Buying, Recharging and Registering a SIM Card in Colombia

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While the connection is strong and fast, getting a SIM card and phone set up while in Colombia was not as straightforward as we had hoped.  Unlike other countries, we did not see a place to buy a card at the airport, but as long as you can get from the airport to your hotel or hostel, there are numerous places to pick up a card.  Note: if you like to plan ahead and pick up a SIM card before you arrive, we did not see any for sale on Amazon which was a bummer.

However, the complications aren’t with buying the actual card, where it gets interesting is if you plan on staying longer than 30 days and need to reload and register your phone.


How It Works

The basic process is this:

  • Buy the SIM card (might require a passport depending on the seller
  • Load the SIM card with credit
  • Register the SIM card before 28 days expires

There is obviously more to each of these so let’s dig in!


What Phones will work in Colombia?

In our experience, pretty much any modern phone that was made in the last few years will work.  Android is the preferred system over here but there are a few places that sell and service iPhones (though no Apple store that we found).


Where to Buy a SIM Card in Colombia

Luckily, buying a SIM card is pretty easy in Colombia – the only issue for seasoned travelers is that they are not readily available at the airport like many other countries.  However, as long as you can make it from the terminal to your Airbnb or hostel without issue you can pick one up without much issue.

Here’s where to look:

  • An actual store for one of the major providers.  Tigo and Claro are the major players (at least in Medellin) and you can pick up a card for cheap (we paid 5000 COP).  A word to the wise regarding the providers – you will need to bring your passport so they can link the card to your identity.
  • The checkout lane of Exito.  Exito is like Walmart here (but nicer) and there are often SIM cards available for sale in the checkout aisle.  One of our friends chose this route and said it was easy and they didn’t any setup to go through.
  • On the street.  Almost every store and tienda allows you to add credit to your account (more on this below) so it would make sense that they also sell the SIM cards.  Just go in anywhere that says “regarga aqui” or has the Tigo or Claro logo out front – if they don’t sell them they can direct you somewhere that does.


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How to Load and Recharge a SIM Card in Colombia

By now you should have your SIM card installed in your phone (nice work!) – if you’re like me then you assumed it comes with a bit of credit so you can make a call or send a text.

You’d be wrong.

Whereas I left the Claro store without actually adding any money to my card, you should learn from my mistake and load up your account ASAP.  If you purchased your card from a corner store or tienda they can help you reload, too.

We paid 40,000 COP for 2gb of data + minutes & texts that expired after 30 days.  If you burn through your data or need more than 30 days, you will need to reload.  The easiest place to do that is your nearest corner store or at one of the countless Gana kiosks that permeate the city.  A bonus for us was that Claro let us use Facebook and Whatsapp for free regardless of whether or not you had any data left!


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Registering Your Phone or SIM Card in Colombia

I wish I could say we saved the best for last but everyone we spoke to found this part of the process extremely stressful.

Some content: phone theft is pretty common in Colombia so they devised a system where each phone is registered to individuals using the phones unique ID called an IMEI.  The purpose of this is to combat the sale and use of stolen phones by ensuring that only one person can register the IMEI and can easily void the registration if it’s stolen, thereby rendering it useless.

It’s actually a pretty clever system but actually navigating it can be tricky – according to the carriers you need to provide not only your ID but also the receipt proving you purchased the phone legitimately.  Also, if your phone is locked because you didn’t register before the 28 days, there is additional paperwork needed to remedy the situation.

On day 27, I took my phone to the local Claro branch and the clerk typed in a code to access and register the IMEI (I simply showed her one of the numerous texts I had been receiving that warned me to register).  Initially, she told me that I needed to go to another branch, which I planned to do until I received a confirmation text later that day stating that the registration was successful.

Who knows?

*The Claro app is useless – do not even waste time trying to download and figure it out as I have yet to meet a person that actually got it to work correctly.


What You Should Do

If you plan on living or traveling in Colombia for greater than 28 days my advice is this: do everything at once.  When you arrive, spend an afternoon buying, loading, and registering your SIM card – make sure to bring your passport and just trust that spending the time now will reduce your stress levels later on.

The service is fast and cheap here so if you can get past the awkward setup phase you will be good to go!