Complete Guide to Ecuador Travel & Relocation (GringosAbroad)

How’s the Cell Phone Service in Ecuador? (3 Carriers)

ecuador-cell-phonesEcuador 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).

What type of cell phone works in Ecuador?

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.

ecuador-cell-phone-service

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 ecuador logo

Claro is Ecuador’s largest and most popular cell network with nearly 12 million subscribers (Q3 2013).

claro-commercial

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.

Visit Claro

2. Movistar Ecuador

logo_movistar

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.

movistar-sponsored-event

Movistar sponsorship is seen at virtually every large event in the country.

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.

Visit Movistar

3. CNT Ecuador

cnt-cell-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.

cnt-ecuador-photo

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.

Visit CNT

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.

Your Turn

What has been your experience with cell phone service in Ecuador? I would love to hear your comments below.

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An article by

Bryan is a journalist, photographer, expat and dad. He writes for Gringos Abroad (Ecuador travel & living) and Blogger Abroad (run an online business abroad). He also enjoys living in Southern Ecuador (South America) with his wife and daughter. Connect with Bryan on LinkedIn. Work with Bryan & Dena

More about: Ecuador Travel, Living in Ecuador

{ 32 comments… add one }

  • John Porterfield December 14, 2014, 4:08 pm

    I plan move to Cuenca with my wife Fall, 2015. We both need new cell phones now & plan Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and HTC One M9 (as soon as released). We’ll pay cancel charge to Verizon when we move. Info I get is have phone “unlocked” by a service in Ecuador (Claro or other networks do not unlock) & then get SIM card & service through local carrier. Presently Ecuadorian carriers do not offer the phones we’ll bring. Is it generally the case that Android phones manufactured for a particular US carrier can be unlocked and same phone be placed on Ecuadorian cell network? Also, is there a schedule for upgrading cell service to G3 & G4? Brian, nice resource and I hope to see you in Cuenca. My wife did anthropology studies there decades ago & we’ve visited twice in past 2 yrs.

    Reply
  • Gary Jones November 20, 2014, 8:28 am

    Bryan, I was originally bringing a Galaxy SII until I learned that it was not unlocked, so I upgraded to a Nexus5 which is unlocked. I understand that I will be able to purchase a SIM card at the airport on arrival, but I wanted to check that the available SIM card is the mini type. I also understand that as a tourist I can only buy prepaid minutes. I am coming on a six month Visa and have all my documents to apply for my Pensionado Visa. I believe that once I get residency I can get a bank account and then sign up for a plan. Is that correct?

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines November 21, 2014, 1:55 pm

      Yes, you can get the mini sim cards here. Unless the rules have recently changed, you don’t have to be a resident to open an account. Banco Pichincha had a program for non-residents. The rule frequently change so you can confirm this in person.

      Reply
  • Spall July 31, 2014, 4:58 pm

    Any one knows the cost for PORTA to PORTA Call and movistart to movistar call cost. Do they have any promotion like $5=> 1000 free mins for a week or so? I am looking to move to Ecuador and looking for good promotions cause we will be using phone a lot due to work, average day we will be using 150 to 200 mins a day for work. Anyone can help to figure out the cost?

    Reply
  • Lilbit July 19, 2014, 3:17 pm

    I will be moving to Santa Isabel in Yunguilla Valley to permanently live in Ecuador. Do you know how reliable the CNT service is in that area? Would anyone in that mind sharing your service plans, cost, installation, etc.? Am planning on a landline phone, high speed internet and satellite television. Do you know if I’d need a modem for the internet? Thanks

    Reply
  • Deb Swansburg July 19, 2014, 8:05 am

    Bryan, I was told that an iPhone 4 will not work with the SIM cards in Ecuador? Do you know if that is true? I currently have an iPhone 4 and am perfectly happy with it; it would be nice to bring that along. We are also at the end of our current 2 yr contract with Sprint and are trying to figure out whether to buy a newer phone privately (ebay or Craigslist) or stick with our current phones paying month by month for the last 12 months in the US. One other individual at the Sprint store did tell us that all new Smartphones work overseas so long as they are “unlocked,” Is that your understanding? LG, Samsung, iPhone, etc.?

    Thanks for the guidance!

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines July 19, 2014, 3:28 pm

      I’ve heard mixed comments about the iPhone 4. I don’t know if they will work – and if all work or just some.

      Reply
      • Jane Goodman October 29, 2014, 10:42 am

        We just came from the States. Yes–you are correct — the IPhone 4 will not work. Also, in order to bring in your phone which has been on a carrier, you must go to the carrier and get it unlocked. A federal law was just passed whereby the carriers must unlock the phone, but there is a loophole. They do not have to unlock it until you are off the current contract. If your contract is about to expire or has expired, then they must go ahead and unlock it. Some people just go to Ebay, etc., and buy a used phone that is unlocked–just a matter of personal preference.

        Reply
        • Bryan Haines October 29, 2014, 10:48 am

          Thanks for sharing your experience Jane!

          Reply
  • George Mueller June 10, 2014, 11:09 am

    Hello. Very informative article. I have a question that you may be able to answer.
    If I make an international call from Boston to a Movistar Cell phone in Ecuador does the person get
    charged as well. I usually use a phone card in the US but was wondering about that.Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines June 10, 2014, 11:12 am

      We’ve received call from Canada on our cell phones here and it doesn’t cost anything. I assume it is the same for every country.

      Reply
  • Kim May 5, 2014, 8:47 am

    I have read your cautions about bringing more than one cell phone, per person, into Ecuador. Does this apply to tourist visitors as well? I was thinking of bringing my work cell phone as well as another phone for which I would get a Claro sim for local calls in Cuenca.

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines May 5, 2014, 9:21 am

      Yes, the rule that is being enforced now is one used phone per person and one new phone per family. This can change but this is where it currently stands. If you have more, they can confiscate your extra phones, charge you duties or even charge you with providing false information (if not declared).

      Reply
      • Kim May 18, 2014, 10:02 am

        Bryan,

        I have been thinking about this because of my need to remain connected to the office (using my US number which is easier for our staff). If I arrive in Ecuador with my work iPhone and I buy there a prepaid Claro phone, from what you know would I be running afoul of the rules? My logic says no — but I am looking for an informed (not legally binding) second opinion. Then here is the follow-up question: when I return in 2015 and bring the Claro phone and my iPhone am I still within the rules?

        Thanks.

        Kim

        Reply
        • Bryan Haines May 19, 2014, 6:56 am

          That should be no problem. The rules are for importation. What you buy here has nothing to do with Ecuador Customs.

          I don’t know of rules limiting the exportation. I believe it would become an issue for the Customs department of your home country. If they allow you to enter with two phones it should be fine. Because of the limits put on cell phones here, I don’t think that many phones are being export from Ecuador.

          Reply
  • Lily Ann Fouts April 29, 2014, 9:45 am

    My husband and I recently returned from 2.5 months in Ecuador and we picked up a phone from Claro shortly after our arrival, and kind of hoping that we made the right choice between Claro and Movistar. Based on your article here (which would have been a big help before we left!) it looks like we did. We found that the phone worked well pretty much everywhere we went (we spent most of our time in southern Ecuador in and around the Loja Province) and we were happy with it. I’m pretty sure the phone we got has 2 SIM slots, though…from the comments it looks like you can use both carriers on a single phone, which is good to know. I hadn’t thought of that! When we left the country we still had a little time left on our phone; will that still work if we return to Ecuador in 1-2 years or will we need to get a new number/SIM? Also, we had internet in the apartment we rented but in the future we may need to get internet USB modems if we’re there for another 1-3 months (i.e. not long enough to sign up with a regular internet company). Do you get a decent internet speed with those? Is the price reasonable?

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines April 29, 2014, 10:36 am

      I’m not sure how long the saldo lasts on the sim cards but I expect it won’t work after that long. The number itself will expire if not used after a set period. That means you might have to buy a new sim card when you return.

      The usb modems are okay for one device but they aren’t the same as a cabled connection. Your usage is gauged by volume of data downloaded so streaming video (Netflix or Skype) isn’t very practical. You can buy a monthly plan for around $30.

      Reply
  • Kerri April 26, 2014, 6:26 pm

    I don’t actually have a dual chip phone. But, I have seen them on-line. It would probably be a good idea to read a variety of consumer reports as to quality of product from other customer reviews. I am thinking about getting one for a friend who could really use it next time I go and come back from the States.

    Reply
  • Dave April 26, 2014, 5:47 pm

    When I first arrived in Ecuador Movistar in Guayaquil would not give me service because I did not have a cedula. My friends recommended Movistar over Claro, but Claro did not require a cedula so I went with it. It seems to be very reliable, even in remote areas. I still am thinking about getting a Movistar SIM card too since my phone takes two SIM cards. Now if I could sort my friends by phone company I think I could save by calling them using their company.

    Reply
  • Melita Vega April 26, 2014, 5:26 pm

    Good article!

    Another thing to mention, aside from the added cost of calling a friend with a different carrier than your own, is the the added cost of calling a cell phone number from a landline (for the few that still have one) and vice versa.

    When I first moved back to Ecuador from Canada, I made the mistake of calling up all my old friends on their cellphones from my newly installed landline from ETAPA (call me old-fashioned, but I still like the idea of having one in case of a blackout), thinking there would be no added expense until I got hit with a $100 phone bill after calling 5 people. Unlike in Ontario, where customers with Bell Canada are charged a flat-fee for the use of a landline, and thus, can call anyone on a cellphone and talk for an unlimited amount of time, ETAPA here bills its customers by the minute and charges $0.18 per minute if you call a cellphone from one of their landlines – which is freaky when you consider that it’s actually cheaper to call Canada from the same ETAPA landline ($0.13 a minute). Same goes for calling any landline from your cellphone – it’ll eat up your minutes like crazy.

    Because of the cost, many workplaces with switchboards and multiple landlines will block employees’ ability to call cellphones from the office line – something that was particularly annoying for me when I first moved back to Cuenca because it meant I had to use my own cellphone minutes to call my clients when they weren’t in their offices. (there was no such thing as a corporate cell phone plan).

    Far be it from me to even remotely praise the business practices in place within Canada’s wireless industry; the evil entity that is Bell Canada maintains an oligopoly with Rogers and Telus, which means no competition to drive prices down, but it does mean that you don’t get charged anymore or any less to call a friend or colleague with a carrier different from your own, or to call a cellphone from an office or home line.

    On the flip side, one feature about Ecuador’s wireless industry that I do like is the fact that even if you run out of minutes (saldo), you can still receive calls from other people on your cellphone. (While living in Canada, I always had a prepaid phone plan and hated the fact that as soon as I was out of minutes, my phone was essentiallly useless.)

    Reply
  • deibiddo April 26, 2014, 12:52 pm

    My experience is solely with Claro which generally works well for both data and audio. The one thing that I do not understand is why, when I put $30 in my account, most of that balance disappears within a month and this is NOT accounted for by my automatic transfer to data ($10 / 300 mb) nor my phone use. To stop this happening I now make sure there are just a few dollars more than the $10 required for data transfer.

    I’ve spoken to people in Cuenco who have also had this experience but have not yet got a satisfactory explanation.

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines April 26, 2014, 3:03 pm

      That’s a good question. A few years ago the saldo would expire after 30 days but the president changed the law and now it will last indefinitely. Are you sure that you aren’t consuming more saldo than you thought? A few lengthy calls can eat through it pretty quick.

      Reply
      • deibiddo April 26, 2014, 5:12 pm

        Yes, I’m absolutely certain the sudden disappearance of funds from my SIM was not due to overusing the cell as I made only 2 or 3 short phone calls a month. Also I checked the balance daily. And, from one day to the next it went from $30 to less than the $10 required for my automatic transfer to data.

        Your comment about funds expiring certainly makes the most sense. Perhaps Claro had not caught up with the President’s dictum.

        Reply
  • William Wright April 26, 2014, 9:02 am

    What I learned through much research on line was I needed to bring an unlocked GSM system phone that accepts SIM chip. Not a CDMA system based phone. Sprint, Cricket and Verizon use CDMA system. Harder to convert to international use. With a pending visit and coming from states I have my utitilza el telefono and I am bringing the exact model, one nuevo telefono in box. Additionally, my Quito friend refrains from displaying her smart phone in public places such as bus. It will get stolen she says.

    Reply
  • Kiss April 26, 2014, 8:29 am

    Hola Bryan

    I am coming to Ecuador in June, I plan on buying a Claro phone and bringing a phone andsim card from the states, it will be a new phone never used, When I get to Salinas, and go to Claro will there be any issues. ? Should I get a dual sim card, and where is the best place to go forvservice?
    sorry I am not familiar with Company, I live in Puert Rico, and thats Servicemprovider is consider to be rated at the lowest bottom of cell companies here.

    Muchas Gracias,
    Y besitos

    Kiss

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines April 27, 2014, 7:51 am

      I don’t know if the service crosses over between countries but I imagine that they would. The sim card will need to be purchased here. You can go to any Claro store to buy the card and buy saldo.

      Reply
  • Ted Hoffman April 26, 2014, 7:17 am

    What about smartphones? We will be moving to Cuenca in the next few months and I plan on bringing my iPhone 4 and purchasing a new smartphone for my wife. Can we get a Claro pre-paid smart phone sim card for iPhone ?

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines April 26, 2014, 7:24 am

      They all work on the same sim card – there is no distinction. When I bought a Nokia N8 a few years ago, I took the sim card out of my simple $40 phone and put it into the new smart phone and it just worked. As long as your phone is unlocked it will work with the sim cards here.

      Reply
  • Kerri April 23, 2014, 11:20 am

    Nice article! Good topic!
    I agree it is very practical to have a cell phone these days. Even if just passing thru as many travelers do. So it’s nice to know what kind of services and coverage are offered, and what’s compatible in various countries. Always a good idea to look into specifics before going there. (Including, as you said, importation and customs limitations. Or you might not get past Aduana at the airport without paying a fine or having additional devices confiscated.) Once in the country you can register your number (with whichever company), that way when/if your phone is lost or stolen, you can visit Customer Service (Atención al Cliente) to report it, and get a replacement chip keeping your same number and your unused saldo.
    My husband and I have both been on Claro for about 10 yrs (we still sometimes forget and say Porta). We live on the jungle side of Ecuador along the highway Troncal E45 (Wich is now paved btw;) Reception was spotty at first, but now it’s pretty good. Of course there are a few dead spots in low lying areas or on some bends of the road, and if you are in the rurals you might be without cell service for the duration, but that’s what you expect in the jungle.
    Another suggestion, if you make a lot of calls to others not on your plan, is a phone with dual SIM cards, then you can easily use both Claro and Movi, thus being just a few clicks away from almost anyone in the whole country.
    We have our Internet thru CNT Fastboy. It’s pretty stable most of the time. I am able to work online. And with a data plan we can be in touch with family and friends around the world (lots of free calling options thru the computer).
    Times are changing. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. But there is progress.
    Keep the great posts coming! I always look forward to them. :-)

    Reply
    • Bryan Haines April 23, 2014, 3:25 pm

      Thanks Kerri – I forgot about the dual sim cards. I’ve seen them online. Do they sell them here in the country as well?

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
    • TerryDarc April 26, 2014, 2:57 pm

      Keri,
      Thanks for the info. I plan to take my dual-SIM card phone to Ecuador in Dec. for a few months – have not used it yet. How is the switching done? The two SIM cards have the same directory number or different? Or do you just set your phone on one of the two provider’s SIM card?

      Reply
      • TerryDarc April 26, 2014, 3:04 pm

        Just discovered that my question depends upon the phone and the chipset inside. Still interested in hearing how yours works.

        Reply

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