San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prepaid Mobile Phones Mean Time Saved

I know I’m not alone when I say the longest time I have gone without a cell phone has been in Costa Rica. The small device, which has become an extension of one’s arm in the developed world, has been almost inaccessible for foreigners here.

Maybe it’s been a blessing. No annoying ring interrupting conversations; no need to be accountable to persistent callers: a true taste of a disconnected pura vida.

But in my profession, one can’t remain long without a cell phone.

The first month here, I bumped along the road to the agency of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) at the Outlet Mall in San Pedro in the passenger seat of my boss’ car and spent an hour waiting with him to apply for a cell phone line. He had generously offered to do this because my lack of legal residency rendered me unable to get my own. (For new arrivals to Costa Rica: Before this year, the only way you could get a cell phone line was by being a Costa Rican citizen or a legal resident. To have a line for personal use, visitors would have to find a Tico or someone with a residency permit who was willing to lend or rent them a line.)

A month later, when my line became available, we bounced back to the ICE agency. I remember telling my boss that the day “felt like Christmas.”

I was cell-phoneless again this year, when I lent my phone to my husband who was beginning a business venture. He has residency status, but the government monopoly ICE said they were out of phone lines. Tired of waiting, he eventually paid the telecommunications company double what a line should cost, which felt more like a scam than a service.

So imagine my surprise recently when I walked into a little shop around the corner from my house and came out 20 minutes later with a cell phone and a line.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Why hadn’t I done this sooner?”

The new prepaid service, which began in January, has the potential of revolutionizing lifestyles in Costa Rica. Students on study abroad programs can coordinate happy hour without working through the landlines of their host families. Arrivals from foreign destinations no longer have to launch into an apartment search with disposable calling cards at public payphones. Finally, a lost or stolen phone doesn’t take months to replace.

“People are really excited about it,” said Michael López, whose little cell phone shop behind the main offices of the Social Security System in downtown San José gives out an average of 80 lines a day. “More and more people are looking for prepaid lines.”

All that’s needed, he said, are two copies of a cédula (official identification card for residents or citizens) or a passport and a GSM phone. (Note: The prepaid system will not work on the old TDMA phone lines.) The prepaid cards are sold for ₡2,500, ₡5,000 and ₡10,000 (about $5, $10 and $20). The average cost of using them is ₡35 per minute.

People can bring in their phones from outside the country, but they might require unlocking, which ranges in price from ₡10,000 to ₡14,000. The cheapest GSM phone in Costa Rica goes for ₡30,000.

“Another advantage we are hearing is that people know how much they are spending,” López said. “Before they would talk and talk and talk and then be surprised by the bill.” 

While new to Costa Rica, the prepaid service is available in many countries throughout the world, including the other nations of Central America.

For a list of the locations offering prepaid lines, visit The Tico Times blog.

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