Back to Colombia for a post…

One of the things that most confounded me about life in Colombia was the cell phone systems. Seriously, trying to figure it out drove me to tears one afternoon. It is the only thing that caused me to cry my entire 3.5 months there.

In the hopes of saving others from reaching the same levels of frustration, I’ve written this guide for anyone traveling to Colombia who plans to get a local cell phone or use a Colombian SIM card in their own phone. I believe the systems are similar in other countries too.

For the rest of you, I suggest a quick glance since you might find it amusing. Also, I have included some tips for how to save data (and battery) at the end.

BACKGROUND

Is doing this necessary? It depends. Your cell phone will work on wi-fi without a local SIM card. Some restaurants in Bogotá have free wi-fi, but many do not. In Cartagena on the other hand, every place I went offered wi-fi and it is available in many public parks as well. If I was in Colombia for a vacation and spending my time with my traveling companions, I would not bother. For a quick phone call or two, there are always people on the street selling minutos (minutes). These vendors have a slew of cell phones for all of the major carriers and you pay a few pennies for each minute you use the phone. Colombians use these all of the time. (Note that this makes it hard to screen calls because it is common to get a phone call from an unknown number.) It seems minutes are not as common in other countries.

I used my phone a lot while out and about to look up directions and public transportation routes and to be in touch with people I was meeting. The student community at my Spanish school was great and there were often Friday or Saturday night plans that involved a lot of communication outside of school hours. Finally, as a safety measure, I just felt comfort knowing I could communicate with others anytime I wanted.

Get WhatsApp: No matter what else you do, get WhatsApp. It is a free texting and telephoning and app that everyone in South America uses. And that’s not an exaggeration. Both actual phone calls and messages sent through texting apps are expensive. WhatsApp sends messages over the internet, so it uses data, which is much cheaper. You will need WhatsApp to communicate with any locals you meet and probably with other travelers you meet, especially those from countries other than the US. Ask your friends and family in the US who you want to keeping texting with to get it too.

FaceTime: For communicating face to face between Apple devices, FaceTime worked better than Skype. A fair amount of the time we had to do audio-only calls because one of us did not have enough bandwidth for a consistent video connection, but it was still easier to use FaceTime in these situations.

While in the US: As of February 2015, all US phones and tablets have to be able to be unlocked, so make sure you check whether yours is, and if not, that you contact your carrier in enough time to get it done before you leave. (My iPhone 5c, purchased in November 2013, was already unlocked but I did not know this until I called Verizon.) I assume you can call and get your phone unlocked once you arrive in Colombia, but did not try it so I can not promise it will work.

THE IMPORTANT PART

The theory of prepago (prepaid): This underlying theory is what no one could explain clearly to me and caused the tears of frustration. You need a balance on your phone in order to buy a paquette (package) of minutes, texts and data. Going through the process of trying to buy a paquette tells you how much money to put in your balance through the recarga (recharge) process (you are recharging your balance, not your phone’s battery).

Rates witout a paquette

Rates witout a paquette

You want to buy a paquette because the prices are much better. I was curious to see the difference so once put a COP 21,000 balance on my phone, which would have bought a seven-day paquette. It lasted three. The image shows a text I received with the non-paquette pricing. I don’t understand it either.

The pricing information also is available on the carrier’s websites, but finding it is hard because the websites are more focused on customers with plans or people trying to buy a phone. Following the steps below to find the prices on your phone at the moment you are going to create a balance is a guaranteed way to be sure you have current information.

Almost all extranjeros (foreigners) use prepago because you can only get a cell phone plan if you have a Colombian ID card (Cédula de Ciudadanía), or someone with a card to vouch for you. I watched a Colombian woman spend an hour trying to cancel her plan because she was moving to another country. Given her challenges, even if I wanted a plan, witnessing that would have been enough to change my mind. But using prepago is not just for extranjeros. Many Colombians use prepago because when cell phones and plans were first introduced, many people got stuck with exorbitant bills because it was easy to go over the limits that came with the plans.

The actual steps:

1. First, you need to buy a SIM card from one of the phone companies. I found the prepago pricing to be similar between them. I had both Movistar and Claro during my time and found they worked (or did not work) equally well in Bogotá. You can look at other information online, such as national coverage, to see which you want. You may be able to buy your first paquette at the same place you buy your SIM card, in which case, read the rest of this for when you need to buy your next one.

TIP: You can choose your phone number. Ask to see the ones that are available if this matters to you. (I like to have double digits or a pattern if possible.)

NOTE: The plastic casing around the SIM cards was too big for my iPhone. I let the companies trim it down. I didn’t want responsibility for that.

I originally bought a Tigo SIM card which did fit into my phone without needing to trim the plastic, but would not work. Never figured out why, even after an hour of online help from Verizon. If you try a SIM card and it does not work, try another company.

2. Ideally, you will do the rest of this at the place where you are going to pay to recarga (recharge) your phone: grocery and Exito stores, lottery stores, and many seemingly random corner kiosks/carts. If not, do it where you have wi-fi or a computer connection and then go through the process the same day.

There are companies not related to the phone carriers that have websites offering to recarga your phone. There are so many places in Bogotá and most cities to recarga at all hours of the day that I never tried these sites, nor do I know anyone who did.

Start by going through the steps to (try to) buy a paquette. You use the telephone feature to send messages, not the texting app. Makes no sense, but trust me. “Dial” the appropriate numbers, * and #, and then hit the “send” or “call” button on your phone:

Claro: *103#

Movistar and Tigo: *611#

3. You will get a response that looks like this. For future reference, “2:Consulta de Saldo” means check your balance. Right now, you want “6:Recarga.”

Initial screen

Initial screen

You actually select option 6 by hitting the black Reply button and then typing just the number 6 into the text box, which is right above the keyboard in the screen shot below. To “send” this message, hit the blue word Reply in the upper right corner (hard to read in this image).

Selecting 6 from the menu

Selecting 6 from the menu

4. Next, you will go through a series of menus to select what you want to purchase (telephone, SMS, datos (data) and if you want a paquette. There are paquettes for different time periods such as an hour, a day, 7 days, 15 days, or 30 days. Select which paquette you want. As shown below, you will see a screen telling how much this paquette costs. Go ahead and reply with “1:Confirmar” to try to purchase it. You will get a message telling you that you have an insufficient saldo (balance). You can select different paquettes through this process to see the various prices.

Remember how much the paquette you want costs.

Screen showing selected packet and price

Screen showing selected packet and price

5. If you are not there already, go to a location where you can pay to recarga your phone. You will tell the clerk you want to recarga and which company you have. They will then ask for your telephone number.

STRONG TIP: Write down your number or have it displayed on your phone and hand your phone to the clerk. Otherwise, there might be a mistake and you might spend 30 minutes while many store employees figure out how to undo the COP 21,000 they just put on someone else’s phone.

You should get a receipt showing how much you paid and your phone number. You also should receive a text (actual text, not the pseudo-texting you did to figure out what paquette you want) confirming how much money in your saldo. I was told this text could take time to arrive, but I never waited more than a minute.

6. Immediately, and I mean immediately, go through the process of purchasing a paquette again and this time, actually buy it. If you delay, you might start drawing down your balance and then you will not have enough to pay to for the paquette. Smart phones use a lot of data in the background, even when you think every app is closed. I waited about 10 minutes once and had to go back and add more money to my saldo.

7. You should receive a confirmation screen at the end of the process that looks like this.

Confirming the purchase

Confirming the purchase

That should be it, until your paquette runs out, either because it expired or you used up your data allotment. So, here are a few tips to make your data last longer.

SOME TIPS FOR WISE DATA USAGE

Connect to wi-fi: Whenever possible, connect to wi-fi instead of using your data. Self explanatory.

Close apps: When not using an app, close it. Also self explanatory.

Airplane mode: When you are not in a location where you are connected to wi-fi, put your phone in airplane mode. If you pull out your phone to use it, put it back in airplane mode when you finish. One likely time you will “waste” data is when traveling between locations (and if you are on TransMilenio, you probably should not be pulling out your phone, even if everyone around you is).

Location services: I am surprised that many people do not know that smart phones have a GPS function which you can turn off. Unless I am using a transportation app, I always have Location Services turned off: Settings > Privacy > Location Services. You will be asked to confirm that you want to turn off Location Services, so make sure you do so before exiting Settings.

When it is enabled, Location Services is sending information constantly about where you are to any app that has permission to know your location. You set the permissions here: Settings > Privacy > Location Services (must be switched on to go further) > Share My Location. You will see a list of all of your apps that want to know your location. Some apps offer only an Always or Never option, while others have the more preferable While Using option. It makes sense that transportation apps need to know your location, but does the App Store or the dictionary? Take a few minutes to go through all of your apps and select the setting that makes the most sense.

Limit background data: A big data drain can be is background syncing, which is when an app like Facebook grabs an update, or your phone checks to see if there are any new emails. You can reduce the frequency of push notifications, set apps to update manually so they only download new items when you actually open them, and set app updates to happen only when connected to wi-fi.

In iOS, you can also go to Settings > Cellular and scroll down to see a list of apps under Use cellular data for. Toggle off everything that is not essential.

In Android, take a look under Settings > Wireless & Networks > Data usage and tap on an app to find the option to Restrict app background data.

Disable auto-play videos in Facebook: Facebook has a feature that automatically plays videos in your newsfeed as you scroll past them. You can change this setting within the app to avoid unintentionally downloading these videos: More > Account Settings > Videos and Photos > Auto-Play videos on wi-fi only.

Save maps: I never know I could save an area in Google Maps for offline use. This feature is not available in some countries (like Colombia) as of this writing. Hopefully it will be in the future. But, for people in countries where it is an option, here are the details.

Open the Google Maps app when you are connected to wi-fi and select the area you want to save. Then tap Menu > Make available offline or go to Maps > My Places > Offline and tap New offline map before selecting the area you want. You can also review your offline maps via Maps > My Places > Offline. Unfortunately, you cannot get directions when offline.