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Phones in Colombia

Phones in Colombia

phones-in-colombia-1If you're going to be traveling, living, or working in Colombia, just about the first thing you'll want to do is get a phone. There are three major telecommunications companies in Colombia: Claro (which was formerly Comcel), Tigo, and Movistar. Fortunately, it's easy and straightforward in Colombia. There are basically two options if you want a Colombian cell phone number: pre-paid or post-paid service. Additionally, you can make calls from the street, or use Google Voice or Skype, or even use cabinas telefonicas.

1. Pre-paid Service

Pre-paid service (prepago) is the simplest, and easiest way to go, although it does end up costing more than if you signed up for a monthly plan. You will need a Colombian SIM card, which can be obtained for somewhere between $2.000 and $10.000 ($1 to $5), and you will need a phone which operates on the 850/1900 frequency. This is used in the vast majority of countries in North and South America. Only Venezuela, Brazil, and Uruguay use the alternative 900/1800 frequency. Of course, phones that are tri-band and quad-band will work on all frequencies.

If you need a Colombian cell phone and a SIM card, head to the "San Andrecito" area of the city your in: this is an area of Bogota located along Avenida Jimenez between La Decima and La Caracas where you can find all kinds of goods at rock bottom prices. A good idea might be to head down there, ask around for cell phone stores, and buy a cheap used one. You can get a quality used phone, with charger and full keyboard for just $50.000. Make sure to test the phone first.

Then, you will need a SIM card. You can either head to a retail location of Claro, Tigo, or Movistar, although increasingly you can buy SIM cards and get them up and running at many other retail locations that handle phones. It's also possible that if you have brought a phone from another country, that you will need to get someone to "abrir las bandas" or open up the phone for usage in Colombia. Fortunately this usually just costs $10.000 or $15.000.

Once you have your phone and SIM card up and running properly, test them by both making and receiving a call. Cell numbers in Colombia are 10 digits, just like in the United States, and they all start with 3. So, in other words, a typical Colombian cell number might be 314.xxx.xxxx.phones-in-colombia-2

Now, you need to manage the credit (saldo as it's called in Spanish) on your phone to make and receive calls. You can recharge your phone in most supermarkets, pharmacies, and some small shops, as well as in retail locations of the companies themselves. A good time to recharge your phone is when you are in the line at Exito, Carulla, or Carrefour. Credit can be bought in denominations of $1.000 and onward. The more you buy, the bigger bonus they will give you. For example, if you buy $10.000 of credit with Claro, you will typically receive a bonus of $5.000 for free.

Calling with prepago service is a little pricy in Colombia, although prices are coming down. Claro is a bit more expensive than the other operators. Currently a call with Claro is $349 a minute (about $.18), and text messages are the same. Movistar and Tigo are $300 a minute.

2. Calling from the Street

If you really want to pinch your pennies, you will also find people selling minutes throughout Colombia's major cities, typically for between $100 and $300 a minute. They will ask you which operator you're calling (Claro, Tigo, or Movistar) so that they can use the appropriate phone to make the call.

3.  Post-paid Service

If you are going to be in Colombia for a long period of time, you should definitely get post-paid service. However, they may ask you for a cedula (Colombian identification document) if you want to go this route. Of course, you can always get started with prepago service, and then switch later.

Examine the details of the plan that you are choosing carefully. In general, plans are not as generous (ie. free nights and weekends) as in the United States or Europe. Also, you may be locked into a long contract, and unable to cancel, even if you leave the country. As the old Latin dictum goes...caveat emptor!

4. Using Skype/Google Voice

phones-in-colombia-3Another great option for your calling needs in Colombia is using Skype and/or Google Voice. Skype offers better quality, but is more expensive. Currently it is $.07 (7 American cents) a minute to call a Colombian phone with Google Voice, and $.03 or $.04 to call a Colombian landline. With Skype it's $.098 a minute to call Colombia, but they will also charge you a connection fee, which can add up really fast.

5. Cabinas Telefonicas

Just a couple of years ago cabinas telefonicas were everywhere in Colombia. Now, they are going the way of the buffalo thanks to the internet and increased capabilities of cellular networks. However, in a pinch, you just might end up using one. It's typically about 200 pesos (10 cents) a minute to call the United States. You enter the booth and a screen on the wall tells you how many minutes you have used. You then pay your bill in cash upon leaving the booth.

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