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Posted by on Jul 24, 2013 in Central Valley, Technology | 12 comments

Setting up Your iPhone in Costa Rica

Setting up Your iPhone in Costa Rica

This post continues with the 2nd of 3 things that I learned my first 3 weeks living in Costa Rica. The first thing I learned, in this blog post, was that sometimes, even when you are trying to be frugal, it make sense to upgrade to Business/First Class. This post discusses setting up your iPhone with Costa Rican service.

Locked in a Cell

When I left my job to retire and move to Costa Rica I left a job where my cell phone was my life and it was on and near me literally 24/7. We had 2 weeks in Dallas before we moved out of the country; during those weeks, getting used to walking out the door without my phone or, GASP, turning it off took several days. I was considering getting rid of the cell phone all together and just setting Jen’s up with a Costa Rica cell number. I was encouraged, by a friend who had lived for years in Costa Rica, to bring my phone with me even if I didn’t think I would use it as all electronics here sell for significantly more than they do in the States. So we brought it and I ended up activating both phones, however i am often without it, yeah me.

To begin, this article is dealing specifically with the iPhone 4S although, I believe, it works with any phone that requires a SIM card. There are essentially only 2 steps (3 the way we did it) to setting up your cell phone with a Costa Rican number.

Unlock your Cell

Before we get into the unlocking of your phone let’s clarify 2 terms; to UNLOCK a cell means to remove the carrier restrictions on your iPhone’s SIM card so that you can use the phone with any other carriers’ SIM card. JAILBREAK means to modify the iPhones firmware, typically to allow 3rd party aps (non Apple Store) to be installed. We will not discuss jailbreaking your iPhone as this is not needed to set it up for use in Costa Rica. The first step to a Costa Rican cell number is to unlock your phone.

There are 2 methods to unlocking the phone. The first method is to contact your carrier and have them facilitate the unlock with Apple, this costs you nothing. The second method is to have a 3rd party unlock your iPhone via software that costs between $20 and $50. Jen and I both had different carriers (AT&T and Sprint respectively) and both carriers had no problem agreeing to unlock our phones once we explained that we were moving out of the country and we concluded/canceled our contracts. For Sprint you need to contact Sprint Worldwide – I effectively used their online chat at Sprint Worldwide Chat. For AT&T you just contact customer service and explain you are moving to another country and they will set you up and send you to AT&T Device Unlock to complete the unlock. After they unlock your iPhone you will need to back it up with iTunes and then revert back to factory settings – don’t worry you can load your back up back onto your phone once this is done so your contacts, settings and applications will be saved, although Jen did lose a couple of her apps because they were only on her phone and not backed up on iTunes. Once your iPhone is unlocked and you no longer have service you can still use the web, email and text if you are connected to WiFi; you will not have phone service.

Determine a Carrier and Sign up for a Plan

The next step is to choose a Costa Rican phone carrier and sign-up for a prepago (prepaid) account. As a non – resident you do not have the ability to have a postpago (billed) account and will need to pay as you go. You will need your passport to complete the sign up process. There are 3 carriers (at least in the Central Valley) and they are Kolbi (ICE’s mobile phone division), MoviStar and Claro. To be honest, we did zero research into companies or plans. We went with our landlords recommendation of MoviStar as he has had very good reception high on the ridge of Cajon were we live (4700 ft), plus they were running a deal where for 3,000 colones ($6) for both phones we got our SIM cards plus an initial load and 1,000 free minutes to a “favorite” number. I am sure there are online resourses that discuss the advantages of each. Now for the unknown 3rd step we had to take.


In all the years that I have owned multiple cell phones I had never removed the SIM card from one. I had no idea that like music media  has transitioned from 8-track to cassette to cd and finally digital format the SIM card has transitioned from Standard size to what is called Nano. The image below shows; Standard, Mini, Micro and Nano sizes.

By Cvdr based on Justin Ormont's work [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Cvdr based on Justin Ormont’s work [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So the iPhone product to SIM run down is; iPhone, iPhone 3 and iPhone 3GS all use the Standard size, iPhone 4 and 4S use the Micro size and the iPhone 5 uses the Nano. So, when we signed up for our plan we were given our SIM cards and were sent on our way. When we got home to play with our new toy the MoviStar Standard size SIM would not fit in my iPhone 4S – no matter how many times and ways I tried. So after a frantic education on various websites learning about the evolution of the SIM card I found that you could cut them, but the cut had to be precise or you ruin the card. OK, next find a cutter.  They sell, for $20, a Standard to Micro SIM card cutter on Amazon. Not an option as we have nowhere to ship to and aren’t leaving the country until September. After reaching out to the Expatriates in Costa Rica Face Book group and receiving multiple responses, from “I have a cutter, come over” to go to a cell phone store, we made a trip back to town to a MoviStar store and for a cut that took 10 seconds was charged 1,000 colones ($2) per card. They then inserted the card and tested each phone by calling the store number and we now have iPhones with a Costa Rican 8 digit number and can now call in country, text and access the Internet.

UPDATE: When I first posted this the iPhone 5 had just come out and now the 6 is out. Oddly Apple offered the iPhone 5 in an unlocked version. They stopped that when they moved to the 6. If you are buying a phone specifically for Costa Rica the unlocked iPhone 5 is a great choice. Otherwise you will have to work with your carrier to unlock your phone before you come here and if you are not at the end of your service agreement this may be an issue.

I hope this blog helps. If you have helpful coments or questions, please ask. Feel free to share this blog on Social Media sites or subscribe for email updates.

Hasta Luego,


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Greg Seymour is a quitter. At 41 Greg and his wife Jen quit their jobs, sold damn near everything they owned and became Intentionally Unemployed and retired early to Costa Rica.
In addition to writing on this blog, Greg has written for other online publications and has written two popular books about living in Costa Rica:
Greg Seymour Amazon Author Page

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  1. Thank you for sharing. I have a Iphone 5 and you have helped me know to go into the store and have them put it in. Not just buy it on the street like you and your wife did at first. I am very gratful for your blog as I will be moving in a few months and will be following in your foot steps. CB

    • Thanks for your comment Cathy. One of the best things we can share is what not to do. Glad you found the blog useful. Good luck with your move and let us know if we can help with any questions you might have.

  2. Just wanted to let you know, as a non-resident, you can still purchase a post-paid “regular” phone plan. You just need to have a Costa Rican corporation set up for you (by a Costa Rican lawyer). Then the phone plans can be purchased under the corporation. The same thing goes for opening a Costa Rican bank account, which is very useful if you want to be able to pay utility bills electronically instead of making a trip to the ICE office every month. Many people also place their cars under a corporation, but that is not required. You can have a car placed under your personal name, just depends on what you prefer.

    • Thanks for the info Mitch. The more information I get the more useful a corporation seems. It appears they can provide quite a few advantages. I will have to look into it further. Thank for reading and commenting.


  3. I have an iPhone 5, therefore need a nano SIM card. Can I buy a nano card in Costa Rica?

    • Hi JC,

      I have an iPhone 4s that required the mid-range size sim card. I just took mine to the MoviStar store in Grecia and they clipped it, put it in the phone and made sure it worked. I doubt you would find a nano card but you could get one cut. Best of luck.

  4. We are planning a trip to Costa Rica and have the iPhone 5s on verizon. I understand that it is unlocked, does that mean we simply just need a new SIM card inserted in and a prepaid plan to be able to use the iPhone while in costa rica?

    • Hi Luke. The answer is – I don’t know.
      According to this article your Verizon phone won’t work here. However, they also say Sprint doesn’t and mine worked just fine. I think you just need to have a SIM slot. The phone company you get your card from here can cut their SIM to the correct size to fit your phone. Worse case is your phone doesn’t work and you spend $20 for a throw away cheapie – you could still use your iPhone in the WIFI hotspots that are all around. Sorry I do not have a definitive answer. Enjoy your trip.

  5. Thanks for the information and helpful tips. We had a difficult time finding a micro SIM card in Bali, Indonesia as well (there were no cutters available). Fortunately, the locals where we were staying, took us a computer store that had the micro cards.

    • Thanks for the comments (and link to the article). I was concerned and was considering buying a cutter as a last resort (I had already ruled out a tutorial I saw on the Internet about how to cut it yourself) but there was no need. The store had a cutter.

  6. Thank you, Greg,
    My niece is about to go to Costa Rica for a 6-month high school exchange program, and your information regarding cell phone is very helpful!
    My other question is about converters and adapters. I’m sure she will need an adapter for her cell phone and laptop chargers, but does she need a converter?
    Thanks for your help, Marianne

    • Power outlets in Costa Rica are exactly the same as in the States. Charging the electronics will be exactly the same – nothing additional needed (if she is not coming from the US then I really don’t know).

      Thanks for the comment!


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