Cell phone services are relatively easy to establish in Colombia for foreigners but there are a number of regulations. So, we provide a comprehensive guide to buying and using cell phones in Colombia.
Colombia has a relatively modern telecommunications infrastructure with several Colombian competitors offering mobile phone services. This is due to Colombia opening up its telecommunications industry in 1991.
Over the past decade, the mobile market has been one of the fastest growing industries in Colombia. And Colombia now has more cell phones than people.
Cell phone operators in Colombia have been rolling out 4G networks over the past several years. So, many Colombian cellphone users now use 4G networks instead of the older generation and slower 3G networks.
Cell Phone Providers in Colombia
The three largest cell phone providers in Colombia are Claro, Movistar and Tigo-UNE. These three providers had a combined mobile market share of about 89 percent in Colombia at the end of 2017 according to Ministerio de Technogía (MINTIC).
Since a call to a cell phone with the same provider in Colombia can be cheaper than calling a cellphone with another provider, you should find out which provider most of your friends and contacts use before deciding on a mobile provider.
All of the mobile providers offer prepaid plans (prepago) where you pay for minutes and data up front and postpaid plans (postpago), which are monthly plans.
Claro is the brand used by Mexico-based América Móvil in Colombia and many other countries in Latin America. In addition, Claro is the largest telecommunications provider in Colombia.
Most noteworthy, Claro had about 48 percent of the mobile market in Colombia at the end of 2017. In addition, Claro has the largest wireless network in Colombia. So, it typically has the best wireless network coverage throughout the country, including the smaller cities and pueblos.
Since Claro has over double the market share of the next largest mobile provider in Colombia and has the biggest network, it’s typically the choice for many foreigners.
I have used Claro for over seven years in Colombia and have experienced good service without any problems. First, I had a prepaid (prepago) plan where I paid for minutes in advance. And I now have a postpaid (postpago) plan that is a monthly plan.
Claro has a number of postpaid plans that now offer double data, including:
- 2.5 GB plan – get 5 GB of data plus unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia for 63,900 pesos/month
- 3.5 GB plan – get 7 GB of data plus unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia for 79,900 pesos/month
- 4.5 GB plan – get 9 GB of data plus unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia for 92,900 pesos/month
- 5.5 GB plan – get 11 GB of data plus unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia for 106,900 pesos/month
To sign up for a postpaid plan with Claro or other providers in Colombia you will need a cedula and will need to fill out some paperwork and sign a contract. To sign up for a prepaid plan they just will need to see your ID (cedula or passport) and some personal information and then just pay for the SIM that they will install.
When I signed up for a postpaid plan with Claro they initially wanted to see my statement from a local bank account but then said it wasn’t needed. I just needed my cedula and local address for them to send the monthly bill and signed the contract.
Movistar is the brand used by Spain-based Telefónica in Colombia and many other countries in Latin America. Movistar is the second largest mobile provider in Colombia. And it has a mobile market share of about 23 percent in Colombia, or less than half the market share of Claro.
Movistar has a number of postpaid plans available, including:
- 3 GB data with unlimited Movistar calls and 300 minutes to other operators in Colombia for 56,900 pesos/month
- 2 GB data with unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia for 87,900 pesos/month
- 7 GB data with unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia; unlimited calls to the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada for 120,900 pesos/month
- 11 GB data with unlimited calls to any operator in Colombia; unlimited calls to the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada for 172,900 pesos/month
Tigo is the local brand of Sweden-based Millicom and merged with UNE in 2014. So, the company now uses the Tigo-UNE brand. Tigo-UNE has a mobile market share in Colombia of about 18 percent.
Tigo-UNE is now also offering double data postpaid plans like Claro:
- 1.2 GB plan – get 2.5 GB data with unlimited Tigo-UNE calls and 400 minutes to other operators for 49,900 pesos/month
- 3.5 GB plan – get 7 GB data with unlimited Tigo-UNE calls and 900 minutes to other operators for 72,900 pesos/month
- 4.5 GB plan – get 9 GB data with unlimited calls to Colombia operators for 96,900 pesos/month
The Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) in Colombia
Colombia has several smaller Mobile Network Operators (MVNOs). These MVNOs don’t have their own mobile network. So, they use the network of one of the top three providers in Colombia.
Virgin Mobile is the largest MVNO in Colombia and has about 4.5 percent of the mobile market in Colombia. Virgin Mobile reportedly uses Movistar’s network.
Furthermore, Virgin Mobile has plans what they call Antiplans. For example, with their Antiplan of 65,000 pesos per month you get 4 GB of data, unlimited WhatsApp, unlimited calls to Virgin Mobile phones and 750 minutes of calls to other operators.
The smaller MVNOs in Colombia include Avantel, ETB, Móvil Exito and Uff! Móvil. And each has relatively small subscriber bases. These small MVNOs have a combined market share of only about 6 percent of the market. I understand these MVNOs use Tigo-UNE’s network.
Coverage Maps of Mobile Providers in Colombia
One of the biggest differentiations between the mobile providers in Colombia is in 4G coverage in the country. Claro is the largest provider. So, it has the most 4G coverage in Colombia including many small towns and pueblos.
You can look at coverage maps of mobile providers in Colombia to see the differences:
- Claro – https://www.claro.com.co/personas/soporte/mapas-de-cobertura/
- Movistar – http://www.movistar.co/atencion-cliente/cobertura-tecnologia
- Tigo-UNE – https://www.tigo.com.co/proteccion-al-usuario/mapa-cobertura
- Virgin Mobile uses Movistar’s network – http://www.movistar.co/atencion-cliente/cobertura-tecnologia
- Avantel – https://www.avantel.co/cobertura-calidad.html
- ETB – https://www.etb.co/scs/plte/es_co/Cobertura
- Móvil Exito – http://www.movilexito.com/index.php/informacion-importante/mapas-de-cobertura
- Uff! Móvil – https://uffmovil.com/cobertura
If you look at smaller towns and pueblos you’ll find that Claro tends to have better 4G coverage. What this means is your 4G mobile Internet on your smartphone is more likely to work with Claro in the smaller towns and pueblos in Colombia.
Where to Buy Cell Phones in Medellín and Colombia
You can buy new unlocked cell phones in any city or town in Colombia – both smartphones as well as basic function cell phones. It’s also possible to buy used phones in some locations. But only buy used phones from reputable vendors, as some places sell stolen cell phones.
The most popular brands of cell phones used in Colombia are Samsung (35.3 percent market share), Huawai (18.6 percent), Motorola (13.4 percent) and Apple (8.6 percent).
Each of the three top mobile phone providers has stores in most of the malls in the cities in Colombia. Also, you can find stand-alone mobile phone provider stores in many places. In addition, you can often find kiosks set up in other places like major grocery stores such as Exito and Jumbo and Homecenter home improvement stores.
But you can typically find cheaper cell phones in other places instead of buying a cell phone from one of the Claro, Movistar or Tigo-UNE stores or kiosks.
You can find many technology stores selling cell phones in many of the malls in Colombia. In Medellín, a good place to buy cell phones is Monterrey Mall, Medellín’s technology mall, where there are many stores selling cell phones.
In 2014, I bought an unlocked Samsung smartphone in Monterrey Mall for 900,000 pesos ($379 at the time). The same phone was selling on Amazon for $326.29. And in a Claro store in Medellín, it was selling for 1,200,000 pesos.
Another good place to buy cell phones in Medellín is at Centro Comercial Opera, which is a small mall in El Centro behind the Nutibara hotel. The small stores in this mall sell both new and used phones. It’s possible to find basic cell phones in this mall for about 30,000 pesos and smartphones starting at about 200,000 pesos. But be careful of stolen used cell phones being sold in this mall.
If you buy a phone from a place other than a mobile provider store, make sure to keep your receipt as you will most likely need it to register the phone with a mobile provider.
Using Cellphones in Colombia
Making calls from one provider (Claro, in example) to another (Movistar or Tigo-UNE) can be more expensive in Colombia than making calls between the same provider (Claro to Claro, Movistar to Movistar or Tigo-UNE to Tigo-UNE).
You will often see shops, kiosks and street vendors selling “minutos” or phone minutes on several cellphones for each operator. It can be cheaper to make calls to another operator with them.
In Colombia, only the person who initiates a mobile phone call is charged for the call. The person receiving the call is not charged.
As a result, you will find that some people in Colombia make a “one ring” phone call. They call, let it ring once and wait for the person to return the call. This is frequently done when someone with prepaid service doesn’t have much credit on their phone to make calls.
Here’s how to make calls in, to and from Colombia:
1. To call a cell phone in Colombia from another Colombian cell phone you just dial the number.
2. To call a Colombia landline from a Colombia cell phone, you dial:
03 + area code of city + landline number
The area codes for major cities in Colombia are:
- Armenia – 6
- Barranquilla – 5
- Bogotá – 1
- Bucaramanga – 7
- Cali – 2
- Cartagena – 5
- Manizales – 6
- Medellín – 4
- Pereira – 6
- Santa Marta – 5
3. To call a Colombia cellphone from a Colombia landline, you dial:
03 + cell phone number
4. To call a U.S. phone from a Colombian cell phone, depending on provider you dial:
- Claro: 00444 + 1 + area code + phone number
- Movistar: 009 + 1 + area code + phone number
- Tigo-UNE: 00414 + 1 + area code + phone number
To call other countries, change the country code of “1” to the country code you are calling.
5. To call a Colombian cell phone from the U.S., you dial:
011 + 57 + phone number
Keep in mind that SMS text messages are considered data in Colombia. So, SMS messages cost extra to send. That is why the WhatsApp app is very popular in Colombia with people sending messages using WhatsApp when connected to Wifi.
Some providers also have prepago plans that permit mobile data access when using WhatsApp. For example, with Carlo prepaid, when you recharge your phone you get some MB of data that can be used for WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
You can recharge prepaid cell phones in many places in Colombia including most grocery stores, most drug stores, in cell phone operator stores, in Gana locations throughout Colombia and many other places.
Colombia Emergency Numbers
Colombia has a number of emergency numbers that are free to call in Colombia with a cellphone. These include:
- 111 – Disaster Care
- 112 – National Police
- 112 – Firefighters
- 127 – Transit (for accidents)
- 132 – Colombia Red Cross
- 165 – Anti-kidnapping, anti-terrorism and anti-extortion
Using Colombian Cell Phones Internationally
It is possible to use Colombian cell phones – with both prepaid and postpaid plans – in other countries. But you need to set up international roaming in a mobile provider store.
I have international roaming established on my Claro cell phone. To do this I had to sign some extra paperwork in a Claro office. Since Claro is part of the huge Mexican telecommunications giant América Móvil, it has roaming agreements established with over 100 countries in the world.
I have used my Claro cellphone in several countries in Latin America, in Spain and other countries in Europe and also the U.S.
Claro’s competitors in Colombia also offer international roaming. But Tigo-UNE offers international roaming in fewer countries than Claro or Movistar.
Using Cell Phones from Other Countries
Many mobile providers in other countries like the U.S. have roaming agreements set up in Colombia. So, if you have international roaming set up on your cell phone from one of these providers it will work in Colombia. However, it will normally be much more expensive than having a SIM with a local provider.
If your cell phone is unlocked it’s very inexpensive at less than $2 USD to get a SIM from any of the mobile providers in Colombia.
Sometimes you will even see representatives from Claro, Movistar or Tigo-UNE handing out free SIMs outside a few of the busier metro stations in Medellín, trying to get metro passengers to switch mobile providers.
The GSM 850 and GSM 1900 bands are used in Colombia for cell phones. If your unlocked cell phone supports GSM 850 and GSM 1900 bands it should work in Colombia. Most noteworthy, a CDMA phone will not work in Colombia.
If you bring any unlocked phone to any of the Claro, Movistar or Tigo-UNE stores they will sell you a SIM and install the SIM and configure and register the phone. You will be required to provide an ID like a cedula or a passport.
Since smartphones can be cheaper in the U.S. or some other countries than in Colombia you can save some money buying smartphones in another country and bringing them to Colombia. We included smartphones in a list of 9 expensive things in Medellín for expats.
Starting in 2016, to activate/register cell phones bought elsewhere (from outside of Colombia or purchased in a non-Claro/Movistar/Tigo-UNE store in Colombia) you likely will be required to show a receipt to prove it wasn’t stolen.
For example, to register a Samsung smartphone I bought in late 2016 with Claro I had to provide a receipt proving that I purchased the phone.
Colombia’s Regulations to Combat Theft of Cell Phones
Over the past several years, Colombia has been putting in a number of regulations in an effort to combat cellphone theft in the country.
In 2015, Colombia put in place a restriction for importing cell phones via mail services under Decree 2025. So, you could no longer buy cell phones on Amazon and ship them to Colombia. Official importers that were registered could continue to import cell phones. But they were required to supply the Ministry of Information and Communications the IMEI of every cell phone being imported into the country.
In December 2016, Colombia changed this with a new Decree 2142, which permits only 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. In addition, the addressee in Colombia must be a person, not a business.
Also, Colombia permits anyone entering the country to bring up to three cell phones with them into Colombia.
Another recent regulation in Colombia is that the IMEI numbers of all Colombian cell phones used in the country must now be registered. When a mobile provider in Colombia encounters a non-registered IMEI, it will send a text message to the user to register the IMEI of the cell phone in less than 15 days or it will be deactivated.
Cell phones can be registered at any of the mobile providers stores when you buy a SIM. You need a cedula or passport to register a phone. And most stores will ask for a receipt if the phone wasn’t purchased in the store to prove you own the phone and it wasn’t stolen.
I have heard of some expats experiencing problems registering cell phones using a passport. You are less likely to have problems if you go to a store in a neighborhood that has many expats like in El Poblado in Medellín.
The Bottom Line: Buying and Using Cell Phones in Colombia
The competition between the mobile providers in Colombia helps keep the price for mobile services in Colombia generally lower than in the U.S.
Also, it’s very easy to get prepaid (prepago) mobile services established in Colombia. And you can recharge cellphones in so many places. Postpaid plans require a cedula. So, unless you have a visa, you can’t get a postpaid plan.
Since Claro is the largest mobile provider with the best national coverage and about 48 percent of people in Colombia use Claro, it remains the best choice for most foreigners.
Make sure to use common sense and take care when using smartphones in Medellín and other places in Colombia. Smartphones are targets of thieves and are normally the most commonly stolen items in Colombia. So, don’t brandish them around in places like El Centro in Medellín.
Note that regulations and plans from mobile operators change frequently in Colombia and this article will be kept up-to-date.
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Editors note: on April 3, 2018 added info about provider coverage maps due to several comments from readers about coverage in Colombia. Also added info about emergency numbers.