Guide to Buying a Cell Phone in Colombia

Kevin, my roommate, talking to a Tigo salesman

Kevin, my roommate, talking to a Tigo salesman

For a month, I resisted. It was the first time in a dozen years that I did not have a cell phone and I liked it.

This might sound silly to you, especially if you are part of the generation that has had mobile phone since middle school. And I’ll admit, even though the first cell phone I remember seeing was the brick-sized model Zach Morris used on “Saved by the Bell,” I had gotten somewhat attached to my smaller, more contemporary model over the years I was living in the states.

Then came the day that the newspaper I worked for bought us all cell phones, and now I had two. It was too much. I felt like I didn’t have any privacy.

That changed when I moved to Medellín. But 30 days into my stay, I realized I needed one. It’s especially important, my friends advised me, when you’re looking for a job.

The question then became: how do I go about getting one? What company should I choose? What will it cost?

Here’s a quick breakdown:

1. You can find cell phones anywhere, at any of the malls, at small shopping plazas, even in downtown (Centro), although they might be stolen goods, depending on where you by them.

2. There are 3 major providers — Comcel, Tigo and Movistar.

3. Prepaid (annual) plans typically require you to have some sort of proof that you can afford it, a price I don’t know and don’t plan to ask about for a long time. Many paísas pay as they go. There is a place called Gana that allows you to put credit on your phone when you need it. You only need credit to make calls. Receiving calls is free.

4. Making calls from one provider (Comcel, for example) to another (Tigo or Movistar) is more expensive than making calls between the same provider (Comcel to Comcel, Tigo to Tigo, Movistar to Movistar). So you might want to find out what company most of your friends have before deciding.

5. Talk to a paísa you trust before going out to buy your phone. Salespeople are salespeople, wherever you go. Their job is to make a sale. The more you know, the better off you will be.

I talked to my friend Paula, a paísa who is dating my roommate Joseph, who I talked to about my future purchase as well. I wanted advice on which provider to pick — Comcel, Tigo or Movistar.

Paula and Joseph told me Comcel is the most popular, something my paísa friend Juanes confirmed as well. But Joseph told me Comcel is also the most expensive, partly because you will be able to use your phone if you are in other parts of the country, outside the Medellín area.

If I’m outside the Medellín area, the last thing I want to do is be on my cell phone. That eliminated Comcel from my choices.

[Dave here. Just to clarify, all 3 service providers can be used throughout the country, however the quality of your connection (as is always the case) will vary per provider. Generally, Comcel is considered to have better coverage throughout the country -- in those distant pueblos, as well as the big cities, whereas Tigo's coverage may not be as strong in the more remote areas. 

I prepaid Tigo for a year, including 70,000 COP ($37) per month for unlimited Internet/data coverage for my Blackberry, and was satisfied with the coverage everywhere I went in Antioquia, and Colombia. I did not have service at the northern tip of La Guajira Peninsula, but I was only there one night.]

Paula and Joseph then told me that Movistar is the cheapest option. I knew that two other roommates, Steve and Nadia, had Movistar so I talked to them about it. They like Movistar, except for one thing: they have a certain amount of time to use their credit — anywhere from two weeks to a month — or they lose it. Ok, Movistar won’t work.

I settled on Tigo. I pay 10,000 pesos (about $5) for about 40 minutes and I keep my credit, even if I don’t use it right away. Most of my paísa friends have Tigo, so my money goes a lot further than if I had picked one of the other two providers.

I bought my phone at Los Molinos, the closest centro commercial with a Tigo store (the same place I recently took two new roommates to get a phone). I chose the cheapest phone possible, a basic LG that cost 60,000 pesos (about $34), something that allows me to call and text and receive voicemail, the only functions I really need. The phone comes with a one-year warranty.

Having a cell phone again has been handy. It’s easier to keep in touch with my friends here. I don’t have to be on the phone all the time either. Remember, my plan is pay-as-you-go. I often have no credit, so if I can’t call or text you back, that’s why. But let’s talk soon…

About Ryan

Ryan loves writing about Colombia and the country's great qualities. His hope is that his blog posts will encourage you to make Colombia one of your travel destinations. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter.

Comments

  1. barnaby33 says:

    I’m heading down from the states in a couple of weeks. Here I have Verizon. If I wanted to buy an unlocked phone, which providers would sell me a sim and credit?

    • Do you mean buy an unlocked phone in the US before you get to Colombia? You can buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes and internet from any of the service providers. Which you go with is mostly a matter of personal choice.

  2. Is it normal to refer to use “paísa” as an identifier in common discussion?

    I’ve lived all over the United States and its never been common to refer to someone from their city or state of origin.

    For example the above article has this line ” something my paísa friend Juanes confirmed as well”.

    Is this every day language or just for this website?

    • Hola Trey, yea, it’s every day language. Colombia is a lot smaller than the US. Americans say Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, in every day conversation.

      In Colombia, people are referred to by their cities. Paisas are from Medellin and the department of Antioquia. Calinos are from Cali. Costenas are from the Caribbean coast. Rolos are from Bogota.

  3. Great information, Ryan. I’m heading down after the first of the year and this will be really helpful.

  4. Can these phone receive calls from the states for free too thanks

    • Yes, as far as I know, but the caller from the US would be paying international rates. But I don’t think the cost is very high between the US and Colombia.

  5. need to know how to provide a cell phone with contract to a person living in Cali Colombia and pay in USA in a monthly basis with a contract
    Sixto Padilla

  6. Jakki Johnston says:

    Can I use a US purchased iPhone in Colombia? Any special considerations or, perhaps, recommendations for a phone that is easy to use there? Thanks.

    • Yes you can, but it’ll have to be unlocked if you want to be able to use it with local carriers.

      Do you want to use your phone to make local calls/text messages, or for data? If the former, you can buy cheap phones here for $20 and buy prepaid minutes. I prefer this now when I’m out in public because the cheap phones don’t draw unwanted attention. I only use my iPhone at home, like a tablet, or if I’m traveling in Colombia (and even then I’m careful).

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