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Costa Rica Phone & Wifi Report: Unlocked Dongles for the Win

Written by Jessica on June 7, 2012

This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.

General Availability: High
Quality of Bandwidth: Medium-High
Frequency of Internet in Campgrounds: Rare – Most campgrounds are in national reserves. Don’t expect any internet unless there is an established hotel or restaurant.
Frequency of Internet in Hotels: High (we think). We only stayed at two hotels and both had internet.

Areas Visited

We spent more than a month in Costa Rica and covered most regions with the exception of the Caribbean coast. A good part of our time was spent camping in remote areas. We started in the North at Bahia Junquilla, then went south into Nicoya to a few beach towns. We hit the heavily touristed areas around Arenal and Monte Verde, then we spent a week with family in Atenas, just west of San Jose. From the capital we headed south to Cartago, then spent a few days in the mountains on the Pan-Am Highway. We spent a night on the coast near Domical and then headed to Osa, first to Bahia Drake and then Carate.

Overall Availability

Costa Rica is the most expensive and most economically stable of all the Central American counties, internet here is plentiful. Café’s are everywhere in town, be prepared to pay a premium in tourist areas.

Connection speeds are usually excellent. Just expect random outages (both cell phone networks and power) to interrupt service periodically.

If you’re planning to camp in national parks or reserves, don’t count on having internet or cell phone signal. Quite a few places we went (Bahia Junquillal, Bahia Drake in Osa, and the highlands south of San Jose) did not have cell phone reception. Usually we could drive 5 or 10 miles back up the road and find a strong enough signal to get things done.

If you need reliable connections, invest in a 3G modem and SIM cards from more than one company. More on that below.

The Monopoly Ends

As part of the requirements for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Costa Rica was required to privatize there previously nationally run cell phone service in late 2011. The former monopoly run by Grupo ICE was spilt into three new companies; Claro, Movistar and Kolbi. You’ll recognize Claro and Movistar as big players in the industry throughout other countries in the Americas. Kolbi is the privatized version of the former Grupo ICE.

Kindles Don’t Work

Kindle coverage map for Costa RicaFor one reason or another, Kindles with the free 3G wireless setup do NOT work in Costa Rica. It could be because of the recent split of the government companies, it could be because Costa Rica only runs 3G on the strange 850 frequency. Either way, we tried it repeatedly without success.

The Strange Frequency

Costa Rica uses GSM-1800 for voice and 850 for 3G. GSM-1800 is a common frequency for those coming from Europe, Asia or Australia, but it’s not normal for the Americas, especially the US. Almost all quad band phones will support this frequency, but tri-band phones may not. You will have to look up the frequencies your phone supports. We recommend this phone and dongle combination for winning reception around the world.

If you already have a phone and modem that have been working throughout Central America, and for some reason they stop working in Costa Rica, the lack of GSM-1800 or 3G-850 frequency support is your problem.

Note that some 3G-2100 frequency rights have also been issued. But that won’t help if you’re trying to make voice calls. Here’s a great article that explains the frequencies and carriers.

USB Modems

No Prepaid Modems for Sale

Normally in Central America we were able to show up at any moderately-sized cell phone shop and buy a prepaid USB modem without hassle. Most prepaid modems come with a month of free airtime, so it wasn’t ever worth the hassle of trying to buy a SIM card and setting up our unlocked modem. Costa Rica changed that.

Of more than a dozen phone stores, Claro, Movistar and Kolbi, we could not find a prepaid modem. When consulting with our overland friends we discovered that some stores sold modems on a contract basis, and others required a Costa Rican ID. Unless you can talk a Tico into buying one for you, you’re out of luck.

You can buy an unlocked USB modem and most shops will offer to set it up for you. Prices are steep though, around $70. If you brought an unlocked modem with you (that supports the 3G-850 frequency), then you’ve survived half the battle.

Setting up an unlocked modem

Costa Rica quickly became a crash course in understanding how USB modems work. It doesn’t take too much effort, providing that you have the right hardware and the right network codes. As a quick note, it’s totally useless to go into a store and expect help with this setup. Although occasionally you’ll find a brilliant employee, but most staff will shrug, refuse to issue a refund and ignore you until you go away. 

Step1: Buy a SIM card. We have only tested this with Kolbi and Movistar, so I can recommend those two providers, but I don’t see any reason why Claro wouldn’t work too. Put some money on the SIM card. A dollar or two to start is safe, until you are sure it is working.

Step 2: Activate the SIM. Most places you buy the card from will do this for you. If not, ask them too. It usually involves putting the SIM in a phone and dialing a few numbers. 

Step 3: Put the PIN number for your SIM in a safe place. You will need this number again, I promise.

Step 4: Put the SIM card in your USB dongle and plug that into your computer.

Step 5: Set up a new connection profile for your modem. Most modems come with a predefined list of connection profiles, but because Costa Rican companies are relatively new most modems do not include their network profiles. You will need to setup a new profile and enter the APN. For Kolbi the APN is “kolbi3g” for movistar it is “internet.movistar.cr”. A quick google search for APN will give you the correct profiles for any company in the world.

Step 6: Set your new profile as default. (If your software requires this step).

Step 7: Use the text message software that came with your modem to sign up for an internet package. With kolbi you send a text to 6060 that says either dia or semana. One day costs 200 colones (roughly $.40 USD). With movistar send a text to 606 that says either hora, dia or semana. Movistar is slightly more expensive, but the 1 hour option is helpful if you just need to do something quick.

Step 8: Wait for a confirmation message that your package has been activated.

Note that with Kolbi, you can skip step 7 and 8 and connect directly and pay per kilobyte. This will work fine for quick things, but if you plan to use a lot of data it’s more cost effective to sign up for a full day plan.

Step 9: Hit the “connect” button. And surf away.

Checking your balance: To check your balance with Kolbi send a blank text message to 1150. To check your balance with movistar send a message to 606 with the word “saldo” in the body. (Saldo means balance in Spanish).

Recharging: As usual, to recharge your phone, stop by any roadside shop, give them your phone number and the amount you want to recharge. They’ll send some magic numbers via their phone and you’ll get a text confirming your recharge. Most companies also sell prepaid cards in 1000 colones increments. You can buy a card scratch off the pin number and call in to recharge. (There is an option to do this in English as well.) Note that if you buy the cards you must move your SIM card to a phone and use that to recharge.

Phone Costs

Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America for calling the US. On average companies charge $0.26 per minute to call the US, compared to $0.13 a minute in Panama. It might be a good idea to look into VoIP options.

The Bottom Line

Hotels and hostels have excellent internet, you can rely on it as long as you can handle to occasional power/network outage. If you’re going into the wild and need to stay connected, bring an unlocked dongle with you and pick up a SIM card at a nearby shop.

Comments  

 
jessicam
#2 jessicam 2012-08-19 01:54
Part 2:
Free, i.e. libertar, dongle/modem/3G USB devices, are like unlocked cell phones. They don't come from one company are notoriously hard to find on the shelf. They do sell them in Costa Rica for a relatively large markup ($70 instead of $35 on amazon.com). We have not had a lot of luck using SIM cards with unlocked dongles. (Worked in Costa Rica and Panama and sort of worked in Colombia, doesn't work at all in Ecuador) I don't totally understand the flux capacitors or gigawats in this situation. But, it is what it is. In Central America prepaid modems are cheap and come with free time, so they are worth the cost up until Costa Rica. After that, it's toss up. The prepaid modems only increase in price going south, but the hassle of getting an unlocked modem to work goes up just the same. Good luck. Also, stop watching Back to the Future. :)
 
 
jessicam
#1 jessicam 2012-08-19 01:53
Dudes. So, long story short, a Claro modem bought in one country will NOT work in the next country. I say, based on my experience buying a Tigo modem in Guate and trying to use in Honduras. Also, I think I tried with Claro between El Sal and Nicaragua, many mojitos were drank that night, so I can't be positive. So, I say with 98% confidence that a prepago claro modem will only work in the country you buy it in. Cont...
 

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