Traveling to Costa Rica just recently became even easier as you can now use your US cell phone and cell phone plan while here!
How it Used to Be
Previously, you could either bring an unlocked phone to Costa Rica and then buy a SIM card and a temporary service plan for that phone, or buy a cheap phone in Costa Rica, complete with SIM card and temporary service plan. Those options still work of course, and you can buy everything you need at the airport in Costa Rica, 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.
How It Is Now
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.
A Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, can operate as either a CDMA phone (the mode used on Sprint in the US, with a Sprint account) or GSM (the mode you should switch to in Costa Rica). Once you land at the airport, you can 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. The best bet seems to be paying $10/day to have full use of your domestic plan with the same benefits. This is easy, and takes only a 5 minute phone call to your carrier. Be sure to check with your individual carrier to be sure as plans and features can change quickly.
If you have Sprint, it works a bit differently. For example, 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.
*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.