Pre Work: Staying Connected

26 June, 2011

I finally feel satisfied with our plan for cell phone coverage while we are in Costa Rica.  This has been quite the research journey.  I don’t want to take a laptop, so I need more than just voice service, I need to be able to use data service on my cell phone.

After days of research, I have decided to purchase local pre-paid SIM cards for everyone at the San Jose Airport when we arrive – this seems to be the best option in terms of price and coverage.

The journey went something like this:

  1. Using our existing cell phone with International Roaming – with our current carriers. The plan was to confirm everyone’s international roaming plan and expected coverage in Costa Rica.  Each of us has a different carrier (don’t ask). Tate has T-Mobile, Drew has AT&T and I have a Verizon phone.    The Costa Rica coverage for each carrier was pretty similar – roaming works the same for all carriers. Grupo I.C.E.  owns all the cell coverage in Costa Rica, so whatever deal each carrier makes with ICE and plus their choice of fee on top of that…well that’s your per minute rate  – anywhere from $2.19- $2.89 per minute.  That’s for calls in and out of the country.   Crazy..I could not image paying $20-$50 per phone call back home and then $10-$20 every time I needed to call to confirm a tour or reservation or get directions.  I would end up with a $600-$1,000 phone bill when I got home!

    To offset this cost, I started researching local pre-paid phone cards.  This seemed like a simple solution for in-country phone calls and possibly calls home.   According to my research, pay phones everywhere in Costa Rica and using a phone card is good option for keeping your communication costs down.
    Apparently it is important to know the rates for the locations you wish to call from and to and know the rates for the phone card you are purchasing.  I found a great web site that helped determine what the best card would be for us Availcom.
    I found that the Solaris phone card was a good option.  There is no activation fee with this card and calls are 30¢ per minute, much better than our international roaming rate.  But we’ll have to find a pay phone to use it – which won’t always be convenient and in an emergency may not even be helpful.   So I kept looking for cell phone options.
  2. Renting a Costa Rica cell phone.  The cell phone service is run by Grupo I.C.E.  – they have a monopoly on the cell services in Costa Rica.  You can’t get a cell phone number (meaning service) unless you are a resident.  So to resolve this issue for travelers, Costa Rica companies have turned to renting cell phones, with service to travelers.  This gives you a usable phone, with a Costa Rica phone number to use while you are there.  This seemed like a good option.
    The cost of this still seemed high.  There is a phone rental charge ($40 – $80), the expected per-minute charges (20¢-30¢ per minute for calls to the US) and a deposit for the phone ($150).   This is where I was a few weeks back.
    Because of the cost, I was only planning on renting one phone for the three of us and using it sparingly along with Skype and the pre-paid calling card for communication on our trip.
    With only one usable phone, the kids and I were concerned about staying in touch with each other while we were out and about.  What if someone got lost?  We talked about getting a set of walkie-talkies with a wide range – that would help.  There would be no minute charges – we could talk as much as we wanted, we just had to invest in a good set before we left.  These turned out to be about $70 per set of 2, and because we needed 3, we’d have to purchase 2 sets, about $140.  This along with the rented cell phone and a calling card…we’d be spending nearly $300 just for services, not including per-minute charges for calls.  This options would still cost us $400-$500 depending on how much we called and connected.  Better, but still not the best.
  3. Prepaid SIM Cards.  This is our current plan.  Prepaid SIM cards are now available in Costa Rica, at the ICE kiosk in the arrivals area at the airport and from ICE offices in Costa Rica.
    You need to have a compatible phone, a GSM phone that works on 1800Mhz band. I have confirmed that all of our phones meet the criteria.  Each of the kids have a version of the Droid and I have a Blackberry, so we’re good.   You can read more about how it works in this Tico Times article.
    You need to have an unlocked phone (to allow you to use a different carrier’s SIM card.  Most phones are “locked”).  This can be done a couple of ways; 1) call your carrier and ask for the unlock code – if they know you’re travelling out of the country, they may just had that over.  2) if it is not that easy, there are few companies that offer unlock codes for a fee.  We used Unlocktotalk.
    If you want to know more how this work and why you need to unlock your phone.  This How Stuff Works article explains it well.
    Each of our phones can operate on the 1800mhz band, we’ve unlocked our phones and are ready to purchase and install our new ICE SIM cards when we arrive at the San Jose airport in Costa Rica. We’ve been advised to bring along the following items for each phone to make it a bit easier.
    — the unlock code we used,
    — the customer service number for our carriers and
    — the instructions from our User Manual on GSM.
    I’ve added these items to our checklist for packing.The prepaid SIM cards come in ¢2500 (about $5), ¢5000 ($10), or ¢10,000 ($20) denominations. The local call rate is about ¢40 colones a minute, or around 8 cents a minute. The rate to the US is about ¢160/min (about 30 cents).  Much better than anything I have found yet.  With the charge to unlock everyone’s phone $15 x 3 = $45 and then a ¢10,000 ($20) SIM card for each x 3 = $60.  That will be $105.  Much, much less than the previous options!
    I will also purchase a ~$20 phone card for use @ payphones in case there’s a cell service issue, these along with a  Skype account for calls home @ internet cafés should keep us very well connected.

I feel pretty good about moving my costs of phone and data service from $600-$1,000 to under $150!


One comment

  1. […] Rica Adventure 2011 « Planning: Vacation time! Pre Work: Staying Connected » Pre Work: Blackberry Apps 24 June, […]

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