An article about how to buy and use Colombian cell phones written in 2014 is one of the most popular articles on this site. Several readers asked us to update the article. Regulations have also changed since that article was written, so we are providing this 2017 update.
Colombia opened up its telecommunications industry in 1991. So the country has a relatively modern telecommunications infrastructure with several Colombian cell phone competitors. The mobile market has been one of the fastest growing industries in Colombia with the country 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 competitor’s 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 also has several smaller MVNOs, including: Virgin Mobile (which uses Movistar’s network and has over 1 million subscribers) and several others that I understand use Tigo’s network including Exito, Uff!, and ETB, each with relatively small subscriber bases.
Cell phone operators have rolled out 4G networks over the past few years. And many Colombian cell phones users now use 4G instead of slower 3G networks.
Buying Colombian Cell Phones
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, as some places sell stolen phones. You can also buy cell phones through mobile service providers.
To buy Colombian cell phones most vendors typically will require an ID, either a passport or Colombian cedula 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.
Monterrey has several stores selling cell phones. In 2014 bought a new unlocked Samsung S5 Mini in a store in Monterrey with a price of 900,000 pesos ($379 at the time). On Amazon, the same unlocked cell phone was selling 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 ($10) and Android smart phones starting at about 250,000 pesos ($86) or even cheaper.
In late 2016, I bought a used unlocked dual-SIM Samsung J3 in Centro Comercial Opera and only paid $100.
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 less than $2 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.
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. To register the used Samsung J3 phone I bought in late 2016 with Claro I had to provide a receipt proving that I purchased the phone.
Earlier this year when I arrived in Bogotá from an international location I saw on the monitors in Migracion a notice that to activate/register a cell phone brought to Colombia you now need to provide a receipt to prove the phone was purchased and not stolen.
Colombia’s New Regulations to Combat Cell Phone Theft
Colombia is trying to combat cell phone theft in the country. There are now several regulations in place in Colombia that weren’t in place back in 2014.
In 2015, Colombia restricted the importing of cell phones via mail services under Decree 2025. So, you no longer could buy a cell phone on Amazon and ship it to Colombia. Official registered cell phone importers could continue to import cell phones but they needed to supply the Ministry of Information and Communications the IMEI of every cell phone that they were importing into the country prior to the approval of the import declaration.
In December 2016, Colombia issued the new Decree 2142, which permits one cell phone to be imported via postal services, as long as it complies with custom regulations, including listing the IMEI number of the cell phone. The addressee in Colombia must also be a person. You are also permitted to bring up to three cell phones with you when entering Colombia.
Another new regulation is that IMEI numbers of all Colombian cell phones must now be registered. When an mobile provider encounters a non-registered IMEI, it will search if it is available in the positive database. This is a database of all the cell phones in Colombia registered by users with the mobile providers. If the cell phone is not in this database, the operator will contact the user via text message to register the cell phone in less than 15 days, with the receipt of the cell phone to prove you own the phone.
You can register cell phones at the stores of any of the mobile providers when you buy a SIM. You will need a cedula or passport to register a phone. Most stores will also ask for a receipt for the cell phone to prove you own the cell phone.
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). So, you might want to find out what provider most of your friends use before deciding on a mobile provider.
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 people 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.
You can recharge cell phones in Colombia in many places, including mobile provider stores, grocery stores and many street corners.
Earlier this year we also provided a list of the top 15 mobile apps to use in Medellín.
Using Colombian Cell Phones Internationally
You can also use a Colombian cell phones internationally if you set them 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.
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.
Both Movistar and Tigo also offer international roaming. But Tigo’s international roaming works in fewer countries than Claro or Movistar.
The Bottom Line: Colombian Cell Phones
There are several mobile provider options in Colombia with pretty intense competition that helps keep prices relatively low. It is very easy to get prepaid Colombian cell phones set up and easy to recharge cell phones.
Claro is the biggest telecommunications provider in Colombia. It has 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. Smart phones are a very 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.”