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.
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 most 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.