t planning on.

This is one of the few areas where Sprint shines. If you sign up for their Open World program (at no charge) you get free calls and texts within Costa Rica and from Costa Rica to the US. The plan also comes with 1 GB of data (you can pay for more). With the Open World plan, if you’re in Costa Rica with your US phone, and want to dial a Costa Rican number, you dial 506 (the country code), then the 8-digit Costa Rican number. Although you are dialing from a US number to a Costa Rica number, you don’t need to bother with the international access code from the US (011) if you are physically in Costa Rica.

If you’re dialing from your US phone in Costa Rica to a number in the US, you don’t need the international access code (001) from Costa Rica; just dial 1, the US area code, and the US phone number.

If someone is calling you in Costa Rica from the US, they just dial your US area code and your number; no international access code needed.

Cell phone Reception in Costa Rica
I was frankly amazed on this recent trip that I had reception almost everywhere I went, from Caribbean coast beach towns to misty cloud forests. Sometimes I’d see “Movistar” in the upper left of my phone screen, indicating that Sprint was piggybacking on that network. Other times I’d see ICE on my screen, indicating that at that time I was plugged into Kolbi, the cell phone branch of the state-run electricity and telecommunications monster called ICE.

Note that remote eco-lodges, windy mountaintops and far-flung small towns may have spotty reception or no reception at all.

Whistle While You Wifi
If you know that most of the places you’ll be staying in Costa Rica have free wifi (there are a lot of them!), you could opt to forget the whole phone service conundrum and just stick with VOIP services like Skype or FaceTime. Wifi also lets you tweet, Facebook, Instagram and What’sApp.

Buen viaje, and happy calling!


*Side note: In the US, two of the four major carriers (Verizon and Sprint) use CDMA while the other two (AT&T and T-Mobile) use GSM. Many phones are compatible with either GSM or CDMA, but not both. For CDMA-only phones, you need to buy a phone made for your specific carrier. For example, if you want an iPhone on Verizon, you need to buy a Verizon-branded iPhone — not a Sprint- or AT&T-branded iPhone — because it has the specific bands and compatibility with Verizon. However, if you ever want to leave Verizon, you won’t be able to take your phone with you; it is locked to that carrier. Is that maddeningly proprietary or what? Thank god for my Samsung, which swings both ways – it’s just born that way.