How to Buy and Use Cell Phones in Colombia

Claro store in Los Molinos mall

Claro store in Los Molinos mall

Editors note: this article is out-of-date and was updated in 2017 on this site to include the newest cell phone regulations in Colombia.

Colombia opened up its telecommunications industry in 1991 so the country has a relatively modern telecommunications infrastructure with several competitors.

The mobile market has been one of the fastest growing industries in Colombia with the country now having more cell phones than people.

For mobile phone services, Colombia has three main competitors and several smaller mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that use one of the main competitors networks.

Claro, the local Colombia brand of Mexico-based América Móvil, is the largest telecommunications provider in Colombia.

The company has the largest wireless network and typically has the best wireless network coverage throughout the country, including the smaller pueblos.

Colombia has two additional major mobile competitors in Colombia: Movistar, the local Colombia brand of Spain-based Telefónica; and Tigo, the local brand of Sweden-based Millicom.

Colombia also has several smaller MVNOs, including: Virgin Mobile (which uses Movistar’s network and has a bit over 1 million subscribers) and several others that I understand use Tigo’s network including Exito, Uff!, ETB and UNE, each with relatively small subscriber bases.

Most cell phone users in Colombia currently use 3G networks but several mobile providers in Colombia have started rolling out 4G networks.

In 2013, five different companies won the right to offer 4G in Colombia: Claro, Movistar, Avantel, DirecTV and a consortium formed by ETB and Tigo.

Centro Comercial Opera in El Centro

Centro Comercial Opera in El Centro

Buying Cell Phones in Colombia

You can purchase unlocked cell phones in any major city in Colombia, both smartphones as well as basic function phones. You can also purchase used phones, but make sure you do so from a reputable vendor. You can also buy cell phones through mobile service providers.

To buy cell phones in Colombia most vendors typically will require an ID, either a passport or Colombian ID.

Each of the three major mobile phone providers has stores in most of the malls in the cities in Colombia. They also have smaller kiosks set up in many grocery stores such as Exito and Jumbo.

If you buy a phone from Claro, Movistar or Tigo they provide prepaid (prepago) and postpaid (postpago) options.

A prepaid phone will be more expensive as it doesn’t require a contract and it will be pay-as-you-go, adding minutes when you need to.

A postpaid phone will be cheaper (subsidized) but will require signing a contract and also will require a Colombian ID (cedula).

I personally would recommend against buying a cell phone in one of the Claro, Movistar or Tigo stores as you can find cheaper cell phones in other locations.

In Medellín, two good places to buy cell phones are Monterrey, Medellin’s technology mall, or in El Centro.

Monterrey has several stores selling cell phones. I recently bought a new unlocked Samsung S5 Mini in a store in Monterrey with a price of 900,000 pesos ($379). On Amazon the same unlocked cell phone sells for $326.29. Cell phones are somewhat more expensive in Colombia than in the US.

Another good place to buy cell phones is in El Centro behind the Nutibara hotel. Behind the hotel is Centro Comercial Opera, which is a small mall with many small shops in the mall and nearby that specialize in selling cell phones.

You can find vendors selling both new and used cell phones here. It is possible to find a basic function cell phones starting at about 30,000 pesos ($13) and Android smart phones starting at about 250,000 pesos ($106).

Tigo store in Los Molinos mall

Tigo store in Los Molinos mall

Using Cell Phones from Other Countries

Many mobile providers in other countries have roaming agreements set up in Colombia, so if you have international roaming set up on your cell phone it will work in Colombia, but it will also typically be expensive.

If your cell phone is unlocked it is very inexpensive at about 5,000 pesos ($2.11) to buy a SIM for any of mobile providers in Colombia.

On occasion, I have also seen representatives of Claro, Movistar and Tigo handing out free SIMs outside a few of the metro stations in Medellín, trying to get metro passengers to switch mobile providers.

Be careful of buying a SIM from a non-mobile phone provider store, as it likely will be registered in the store name. I recommend registering a SIM in your name so you can keep the same phone number if your phone is lost or stolen.

To use an unlocked cell phone in Colombia, keep in mind that GSM 850 and 1900 bands are used in Colombia.

If your unlocked cell phone has GSM 850 and 1900 bands it should work in Colombia. A CDMA phone will not work in Colombia. In the US, both Verizon and Sprint use CDMA.

An unlocked GGSM quad band phone is a good choice for Colombia and other countries. The most widely used cell phone technology in the world is Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), which is used in over 200 countries and territories.

If you bring an unlocked phone to any of the Claro, Movistar or Tigo stores they can install a SIM and configure the phone.  Note that starting in 2016, to activate/register cell phones bought elsewhere (from outside of Colombia or purchased in a non-Claro/Movistar/Tigo store you may be required to show a receipt to prove it wasn’t stolen.

Using Cell Phones in Colombia

Making calls from one provider (Claro, for example) to another (Movistar or Tigo) is more expensive than making calls between the same provider (Claro to Claro, Tigo to Tigo, Movistar to Movistar). Calls between the same provider typically cost less than 200 pesos (< 8 cents) per minute.

So you might want to find out what provider most of your friends use before deciding on a mobile provider.

The higher cost to make mobile calls between providers is why you see vendors in parks and on street corners handing out cell phones to customers to place a call.

They typically have orange or green vests, splattered with the names of the three major cell phone providers: Comcel, MoviStar, and Tigo.

These vendors have phones from all three companies that are stuffed in their pockets or dangling from chains and they typically charge 200 pesos per minute.

It is also important understand that in Colombia only the person initiating a mobile phone call will be charged for the call, the receiving party is not charged for the call.

This has resulted in the infamous ‘one ring’ phone call where someone calls another person, lets it ring once, hangs up, and then waits for the other person to ‘return’ the call; this is normally done when someone has little credit on their phone to make calls.

Claro has the most mobile subscribers in the Colombia so Claro is a good choice for many people. I have used Claro since I started traveling to Colombia in 2006. For folks that have traveled to Colombia for several years, Claro previously was known as Comcel until they rebranded.

To call a Colombia landline from a Colombia cell phone, you dial:

03 + area code of city + landline number

Where the area codes for major cities in Colombia are:

  • Barranquilla – 5
  • Bogotá – 1
  • Cali – 2
  • Cartagena – 5
  • Medellín – 4
  • Pereira – 6

To call a Colombia cell phone from a Colombia landline, you dial:

03 + cell phone number

Keep in mind that calls between landlines and cell phones are fairly expensive; it’s cheaper and easier to communicate between cell phones.

To call a US phone from a Colombian cell phone (Claro), you dial:

00444 + 1 + area code + phone number

To call a Colombian cell phone from the US, you dial:

011 + 57 + phone number

Text messages are considered data in Colombia and cost extra to send. That is why WhatsApp is very popular in Colombia with people sending messages using WhatsApp when connected to Wi-Fi. Many of the malls and cafes in Colombia have free Wi-Fi.

I have a prepaid Claro cell phone and I normally recharge it monthly with 20,000 pesos ($8.44). I don’t make that many calls, plus I typically only use data when connected to Wi-Fi.

You can recharge cell phones in Colombia in many places, including mobile provider stores, grocery stores and many street corners.

Using Colombian Cell Phones Internationally

You can also use a Colombian cell phone internationally if you set it up for roaming. I have my Claro cell phone set up for international roaming and I have used it throughout Latin America and the US.

Since Claro is part of Mexican telecommunications giant América Móvil, it has roaming agreements established in over 100 countries throughout the world.

To set up international roaming, I had to go to a Claro store to sign some paperwork. I have a prepaid Claro phone so before I travel internationally, I typically recharge my phone with 60,000 to 100,000 pesos, depending on how long I am traveling.

Claro has a preferential prepago international roaming rate of 2,900 pesos ($1.22) per minute established in the US, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.

In other countries like Canada and Spain, Claro’s prepago international roaming rate is 3,900 pesos ($1.64) per minute.

Movistar’s prepago international roaming cost is higher that Claro’s at 3,999 pesos ($1.68) per minute to the Movistar countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, the UK and Venezuela.

For the rest of the world including the US and Canada, Movistar’s prepago international roaming cost is 6,199 pesos ($2.61) per minute.

According to their website, Tigo doesn’t look to offer roaming to as many countries as Claro or Movistar. For roaming in the US, Brazil, Mexico, Panama and Peru, Tigo’s prepago international roaming cost is 2,999 pesos per minute for local calls and 3,999 pesos ($1.68) per minute to other countries.

For Spain and Italy, Tigo’s prepago international roaming cost is 3,999 ($1.68) per minute for local calls and 6,199 ($2.61) per minute to other countries.

The Bottom Line

There are several mobile provider options in Colombia with pretty intense competition that helps keep prices relatively low. It is very easy to get a prepaid cell phone set up in Colombia and easy to recharge cell phones.

Claro is the biggest telecommunications provider in Colombia with the largest mobile network and the most customers, so it likely it the best choice for most foreigners traveling to Colombia.

Also make sure to use common sense when using expensive smart phones like iPhones in Colombia as smart phones are a common target for thieves.

For example, it is not recommended walking around El Centro in Medellín brandishing an iPhone.

A common expression in Colombia is “no dar papaya” or don’t give opportunity. Brandishing a smart phone in El Centro is an example of “dar papaya.”

Like the story? Take a second to support Medellin Living on Patreon!
About Jeff

Jeff first discovered Colombia back in 2006 and has traveled to all the major cities in Colombia. He is fortunate to have lived over seven years in Medellín. He is also studying Spanish to become fluent.

Comments

  1. Excellent article. Thank you very much for such a complete and helpful overview!

  2. Yes, much thanks for a very informative article.

    If you travel here frequently from the US and have , it may be possible to get your phone unlocked by your provider. Last year, I upgraded my Iphone when my Verizon contract renewed and they unlocked the old phone for me. This was done over the phone – I did not have to take it to an office to be unlocked. We put a SIM card in it here, and it works fine. If there was a CDMA issue, it did not affect me. I understand that you may even be able to get the phone you currently use in the US unlocked if you have had your contract for a while and your payments are up to date.

    I have also been very happy with the Vonage app on my phone. If you have a data connection, you can make calls throughout the world, including Colombia at much lower rates. For example, you can call any land line in Colombia for 2.7 cents per minute. I think calls to cell phones are about 18 cents per minute. Calls to the USA are free. If you already have a Vonage contract, you can use their extensions app, which gives you the same rates that you have on your Vonage contract.

    • Sorry, first line was supposed to say: If you travel here frequently from the US and have a cell phone contract there,…

    • The iPhone from Verizon uses 4G LTE if it has a SIM. CDMA phones don’t have SIMs. 4G LTE Phones are not CDMA Enabled anymore. I understand that Verizon did away with CDMA on its 4G LTE phones. So Verizon 4G LTE phones will work in Colombia. I suspect that Verizon and Sprint will eventually be doing away with CDMA.

      • That has been my experience with my Verizon cell phone. However, I bought a pre-paid SIM from Claro and I keep getting a message saying that my phone is not registered. I took it back to the Claro in Monterrey, and she registered it 4 days later saying it would take 24 hours for the registration to take effect. The WhatsUp is working, so that is good. I don’t recommend Monterrey Claro. Hopefully the customer service at the El Premio store will be better if I have any other issues.

    • I used colombia simcard and calls to cellphone it is 3 cents a minute calling colombia and the USA. But it has a USA number in the same simcard. So whoever calls me from miami it is unlimited and it is a local call for them
      And it is not a app it is is true call. Check it out
      http://Www.colombiasimcard.com. No lore paying for roaming
      And it is 30 days unlimited incoming calls from the USA

  3. Thanks! This is the most complete and helpful article I have seen about cell phones in Colombia! You have convinced me to switch providers to Claro, I wasn’t aware that Claro’s international roaming rates are cheaper than the other providers (Movistar and Tigo).

    • I’ve been using Tigo since 2009, but just switched to Claro as of a few days ago. I have a new unlocked iPhone 6 and when I stopped into the Tigo office at Premium Plaza, it didn’t sound like they had the nano SIM cards immediately available. That and even if they did have one ready to give me, I’d have to get a new phone number to go along with it.

      I went to the 3rd floor Claro shop, which was 10x busier, and was able to sign up as a prepay (prepago) customer and put in a request to have my old Tigo number transferred for use with Claro (5 business days).

  4. Having used all the carriers – I can make a few comments. Tigo and Movistar use the same frequencies as ATT in the US while Claro is an odd bird. Tigo’s network is the newest and fastest. Claro is the the most popular carrier currently but Movistar covers the country the best (widest coverage). An LTE phone from the US that worked on 4G LTE on ATT and/or Tmobile will only provider 3G coverage on Claro while in theory should work in 4G LTE on Movistar and Tigo. You can buy iPhone 6 from Ktronix on sale for 1,600,000 which is a great price considering the currency exchange and use it on a GSM network here. 73s..

    • I don’t believe that Movistar covers the country best (widest coverage). In more than 55 municipalities in Colombia, Claro is the only operator. Claro currently provides mobile services in over 1,000 municipalities in Colombia, over 99% of them. Claro also claims to have 4G available in over 400 municipalities in Colombia. Claro has also disclosed plans to bring 4G to another 600 municipalities over the next four years.

      Claro currently has about a 60% market share of the mobile market in Colombia. Movistar’s market share in Colombia is less than half of Claro’s. And Tigo’s market share is even less.

  5. Mark Bachrach says:

    Thanks for the excellent summary. One surprising thing I recently found out is that making calls from your Claro or Tigo prepaid our postpaid phone to the US or Canada is surprisingly cheap. 399 COP/minute (17¢) on Tigo and 499 COP (21¢) on Claro. This, compared to calling a Colombian cell phone from my Sprint mobile in the US which is close to $2 US per minute.

  6. Does anyone know about unlocking a Columbian bought cell (under Movistar – LG smartphone) and using it elsewhere? We were unable to unlock in in Canada but wanted to bring it to Cuba to unlock there. But I don’t know enough to know that if it is considered ‘unlockable’ in one country, does that mean it’s unlockable in all countries?

    • As far as using UNLOCKED PHONES in colombia, the US and other countries, I have found the best thing to do is buy an UNLOCKED APPLE IPHONE in any country. I have found that APPLE phones are the most universally compatible phones of any maker and i have used my IPHONE in nearly a dozen countries and never had a problem. (i have used a IPHONE 4, 5 and now 6)

      Of course, the best price for this phone will not be in colombia. you can buy a used one at La Opera centro commercial in centro, but you should know that prices at La Opera for used IPHONES is still higher than one you can buy on Amazon.com.

  7. Hello

    I recently sold my unlocked Samsung S4 to a friend in Pereira. ..the phone was bought from ATT

    Now she is saying she can’t make calls because the phone is not registered for use in Colombia. That there is a list of all phones sold in Colombia and if your phone is not the list it will eventually not work. The goal is to protect sales of cell phones in country.

    Does anyone know how to fix this problem?

  8. Greetings all. I couldn’t find a forum covering this, so I hope this will get me replies. We would like to know if anybody living in Medellin has used online resources and shopping sites such as:
    Amazon
    EBay
    Netflix
    Amazon
    Pandora
    Any other streaming sites
    I’m interested in the availability, reliability, cost, etc.
    If possible starting a new category under Internet use would be appreciated. Thanks for all you do!

    • I signed up with Netflix in Colombia last year, and it was about $8/month for the HD service.

      We touched on home internet service in this article – http://www.medellinliving.com/cable-tv-internet-providers/

      Generally speaking, you should be fine to stream HD movies, music, etc. in your apartment, even with a connection as low as 5 MB which is one of the lower/cheaper options.

      As for having stuff delivered from Amazon, that requires using a third party service based in the U.S. for shipping. See this post – http://www.medellinliving.com/mail-boxes-etc-receive-mail-packages/

      • Wow. I just linked to the article and found it most informative. I’m sure things will have increased since 2014…but they have everywhere. I’m so thankful to Medellinliving and its contributors!

    • For me, it’s been very expensive to send things from the USA to Medellín. To express a credit card in an envelope cost over $100 USD. I was on a netflix plan in the USA and still use it here. The shows offered are different but most are available in Spanish, Portuguese and English with subtitles usally in English or Spanish. Pandora though is not available in Colombia. Spotify and youtube are both widely used as music streaming sites.

  9. Steve Holmes says:

    a lot of the used phones may be stolen property ? gang networks steal phones in the USA & elsewhere, ship to Colombia & have their hackers reset them

  10. I bought a prepaid 41000 peso plan from Claro a few days ago. All my data is nearly gone already. How many GB are you supposed to get for the 41000 plan ($12.30)? It seems very expensive that I paid $12 and only got around 200 MB of data. Is data really that much cheaper in the States?

    Also, is it true that some plans aren’t available to foreigners? One Claro store tried to sell me a certain plan, but another said that one was not available to me.

    • I had a similar experience last week with a 41,000 Prepaid Plan from CLARO. It does seem like a ripoff. Although it is not a lot of money, it does not seem that I am getting what they promised. Live and Learn. Thank goodness Whatsapp is working, but I am still not able to make local calls because my Iphone 5s was not registered when I bought the plan.

  11. Maria Olga says:

    Excellent article and comments. I’m making a quick trip down and decided to add a basic $40 international roaming plan offered by Verizon. They offer 100 min, 100 1¢ texts and 100mb data. It’s not cheap, especially if there’s overage on data use, but I like the option of calling & texting immediately upon arrival in-country. I also have an old GSM Comcel pre paid phone but not sure if I’ll bother with a new SIM for it or my iPhone. Depends on how much calling I do so I’ll wait and see.

  12. FYI, I recently bought an “etb” card and it worked well but I found it very difficult to recharge. I switched over to MoviStar which is very easy to use and recharge.

  13. Reg Natarajan says:

    Really helpful article. Thank you! I’m heading to Bogota on Wednesday and am sick of the roaming bills. This will help me sort things out for my travels there.

  14. Hi, new to Colombia, note that I don’t have a cedula yet. I’m trying to figure out how to buy a data package by texting the codes. I think all you say in your article above about buying a data package is, “I typically only use data when connected to Wi-Fi.” OK then.

    I’ve spent all morning trying to figure this out. But first, I’ll tell you that I bought a new phone and a sim card from a shop in downtown Medellin. My gringo buddy said that, because I don’t have a cedula yet, I have to go to the main Claro store to buy a 41,000 COP prepaid data package and 20,000 COP “top up” for phone calls and texting. I don’t understand why there are two things.

    I still don’t have my cedula yet, and I used up that data package in 2 week. I now want to buy more data package, and I would prefer to do it by texting the codes rather than going back downtown Medellin to the Claro store. I found instructions at a wiki here http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/Colombia that says dial *611#. I did this and entered numbers offered from the menu: 1 (Paq. Datos Cobro Unica Vez), 1 (Smartphone), 3 (Mas Paquetes), 5 (Mes), 2 (41,000), 1 (Activar). I didn’t know what was going to happen next, perhaps I would be asked for payment somehow? No, there was a notice “Lo sentimos, el saldo es insuficiente o ha expirado, por favor ingrese saldo a la linea e intentelo nuevamente.” I Google Translated that and find need to top up my balance to do this. It dawns me that the 20,000 is the bank from where the data fee is withdrawn.

    Gonna find out in a little while when I’m up and about, will buy 50,000 COP at Gana or some place and try this again, texting codes to buy data using the funds I topped up with. Buenos Dias!

  15. Saved as a favourite, wonderful site!

  16. Dannell M. says:

    I will be bringing a compatible, carrier unlocked, phone from the USA and purchase a prepaid SIM (Movistar or Claro) on arrival. (I have used this phone here on previously.)
    It seems that it is necessary (as of April 2016) to “legalizar (register)” your phone’s “IMEI” after you start using a Colombian SIM card. If you do not register your IMEI within a certain amount of time (about 2 weeks) your phone will be blocked and unusable with any Colombian cell network. Understand this process is intended to reduce the proliferation of stolen phones.
    Has anyone experienced any difficulty with the “Registra tu equipo (IMEI registration)” using just your foreign passport/documents? Thanks.

    • claaay says:

      I started getting text message notices that I needed to register my phone about 2 weeks after I bought it. I think I had a month to do it, of course I procrastinated and went to the main Claro at Sao Paolo Mall the morning it was due. No problem registering, took about 30 minutes with the very nice English speaking staff helping me.

      • Dannell M. says:

        Thanks, for the feedback. I was concerned it would be a hassle to register an IEM/obtain an SIM card now for a phone not purchased in Colombia. I guess it will be OK, I will have my phone’s receipt.

    • Yes! I went back to Claro yesterday and supposedly she registered the phone; 5 days after I bought the plan from her. She said it would take 24 hours for the registration to take effect. Anybody have any recommendations for a knowledgeable and helpful Claro person at any particular store/?
      .

  17. I just moved to Medellin and paid about 45,000 pesos for a 30 day 2GB plan with Claro. But after only 2 weeks I have run out of data. I walked into a claro store to get more data but they said they don’t offer it. So what is the best and easiest way for me to top up my phone with internet data? Keep in mind my Spanish is horrible lol so I can’t conversate with people and ask stuff. If there is a website in english to do this that would be best!

    • Jonathan says:

      Something similar happened to me. MAKE SURE you “activate” the plan after buying it. They should send you a text message that you have to respond to. Otherwise, you’ll never get access to your 2GB, and you’ll only get 200MB or algo así. It’s really deceptive in my opinion, and preys on people who don’t check how much data they’re actually using.

  18. Hi – thanks for a great article! I’ll be visiting Medellin from Ecuador and wonder if my Claro phone (prepaid) will work okay if I just purchase a SIM card. Do you know if I’d have to do anything more than than swap the SIMs?

  19. Steven Friedman says:

    Last year I purchased a Samsung phone in one of the malls. What I did not realize was the the warranty service only could be done in Colombia. I returned to Colombia exactly one year later and brought the phone into the service center for replace or repair. So far they have been unable to find the problem with the constant echo I am getting and are reluctant to replace it.

  20. BrianBunelo says:

    Here’s some information and issues I wanted to share regarding experience with MoviStar this year. I purchased a bottom dollar Samsung Ace 4 and about 1,000 prepaid minutes from one of the bigger malls in Medellin in April 2016, 3 months prior to relocation. Upon arrival in July, my SIM card was “deactivated” for lack of activity and required reactivation. I got lost and learned this the hard way when I needed to make a phone call. I also discovered the prepaid did not include data and that data must be purchased separately and then allocated to data using *611#. Data is currently priced at 36,000 COP for 2 GB of data. At this point it makes more sense for a non tourist to enroll into a regular plan. However, enrolling in a monthly plan with MoviStar requires a Cedula.

    The two highest plans from MoviStar offer calls to USA, Canada and Puerto Rico and 5.5mb of Data for 104,000 COP/month or 9mb of Data for 151,000 COP/month. They told me the minimum commitment was 3 months. This was attractive to me on paper. After my fiance provided her criminal fingerprint, signed the paperwork, we exited Flamingo in San Nicolas (Rionegro) to another location to make a payment (Carulla) only to return to Flamingo to be told that it takes 24 hours to activate the SIM card.
    They also were unable to identify the ID of my Samsung Galaxy S6 from Verizon from USA. I bought out the phone and this new requirement to register your phone within 2 weeks makes me nervous.

    After 24 hours we were told that additional security questions need to be answered to activate the SIM card because 4 other numbers are tied to my fiance’s cedula. I also notice that in several malls in Medellin my fiance is unable to connect to the internet using the MoviStar 3G network but others using Claro have no issues getting online. My family selected MoviStar to save money for calls between us but I want the best Wireless Network and bandwidth for email, GPS, and WhatsApp.

    Does Claro require a cedula? Is Claro still superior for data?

  21. Best Buy recommends an unlocked Moto G 4. I checked the reviews on Amazon which are good, and the price of $150 is the same as Best Buy. Any comments.

Comment Policy:

We strive for a positive, supportive community discussion at Medellín Living. Please use your real name. Comments with anonymous, fake or company names will be deleted. If it's your first comment or you include a URL, it will be held for moderation. Critical comments that serve to enhance the conversation are welcome; comments that serve to insult or demean will be deleted.


Speak Your Mind

*