You may be wondering why you can’t simply use your gringo cell phone in Chile instead of buying a new phone. Using your phone from home may be an option. But there are a number of reasons why you might not want or be able to use your gringo cell phone in Chile.
International roaming fees are exorbitant. Also, your gringo cell phone might not even work in Chile. A number of major carriers in the U.S., such as Verizon and Sprint, use what’s called CDMA technology. The largest cell phone providers in Chile use networks that employ a different technology called GSM. Even if you have a gringo phone that uses GSM and has a SIM card, your phone may be locked. You could try to get your phone unlocked in Chile and buy a SIM card from a Chilean cell phone carrier. But if you’re from the U.S., unlocking your cell phone without permission from your provider back home is now a criminal offense. The good news is that it’s very easy to buy a basic, low cost, text and talk cell phone in Santiago. Here’s how to do it:
What type of service should I look for?
As a traveler or temporary resident in Santiago, buying a cell phone that uses a pre-pay (prepago in Español) service is the easiest and most economical choice. Pre-pay means no contracts, no termination fees, and no hassles.
Where do I shop for a phone?
To shop for a phone, head to one of Santiago’s many malls. A few of the larger malls are Alto Las Condes, The Florida Center, Parque Arauco, and Apumanque. Inside the malls you’ll find cell phone stores, electronics stores, and department stores that sell electronics, including cell phones. Do some comparison shopping. But don’t expect the sales associates to speak much, if any, English. Remember, Chile is a Spanish speaking country. Recent estimates indicate that only around 3% of Chileans are fluent in English. If you want to do some advanced research, check phone prices online at falabella.com. Falabella is one of the big department store chains in Chile.
How to shop for a phone
When shopping for your phone, compare the cost of the different pre-pay phones. Take into account if the phone comes with any complimentary credit for making calls and sending texts. Compare the cost to make calls and send texts. The cost of calls and texts will vary depend on the carrier. Movistar, Entel, and Claro are the three largest cell phone providers in Chile. In 2011 I bought a Samsung pre-pay phone at a cell phone store in Las Condes. The phone cost around 8,000 CLP (ca. $16 USD)and came with 5,000 CLP in credit. The phone I bought used Entel as the carrier, and I was satisfied with the service. Calls were clear and rates were competitive with the other major companies. Don’t expect cell service in Chile to be cheap like in Thailand or Vietnam. The cost of living Santiago and Chile as a whole is significantly higher than Southeast Asia, and that includes the cost of basic cell phone service.
Getting your phone up and running
Once you’ve decided on a phone, have the sales associates set the phone up for you. You should leave the store with a fully functioning phone.
Adding money to your phone
Putting more money on your phone is easy.
One option is to head to the nearest pharmacy. In Santiago, there is pretty much a pharmacy on every block. Cruz Verde and Ahumada are the two largest pharmacy chains in the Chile and places to charge your phone. Tell the person behind the counter that you want to put money on your phone. They will need to know the name of your cell phone provider, your phone number, and how many Chilean Pesos you want to add to your account. If you have issues with Spanish, write this information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the person at the counter.
If you’ll be using Santiago’s metro, look for people wearing a yellow or orange vest with a little flag pole and triangular flag attached to their body. No joke. These are people whose sole job is to add money to cell phones. They will require the same information as at the pharmacy.
Your third option is to buy pre-pay phone cards at a convenience store, the pharmacy, and wherever else they are found. Make sure you buy pre-pay cards issued by your service provider.
Things to avoid
Don’t rent a phone or a SIM card. It’s more economical to just buy a phone.
What if I own an unlocked phone from home that uses SIM cards?
Then by all means, try to use it in Chile. You’ll have to buy a Chilean SIM card. You can buy SIM cards at any of the cell phones outlets in Santiago or any of the other cities and towns in Chile. Buy a SIM card that uses the pre-pay (prepago) service. Have the sales associate install and set up the new SIM card.
Can I get my GSM phone unlocked in Santiago?
Sales associates at cell phone stores in Santiago will often do this for you. If you’re able to unlock your phone, then you can buy a Chilean SIM card, and voila, you’re good to go. If you’re an American, keep in mind the recent changes in regulations regarding unlocking your cell phone.