Guatemala Internet and Telecommunications Hack

The following will provide you with a plan to save money on internet and your cell phone while in Guatemala. The idea most likely applies to all of central America as the same three telecom giants exist in almost every country, and since it is what these telecom giants are doing that makes this saving possible, I don't see why it cannot apply throughout.

Travelling to a Central American country for months at a time will have any high tech foreigner wishing for their cable internet, unlimited downloading capacity, and smart phone apps that might be too difficult to obtain in somewhere like Guatemala. All of these things are available in Guatemala and any country between Mexico and Panama. The difference here in Central America is that you will be limited to visiting uber expensive hotels and restricted from seeing the rest of the countryside and its amazing Mayan ruins if you need high speed internet everyday. Indeed, even regular internet here is way more expensive than it is in other western countries. If you want to be able to stay at budget apartments and hostels while still being able to connect to that modern day savior we call the internet, there is good news for you. There is a way to save massive amounts of money on your tech budget without sacrificing decent internet. You can even be on top of the pyramids at Tikal and access the internet. The following will show you have to save money in the process.

Internet Dongles Are The Tool Of Choice

When you arrive in Guatemala, you learn that owners of buildings can get a traditional modem and internet installed. If you are a renter, this is not possible. You need to prove you are living in a space for 18 months and you usually need a utility bill in your name. To speak for their side, they don't see the value in installing modems if you are only renting month to month. Fair enough. If you are merely staying in hostels and hotels, most of them have internet but some do not and others are simply crappy internet. For the most part, if you want automony to not have to buy coffee in wifi coffee shops every day, or you want to avoid the cheap but outdated internet cafes of Guatemala, then your best choice is a USB dongle.

A dongle is a USB stick that connects to a satellite of one of the three telecommunications giants in Guatemala. Those would be Tigo, Claro, or Movistar. As you will find out if you are not a well traveled American, most of the rest of the world prefers phones and internet that you can “top up” with your minutes or internet usage as needed. The following example would be for Tigo as its the one I have successfully experienced for myself as possible. Since I have traveled through all of the Central American countries, I would now suggest getting Claro or Movistar if you intend to travel all of the countries because they were more present than Tigo. Hindsight is 20/20. You will have to get a new SIM card in each country but the dongle shell should still work.

The Key Element Of The Hack: Bonus Minutes

Last month I spent $14 on two cell phones for me and my wife in Guatemala. We certainly were not chatter bugs but we also did not refrain from using our phone for stinginess purposes. We had to buy a wedding dress and be in continual communication with the designer. We call our landlord at least twice a week (but that's another story). Any time we have friends in the country, visit we split up the phones and stay in communication with them even when they are staying somewhere else. The point is that you could bring your smart phones to Guatemala and still spend at least $100 a month for two phones. Or you could adapt and spend nearly a 1/10th of the price. If you are a budget traveller like me, this is a no brainer.

The key to all of this is the bonus minutes system. Tigo, Claro, and Movistar all have their own version of bonus “money” that can be earned on arbitrary days if you top up your phone on these days. They send you a text message when these days arrive and all of the bodegas and 7-11 type stores put out signs indicating which company has a bonus day. For Tigo, the bonus in Guatemala is always “triple saldo” which translates more or less to triple balance.

Enter a store that has a Tigo triple saldo sign and you can not only purchase minutes towards your phone, you will receive a separate balance of bonus balance as a token of appreciation. There is a gimmick worth noticing here and that is that the bonus minutes have a time stamp on them. The less real money you deposit into the phone, the less time the bonus minutes last. Your bonus minutes cap at 100 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency) for 200 bonus Quetzales with a 30 day time stamp. If you put a measly 10 Q on your phone, your 20 bonus minutes disapeear within 5 days. You could put more minutes on your phone and get more bonus Quetz, but the time stamp will still be 30 days. If you do not use the bonus minutes within the time frame, you will lose them.

The Hack

The trick is to know that you can walk into a store, purchase 100 Q of real money balance on your phone on a triple saldo day, then they give you an extra 200 Q that is separate bonus balance, and THEN you can walk right out of the store and transfer the real money balance to your travelling partner's phone. The code for Tigo transfering is simple: type into your phone *327*8 digit number of whom you are sending to*amount of Quetzales you want to send # (and hit send). All symbols are meant for you to enter. No spaces necessary. An example is: *327*12345678*100# (and hit send). Within seconds, your other phone will now have the 100 real Q and your phone will have the 200 bonus Q. Now all we did was intentionally use the phone that had a time limited 200 Q whenever we were together and had a choice.

Another gimmick to be aware of…some say that on the triple days it is also a triple cost to call on those days. I have not tested this to find out if its true, but there is a simple way around that. You can buy 100 text messages for around a dollar (8 Q) and you can text on those days. Easy peezy.

Using Bonus Balance To Your Advantage On The Web

As mentioned previously, anyone travelling in Central America for more than a couple weeks is probably adquainted with a USB “dongle”, which receives internet signal from the cell towers and satellites here. Quite quickly we were introduced to another, higher tech version of a dongle and we never purchased the original USB kind after that. The higher tech version is a modem that looks a tad bit like a cell phone. Its called the Huawei E5836 1). Inside of it is a battery (so it can run without power for hours) and a Tigo SIM card. This modem allows up to four people to connect to the internet at once and it does not need to be plugged into any computer. Thus, it functions like a travelling wifi. Depending on how strong the signal is, the internet works quite well. Other than renting a place that has internet included, this is your best option. You can bet the all inclusive internet is costing 60-100 dollars in your monthly rent.

Unfortunately, the rates that all telecommunications companies offer are absurd. Tigo has one of the best deals and there two best options are 15Q a day for 1 GB or 399Q ($50) for 20 GB up to 30 days. This translates to about a 2 dollars a day for a total30 GB a month, or $30 dollars a month for the first plan. All the plans in between are worse rates. As you can see, the first plan is better in my opinion. You can get 10 GB more data for $20 less. In addition, there is no pressure to quick use your internet at the end of the month if you have a lot of data left. What we do is usually buy 1 GB at a time and then by the end of the day, if we have internet left I just download podcasts, music, and other things I have been meaning to download. I know…it is sad but true. The days of unlimited internet usage are mostly gone, especially for the travelling foreigner.

(EDITED TO ADD: As you can see from the wayback machine 2), this was the going rate at the end of 2013. They have since changed their plans so that 15Q ($2) only buys half of the data, or 500 MB, for 24 hour usage and 499Q ($63) only buys 15 GB over a 30 day period. 3) I've been in a place that includes internet for a couple of months but…yikes.)

Discover Your Modem's "Phone Number"

What you can do with two phones you can also do with one phone and one of these travelling modems. Recall how the Huawei E5836 Tigo modem has a SIM card in it. You can remove the SIM card and insert it into another Tigo phone. Now take that phone and send a text message or dial a phone of someone who is in the room. Whatever number pops up on their phone during the call or text is your number. Write it down and put the SIM card back into the modem. Now go to the tienda on a Tigo triple day and transfer the 100Q (you cannot transfer bonus balance) to your newly acquired modem's “number”. Unfortunately the price of internet has practically doubled in Guatemala as shown above, but using this trick will keep your phone loaded with bonus minutes while you pay for your internet.

In this scenario, let us say you purchased the 500 MB a day internet for 15Q. In reality, there are some nights were you wanted to a watch a movie and had to buy internet twice or three times in one day. A couple days you were out climbing volcanoes and seeing ancient ruins so you didn't use internet. It totals to purchasing internet 33 times in a month. 33 X 15 Q = 495 Q. That is around $60 for internet. Quite steep, this is true. When I figured out this trick in 2013, this very same internet usage would have cost me half of that. However, if you follow my advice and load 100 Q on your phone every triple day, which occurs randomly but more or less every 5 days, then you could send that 100Q five times to cover your internet. You would then have 1000 bonus minutes on your phone for the month. In other words, you paid $60 dollars for internet but your cell phone usage is basically unlimited FOR FREE. You can even call the United States for a decent rate here in Guatemala, and with those number of minutes, you might want to if it doesn't mess up your receiver's bill.

Transfering Balance To Regular USB Dongle

I suspect the transfering of real Quetzales balance to a standard USB dongle is also possible. I do not own a USB dongle but I have seen numerous other travelers with one. I suspect they work in a similar fashion to the Huawei 4 person modem, i.e. with a SIM card. If that is the case, then you can transfer your money to one of those instead and avoid buying this rather pricey 4 connector wifi modem (around $120).

If you are travelling to Guatemala long term or any other Central American country, do not ignore their telecommunication system. The bonus balance is easily hackable for your use in other ways and I encourage you to continue your budget travel choices wisely. A simple phone can be purchased for under $20 dollars if you don't mind a lack of internet access, and considering the hacks above, it makes perfect sense to ditch the smart phone from home with the expensive data plan and dive right into chap Guate telecommunications.

travel | Telecommunications | Internet

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