This is Alejandro who made dealing with the biggest and reputedly most frustrating bureaucracy in Costa Rica anything but. Right after I took this photo and put away my camera, he broke into this big grin which showed his devilishly handsome side… but I knew if I got the camera back out, he’d give me the Official Alejandro again. iHola, Alejandro (he’s reading this), SONRISA!
Getting ANYTHING done in Costa Rica involves waiting in line. Particularly anything bureaucratic in nature. On all the forums, in any conversations, books, websites, etc. you hear about the lines, how long it takes to get anything and everything done, and how frustrating it is. So when I finally decided to get a cell phone, I braced myself. And tried to plan ahead. NOT my forte…
I.C.E. [EEE-say], Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad where Alejandro works, is the bureaucracy you deal with when getting a cell phone in Costa Rica. They are the monopoly here. You get your electricity service, your home phone (after a 2-5 year wait for a number*), your ADSL and your cell phones all from I.C.E.
CAFTA, about which I have very mixed feelings, would force I.C.E. to open the door to competition. There are so many negatives to an idea that would theoretically bring Costa Rica closer to the new world, that I’d rather it stay like it is, frankly. Selfish of me, I know. There are many positives for the locals here. Which is why my feelings are so mixed. For me, I’ll deal with the lines and frustrations. There is MUCH to love about life in the slow lane. As long as you plan ahead.
You’ll also want to have a Plan B, C and D ready to go, Plan D being to give it up all together for today and do something else. Today, Plan A was to arrive just after 9am on a Monday morning. I knew Monday was iffy. But, if the line was just too ridiculously long, I’d implement Plan B which would be to try again Tuesday morning.
PLEASE NOTE: You buy a phone first. There are a million places to buy a cell phone. I bought mine at a kiosk in a mall for ₡19,000 ($38). I bought the cheapest one they had. Two things to remember: MAKE SURE THE PHONE IS NEW. I didn’t know this, but thank goodness the clerk pointed out the label on the box that certified I was buying a new phone. Apparently you can’t get new service with a used or reconditioned phone. And don’t forget to keep the phone in the box with that sticker on it!
The second thing is: KEEP YOUR RECEIPT. You have to have your receipt from the store where you bought the phone in order to get the new service. I wouldn’t have thought that either, but the clerk, sensing (somehow) that I knew NOTHING, helpfully explained this to me. He even put the receipt inside the box with the phone so there would be no chance I’d lose it. Good thing. So, Monday am, off I go to I.C.E. with my brand new phone in the box with the receipt.
Almost everywhere you go to do anything "official" in Costa Rica, expect a line. And you take a number almost everywhere there’s a line. If you walk into an establishment and there is any kind of a line, immediately look for one of those number machines. If they have one, get one! If you don’t see one, ask and make sure you just don’t see it.
Also, in places with lines, you will almost always find rows and rows of chairs for the waitees. In my local Banco Nacional, they don’t have a number machine, they only have the chairs. So you stand in an orderly line until you get a chair. As each person gets up to go sit in front of the personal banker, everyone moves over one seat. It’s a system. It’s orderly. It works. And you never know how many people are in front of you really, because often people come with their whole families who are all sitting in a chair.
This is how the I.C.E. waiting area looked on Monday morning. The lighted number pad that shows which number they are on is just below the ceiling on the right about 1/3 in – if you click on the picture, it opens up in a bigger box. There are 20 or so people also waiting, standing behind me. But they have a number machine here, so you don’t have to sit. You can mill about, wait outside, go to the soda [small diner] for some gallo pinto… whatever. There are about 8 service people working diligently and you do NOT want to miss your number being passed by. They don’t call it out here, it just lights up. If you don’t see it and hop up, they move on to the next number… They don’t wait that long, it’s a busy place, so don’t go too far. And keep one eye on that lighted number.
I arrived at 9:20am, looked for the number machine and pulled out number 91. I also asked the guard if there was a service person who spoke English: "Esta una persona quien habla ingles?" He pointed out Alejandro in Módulo 1. Firmly in my Being Prepared mode now, I knew that when my number was up, I’d have to wait a little longer to make sure I could work with Alejandor. Pefecto.
According to the board, they were working with number 38. OK. I’d brought a book with me. I found a seat and relaxed. At 10:50, #91 lit up, Alejandro had no one in front of him at the moment, and I sat. Thirty minutes later I was leaving the building with my new cell phone all programmed and working. Just over two hours, a record from all I’d heard. Plus I have a new friend!
The cost? You pay ₡12,500 ($25) to initiate service, then ₡4,000 ($8) per month which includes 60 minutes. Then ₡30 (6¢) per minute after that. Very reasonable.
They say unfulfilled expectations are the root of all frustration. How nice that everyone shared their frustrations with me which led to my expectations being right on target. Made for a very pleasant morning reading my new excellent novel, Night Fall. Pura vida, indeed!
*Regarding that 2+ year wait for a new phone line. This is why, when you buy a property or plan to build a house, you need to make sure there is already a phone number installed at the property AND that it’s included in the deal, or be ready for the wait. Many gringos have one or two or more phone lines at home in somebody else’s name. It’s the way.