How to Get a Cell Phone
Cell phones are very popular in Costa Rica, though the service costs more than a fixed land line. As a non-resident, I am allowed to possess a cell phone, but not permitted to lease the line required to operate it. I have three options for securing a cell phone line: the first is to make a Costa Rican friend, and then plead with him or her to secure a line for you in their name. The problem is, if you forget to pay the bill, that person's credit is dinged. Additionally, if the cell phone is stolen, your friend will be held responsible for any unexpected charges.
The second method is to open a company known as an S.A. -- pronounced "eh-say, ah'. This stands for Sociedad Anonima, which is an autonomous corporation that can operate exactly like a citizen. With an S.A., you can acquire a cell phone line in your company's name and avoid the hassle of bothering your local friends.
Foreigners have a third option -- they can purchase a prepaid SIM card for their unlocked cell phone. If you purchased your phone in the U.S., it is probably locked to a U.S. carrier. You will need to call the company that you purchased it from and ask for an unlock key in order for the Costa Rican SIM card to function. If they won't give it to you, codes are available on eBay for about $10. All you need is the phone model and a few numbers from below the battery.
Prepaid SIM cards expire in 30 days, regardless if all of the credit has been used. They are available at local ICE (the government-run phone company, pronounced "ee-say') offices, where waiting lines can be very long. For those who live in the San Jose area, you can also buy prepaid lines at the international airport. SIM cards come in $5, $10 and $20 increments and can be recharged at ICE, Banco Costa Rica, Banco Nacional and the Maxibodega supermarket. Local rates are slightly more expensive than normal lines, at 6 cents per minute during the day and 5 cents at night.
When I first moved to Costa Rica, I only had to endure two weeks without the convenience of a cell phone. My first landlord was a sprightly old man named Don Rafa, who didn't want me roaming the streets without a way to call a taxi, especially at night. On my second day as a tenant he forked over one of his three cell phone lines, and showed me how to pay the bill each month. Now, two years later, that sweet soul still lends me his line.
When my best friend Carmela moved to Costa Rica, she wasn't so lucky. Lines were even scarcer than before, and absolutely no one would take pity on her. After three months of having no mode of communication, she was finally fed up. It was time for drastic measures. Carmela informed her boss that if there wasn't a cell phone on her desk in exactly one week, she was packing up her things and returning to the United States. Three weeks later, in true "Tico time,' she had her line.
With the recent free trade agreement that was passed in Costa Rica, ICE will no longer have a monopoly over nationwide phone service. These issues will likely vanish within the next few years, as competing companies with more practical options enter the marketplace.