Phone and Utilities
While Costa Rica's utilities and communications infrastructure is not up to the same standards of Europe and North America, the country ranks far above its neighbors in services provided. Most utilities are priced well below what you would pay at home and in some cases, there is even an attempt to uphold Costa Rica's reputation as an environmental stronghold. However, there are some challenges in consistency and quality of service but as with anything in Costa Rica, it all depends on where you live and your ability to communicate with the companies that provide these services.
The telephone service,electricity, and internet is owned and operated by ICE, the government agency that controls almost all the utilities in Costa Rica. While Costa Rica has an excellent phone system, it's not always easy obtaining a land line, or fixed line, if you're not already living in a house that has one. The first thing to know is that the ICE only registers fixed lines for residents. If you are waiting for residency or are a tourist, you will have to use a cellphone. Secondly, there are a limited number of available phone lines for new customers. In urban areas, this could mean waits of weeks, months and even years before you get your phone line. In rural areas, you may even have to wait for years for the poles and lines to be installed before you get your own number.
If you are a resident and want to put your name on the list, you have to provide your name, passport number, service address, the electricity meter number where the phone is to be installed and the phone number of the nearest phone to determine network availability. Installation can cost around USD$100, activation on an existing line is around USD$30 and basic monthly service is less than USD$10 per month. Rates and requirements can change often so it's best to check with ICE for the most current information.
Now that you're aware of the difficulties of acquiring phone service it's important to write fixed lines into any property rental or purchase agreement. If you're renting and there's a phone line, check with the landlord to ensure that you're able to use it. Since it's in their name, they have the ability to shut it off or prevent long-distance calls. If you're buying property, include the phone line in the contracts and if you're purchasing a home that's yet to be built, ensure the phone line is included in the contract.
Making long-distance calls from your home phone is extremely expensive, costing around USD$1.00 per minute for calls to North America and Europe. International calling cards are available but you may only find them at your local ICE office, rather than supermarkets or shops. Many expatriates also use Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, to communicate with friends and clients overseas.
Cellphones are gaining popularity in Costa Rica, possibly due to the difficulty in obtaining a home phone number. However, coverage is an issue. Within the Central Valley, there is almost 100 percent coverage, while in rural and coastal areas, dead spots are around every corner. In fact, you will see cars parked by the side of the road for no apparent reason, until you realize that everyone is talking on their phones because they've found the space between dead zones.
Getting a cellphone is also no easy task, though it can be easier than a land line. Again, ICE manages the cellphone network and will only give out their limited supply of cellphone numbers to residents that show proof of legal residency, have a copy of a current electrical bill from your home address and a cellphone. The interesting thing is that anyone can buy a phone but only residents can get a number. Plans and rates change constantly, so check with ICE to find out the cost of deposits and rates.
If you're a tourist or are waiting for residency, you can also rent cellphones and numbers from companies in Costa Rica. It is possible that your cellphone from your home country may work in Costa Rica but there is no guarantee and you would probably be paying exorbitant roaming charges with your home company.
The good news is that Costa Rica has high-speed Internet service. The bad new is that high-speed is slower than in North America and Europe, and it is less reliable. High-speed DSL lines are slowly making their way into the country but availability is an issue. A home just a block away can have the option of DSL service but your home may not have it available. The only way to find out if your home has DSL service is to ask ICE, the government utility agency.
While ICE, the government utility agency, is the main provider and infrastructure in the country, there are other Internet Service Providers available. The other companies are Amnet, Cabletica and RACSA, another government utility company that works closely with ICE. Of course, you will only have the choice between one or two of these companies, depending on where you live. Rates are always changing so it's best to check with the individual companies for their plans. Basic Internet service can cost as little as USD$5 per month but it can cost over USD$100 per month, depending on the type of service and how much time you spend using the Internet.
Reliability remains the biggest issue for Internet users in Costa Rica. Sometimes the Internet just doesn't work and the customer service technicians may not be fully trained. Most of them only speak Spanish. A healthy dose of patience is recommended when dealing with your Internet connection in Costa Rica.
Both cable and satellite television service is available in Costa Rica but your choices may be limited depending on where you live. Cable TV service is widely available in the Central Valley and in many of the larger coastal cities. Satellite service is available everywhere but may be less reliable during the cloudy, rainy season.
There are two cable providers in Costa Rica; Cabletica and Amnet. Both provide a selection of North American content plus the local Tican channels but there are reported differences in their customer service performances. Cabletica is known for having friendly and knowledgeable service personnel, plus a large number of English-speaking sales and support staff members. Amnet, however, has a poor customer service record and fewer English-speaking personnel. Cable TV costs about USD$25 per month.
Both Sky TV and DISH Network are available in Costa Rica, though you have to go through local suppliers to acquire the satellite dish and other hardware. Your own satellite dish from your home country probably won't work in Costa Rica. Each company offers its own set of channel packages and plans. While satellite service does offer the widest selection of international channels, it does not broadcast the local television stations.
The national postal service in Costa Rica, or El Correo, is an interesting and sometimes frustrating system to understand. First, not every home has mail delivery direct to their door. This isn't surprising since Costa Rica doesn't have an address system. Locations are given using known landmarks and distances from them. Recently, the post office has implemented a 'zip code' system but it is not widely used yet. If you are relying on the mail, it's best to get a mail box at your local post office. This is called an apartado and depending on your location, there could be a yearlong wait for the mail box.
It could take anywhere from five days to a month to send and receive overseas mail. If you have a package or large envelope sent to you, it may end up in a customs warehouse where you will have to go and pick it up, and possibly pay duty on it. Theft is also an issue with El Correo so do not send valuables through the mail.
Many expatriates use private mail services that provide an address for you in another country, like America, then courier your mail and packages directly to your home in Costa Rica. These services will also monitor the amount you import to save you duties. There is a USD$500 exemption every six months for imported goods so having a service to keep track of this can save you a lot of money. Some of the private mail services are: Aerocasillas, Mailboxes Etc., Jetbox, Jetex and StarBox. Their rates differ in range but expect to pay at least USD$15 per month for this service.
International couriers also have a presence in Costa Rica. FedEx, UPS and DHL have pick up and delivery services throughout the country. There are some offices, mostly in the Central Valley, that also provide customer service and packing supplies.
The government agency, ICE, provides electricity to approximately 95 percent of the country. The remaining five percent is located in remote rural areas where few, if any, expatriates live. And while electricity abounds in Costa Rica, the quality of service is less than perfect. There will be inexplicable power outages and possible surges, since the electricity feeding your home is not necessarily grounded properly. This may leave some of your home electronics at risk.
Electricity costs approximately USD$0.10/kWh, which averages about USD$20-$30 per month for a modest home. ICE also charges rates on a sliding scale depending on how much you use and the time of day in which you use your electricity. Houses that use more, pay more. Luckily, Costa Rica is full of cost-saving devices to help keep your electricity bill low. Many households use on-demand water heaters and energy-saving appliances.
Many homes also have propane-powered stoves. Gas tanks are available at supermarkets and local suppliers and a security deposit is required for the tank. For many North Americans, this will be a familiar ritual similar to that of the backyard barbecue. Depending on your supplier, it's possible to get a small tank that will last about a month, or a larger tank that could last up to eight months. Your supplier will probably be able to deliver and set up your tanks.
In urban areas, over 95 percent of homes are connected to a municipal water supply which provides treated, potable water direct to your home. Most rural homes are also connected to a water supply and may also use a water well to supplement their water needs. These homes will have water meters that the government utility, Acueductos & Alcantarillados, or A&A, will monitor and charge USD$0.25 per cubic meter of water. Most water bills come to USD$5-10 per month thanks to low costs and a number of low-consumption appliances in most Costa Rican homes. Clothes washers are usually semi-automatic and use less water and many homes have on-demand water heaters and adjustable shower heads. While more newer homes are using hot water tanks that supply a constant stream of hot water to faucets and appliances, most people are accustomed to using cold water for almost everything, especially if they live in coastal areas.
Almost all homes in the country have access to either public sewage systems or individual septic tanks, or both. If you are living with a septic tank, there will be a few local companies that can provide you with septic services.
Costa Rica has a wide range of trash services, ranging from the non-existent to separating out your recyclables. In most urban areas, there is a trash service whereby a truck comes by once or twice per week to pick up from homes and take it to the landfill. This service costs less than USD$10 per month. Of course, once the garbage is picked up, there is no guarantee that it will make it to the landfill. Over 300 tons of garbage each day is tossed into Costa Rica's rivers and vacant lots. Random dumping occurs most often in rural areas where there is no garbage service. For many people, that means dumping it in the nearest gully. Some municipalities have developed recycling programs on their own but this is certainly not a national, comprehensive plan yet. The Costa Rican government has declared its desire to see Costa Rica emissions-free by 2021 and that includes eliminating recyclables from their landfills. They've already started consolidating landfills and embarking on an industrial recycling and public education program.