Curious about what type of cell phone will work in Ecuador? In this post, you’ll learn about the best type of cell phone, how to unlock, the best carriers, and plans to use in Ecuador.
Cell phones are expensive in Ecuador. As a result, many expats and travelers bring a phone with them.
Not only is it less expensive but you can also have the latest technology. Importation restrictions and bans have limited the availability of reasonably priced phones.
If you are planning on bringing a phone, there are a few things you must know.
3 Things Your Phone Must Have in Ecuador
- GSM 850 (or 3G 850) frequency. This is important so that the phone can use Ecuador’s cell infrastructure. There are lots of frequencies used worldwide – but to work in Ecuador you just need the 850 frequency. Often the phones will be listed like this: “Unlocked quad-band GSM cell phone compatible with 850/900/1800/1900 frequencies.” In the cities in Ecuador, you can get 3G connections. It seems that phones that work with GSM will also work with 3G. Just make sure that they use the 850 frequency. Phones that will work internationally should be listed something like this: “US/International 3G compatibility via 850/900/1700/1900/2100 UMTS/HSDPA plus GPRS/EDGE capabilities.” Ecuador also uses the EDGE network – it seems that it defaults down if 3G isn’t available in a specific area.
- Unlocked: This is pretty important. If it isn’t unlocked you won’t be able to connect to the network in Ecuador. In the US most phones that come with a plan are locked – or blocked. This means that you can only use them with that specific carrier. Unlocked phones are generally sold new as such. Sometimes they can be unlocked by a piece of software.
- Accept a SIM Card (Mini, Micro or Nano): Without a SIM card (or “chip” as they are known here) your phone won’t work on any of the networks. It is a small postage stamp-sized chip that connects your phone to the wireless network – and assigns your phone number. If you want to change phones (and keep the same number) just switch your SIM card to your new phone and it will work right away. Update: You can use phones that accept micro SIM (and nano SIM) cards here in Ecuador. A friend went into Claro to get a micro SIM card and they actually cut down the standard (mini) one to fit. You can do this yourself. Watch: How to cut your SIM card (Micro SIM, Nano SIM)
Another consideration: Buy an international phone. I don’t think that this is a requirement, but it should give you some peace of mind that it will work. If you are buying on Amazon.com you can search the reviews of a specific product and see if it works overseas. I’ve seen reviews from all over Central and South America on these unlocked phones.
The two main carriers in Ecuador (Claro and Movistar) work on both GSM 850 and 3G 850.
Are Cell Phones Really More Expensive in Ecuador?
A couple of years ago I ordered a Nokia N8 via Club Correos. I paid around $270 plus $12 freight to Ecuador. The week after it arrived I found the same model in Cuenca with an advertised price of $764.00.
I should note that this was before the cell phone importation ban and it arrived without any problem. It was the best phone I ever owned – it had a quality 12 MP camera, GPS, 720p video and HDMI output.
About a month after it arrived some armed thieves thought I would be better off without it. So I was back to my junky $40 phone.
Cell Phone Importation is Banned in Ecuador
Make sure you know the rules before you order your new phone.
First, you cannot ship a phone to Ecuador. It is prohibited. If it comes in by mail, you’ll have to ship it out of the country by mail. Or you could be fined. Or both.
Second, you have limits on what you can bring as personal effects in your carry-on luggage. Although the printed rules seem to differ, here is what is being enforced now: one used phone per person (including children) and one new phone per family group.
When we re-entered Ecuador a few months ago, we had one phone each. We had bought them new a few weeks earlier but because we loaded on music, personal info and inserted the sim card they were “used”.
And we didn’t bring the boxes and labels. It seems that the “one new phone” refers a new-in-box phone that can be resold as new.
While we were tempted to buy a true smartphone, we didn’t want something that could attract the attention of thieves. Instead, we bought the Nokia Asha 302 – it has great reception and a full keyboard.
I don’t think I ever sent a text message before we moved here – now we send them on a daily basis. As you can see in the write-up, it is the international version of an unlocked GSM phone.
We just inserted our sim cards from our old phones and it worked the moment we turned them on when we arrived at the Quito Airport.
Can I “Unlock” My Cell Phone in Ecuador?
Yes, some phones can be unlocked in Ecuador. But this isn’t 100%. I know some travelers who brought their phones only to have them not work. And the cell phone hackers were unable to unlock them.
I think the safest bet is to buy an unlocked phone before you come to Ecuador.
Cell Phone Rates and Plans in Ecuador
There are two ways to use a cell phone in Ecuador. Plan or prepaid. In this post, I’ll give a breakdown of the three main carriers in Ecuador and the costs to use each one.
In Canada, almost everyone we knew had a cell phone plan. It gave lots of talk time, no hassle, and (almost always) a free phone.
Here in Ecuador, the majority of people buy saldo (or minutes) as they are needed. This is good because you don’t need to have a bank account or even monthly payments.
A while back the president issued a law making it illegal for the cell providers to expire saldo after 30 days. Now a recharge of $10 or $20 can last a user for months – depending on usage.
Ecuador’s Prepaid Cell Service or Planes Prepago
The prices below are either per minute or per unit (text message or megabyte of data). Taxes (IVA) are included. Without question, Claro is the largest carrier in the country.
Although their rates appear higher than Movistar, it should be taken into consideration that calls between two Movistar numbers are not that common (because they just don’t have that many users).
In addition to these base rates, each of the providers run a number of regular promotions. The most popular is 2X1 where you get double the saldo that you pay for.
They also offer discounted rates to a single number. And other discounts for your top five numbers. You can also buy packs of text messages that last for a month at a time.
- Mobile Calls to Claro $0.20
- Landline (Fijos) $0.20
- Other networks: $0.20
- SMS $0.07
- MMS $0.15
- MB $0.56
International long distance: The majority of countries (including United States, Canada, Chile, Europe and Japan) costs $0.493/minute.
- Mobile Calls to Movistar $0.09
- Landline (Fijos) $0.26
- Otros Moviles $0.23
- SMS $0.067
- MMS not listed
- MB not listed
International long distance: The majority of countries costs $0.56/minute.
- Mobile Calls to Movistar $0.09
- To CNT Landlines: $0.13
- Landline (Fijos) $0.25
- Otros Moviles $0.25
- SMS not listed
- MMS not listed
- MB not listed
International long distance: pricing not noted online.
Ecuador’s Cell Plans or Planes Postpago
Some of these plans include a discounted cell phone. Often they will give a free entry-level phone with a two year commitment. From the pricing, I think it is clear that Claro is the leader, Movistar discounts to try to win business, and CNT is the government-owned option.
Base Plan (Plan Flex 25)
Voice / Data / SMS
$28.00 (24 month contract)
Includes up to 63 minutes of voice, 300 megabytes of data, unlimited social networks and 20 text messages.
Premium Plan (Plan Flex 100)
Voice / Data / SMS
$112.00 (24 month contract)
Includes up to 430 minutes of voice, 1000 megabytes of data, unlimited social networks and 400 text messages.
Base Plan (Todo Destino 22)
Voice / Data / SMS
$24.63 (24 month contract)
Includes up to 107 minutes of voice, 300 megabytes of data, unlimited social networks and 200 text messages.
Premium Plan (Todo Destino 105)
Voice / Data / SMS
$117.60 (24 month contract)
Includes up to 698 minutes of voice, 5000 megabytes of data, unlimited social networks and 1000 text messages.
Base Plan (Plan Smartphone)
Voice / Data / SMS
$22.38 (18 month contract)
Includes up to 25 minutes of voice, 500 megabytes of data.
Premium Plan (Plan Smartphone)
Voice / Data / SMS
$123.18 (18 month contract)
Includes up to 250 minutes of voice, 500 megabytes of data.
If you are just arriving in Ecuador and don’t have a bank account yet – you don’t have any choice except to use a prepaid cell phone. It’s probably not a bad idea anyway. You can test the service before committing to a specific carrier.
Learn more about each of these providers. And how to buy a phone abroad that will work in Ecuador.
How’s the Cell Phone Service in Ecuador? (3 Carriers)
Ecuador loves cell phones.
On average, every Ecuadorian has a cell phone. (According to the World Factbook by the CIA, Ecuador has 100 cell phones per 100 citizens.)
But only 15% of Ecuadorians have a land line (in Spanish: telefonía fija or teléfono convencional).
There are three mobile networks in Ecuador and they all (generally) work well.
Each of the three networks offer prepaid and monthly plans for cellular usage. You can also buy internet usb modems and mobile internet packages from all of them. I cover each of the three networks in detail below.
When we first moved to Ecuador we bought phones and sim cards (numbers) from Movistar. At the time, it seemed to be an even tie in popularity between Movistar and Claro (back then Claro was known as Porta). Over the past few years, this has changed.
Loading Minutes (Saldo) in Ecuador
Buying Saldo: If you use a prepaid phone you’ll need to load minutes (as some gringos say) or saldo (as it’s said in Spanish) in order to use your phone.
You can buy saldo at the carriers offices, online through your Ecuadorian bank account or at just about any tienda (small corner store) in the country.
The minimum is usually $3 and you can buy in almost any quantity above that. Some expats put $20 or $30 on their phone so it won’t run out and be unable to make an outgoing call.
How’s the cell phone service in Ecuador? It is surprisingly good. In spite of the mountains and valleys everywhere, we haven’t found many dead areas. Sometimes as you drive up a mountain, the signal will disappear and then return with higher altitude.
It seems that the biggest problem with cell service isn’t the providers but the poor quality phones.
Phones are expensive (and thus frequently stolen). As a result, many people – locals and expats – use cheap phones. For the first few years, I thought that the cell service was not very good – until I traded my $40 junk phone in for one that had decent audio and reception.
Now it’s clear that the weakest part of the system is the cheap phones that most people use. Because of high import duties on technology, the country is a few steps behind what many foreigners are used to – in terms of clear (decipherable) phone conversations.
If you are coming for a visit – or are moving – you should bring a good quality phone with you. According to the current rules, you are allowed to bring one used cell phone with you on each entry.
Ecuador’s 3 Mobile Networks
Ecuador has three options for a cell phone carrier: Claro, Movistar and CNT.
1. Claro Ecuador
Claro is Ecuador’s largest and most popular cell network with nearly 12 million subscribers (Q3 2013).
The company’s name means “clear” or “of course” in Portuguese and Spanish. In Spanish, it is a common expression of acknowledgement.
When we moved to Ecuador, Claro was known as Porta (legally known as Conecel, which is owned by America Movil). In February 2011 Porta changed its name to Claro as part of a re-branding strategy.
Claro in Ecuador is part of Claro Americas – which is owned by America Movil, based in Mexico City, Mexico.
It is the largest company in Mexico by revenue with over $47 billion (larger than the next five largest companies combined). It is also Mexico’s most profitable company with over $5 billion in annual profits (April 2012) – more than the next three most profitable companies combined.
Claro Americas has service in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and Uruguay.
2. Movistar Ecuador
Movistar is a distant second place. Although it is the top carrier in Spain with 41%+ market share, in Ecuador it has just under 25% of market share with 4 million users.
For the few years we used Movistar we had good success. We found that every time we left the city (Cuenca) the service quality dropped. Friends with Claro almost always had a signal.
While Claro staff is efficient and friendly, many customer service reps for Movistar seem to lack drive and product knowledge. Although their service offerings and prices are almost identical, Movistar legs behind in coverage and customer service.
At one time, we had three phones and a modem with Movistar. Over time we switched everything to Claro – and we are happier.
Movistar is owned by Telefónica S.A. and operates under the Movistar brand in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Under the Vivo brand, Movistar operates in Brazil.
And Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom all operate under the O2 brand.
3. CNT Ecuador
CNT is the commonly used acronym for Ecuador’s National Telecommunications Corporation (La Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones CNT EP).
Created in January 2010 it is responsible for conventional landline telephones, high speed internet, satellite television and national cell phone network.
CNT operates across the country – with the exception of Cuenca. While CNT has offices in Cuenca, you cannot purchase an internet or phone line from them if you live in the city. They have a non-compete arrangement with ETAPA – Cuenca’s municipal company that provides the same services.
While CNT is a good option for internet in many parts of the country, their mobile phone services looks more like a last resort. I’m not sure why anyone would choose their cell service with two much stronger options available. I’ve heard that they use the Movistar towers but I haven’t confirmed this.
Their market share is just a few hundred thousand customers.
So there you have it – the three options for cell phone service in Ecuador.
Switching Cell Carriers in Ecuador
A few years ago we decided to switch to Claro. Our friends (and almost everyone we met) were all on the Claro network.
The process was very simple. We just went to the Claro office and asked them to transfer our numbers to their system. Aside from the Claro sim card that we had to buy, it was free. And because they are separate networks we lost whatever saldo (prepayment) on the Movistar sim card.
When we left the office, we were on the Claro network. Just like everywhere else, it is cheaper to speak with other users on the same network – so all three of us are now on the Claro network.
What has been your experience with cell phone service in Ecuador? I would love to hear your comments below.
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