My cell phone recently died.
My screen was a mass of colorful lines in motion.
Very pretty. But useless as a phone.
I felt disconnected from the world.
If you are newly transplanted to Panama, that is an especially unsettling feeling.
2 Initial Phone Decisions
It helps if you figure out your cell phone situation before you arrive in Panama. It is not necessary, but it will be easier.
You need to answer 2 questions at the get go:
What cell phone will you use? Your current one or a Panamanian phone.
What cell service will you use? A local service or your current cell plan.
Cell Phone Options
One of the main advantages to using your current phone while in Panama is you will have access to all your contacts and other information that you store on your phone. This makes life alot easier.
Use Your Current Phone
If you want to use your current cell phone from “home, your phone:
Must use the GMA system (see below)
Must be unlocked, if you plan on using a local service provider
GMA vs CDMA
Cell phones use 2 different types of radio technology: GMA and CDMA. Most of the world, including Panama, only uses the GMA system.
If you use TMobile or AT&T, you have a GMA phone. Typically, if your phone has a SIM card, it uses the GMA system.
Some USA carriers (Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular) use the CDMA system. But newer phones by these providers, particularly Verizon, may accommodate both systems. Verizon is phasing out its CDMA phones by 2019.
Panamanian Phone Options
You can buy an old style cell phone at stores and kiosks all over Panama. You can pick one up for about $25 – $35.
You can buy your phone from a service provider or from a non-affiliated store.
If you want to have a smart phone, it will be cheaper to buy it back home, especially if you want to buy yours used or refurbished.
You can also buy a smart phone in Panama from many, but not all stores. They even have Apple stores in Panama. I have visited an Apple store in both Panama City and David.
You can buy an Android smart phone in Panama that takes more than 1 sim card. The dual SIM card option enables you to use 2 different Panama service providers. If you don’t have coverage with one provider, you could switch to your other SIM card provider. (Maybe you can do this in the States as well. I don’t know; so far I have only used iphones. )
Cell Phone Service Options
Once you know which phone you will use, you need to decide which service to use:
- A local service provider (e.g., Movistar, MasMobil, Claro…) OR
- Your service plan back “home”. This option depends upon your service provider.
Local Service Provider
Remember, to use your current phone with a local service provider, your phone must be both unlocked and use GMA technology.
How well a cell service works in Panama depends upon your location. You should ask people in your area of Panama about which provider works the best there.
How To Use A Local Provider
- Buy a SIM card from your chosen provider (a SIM card costs ~$3)
- Insert the SIM card into your phone
- Buy some minutes (see options below)
- You are good to go
Panama’s Main Cell Service Providers
- Más Móvil
Personally, we like Movistar the best. One of the biggest pluses for me is that its data seems to be faster and more available than MasMovil. Most people I talk to agree with my assessment. Keep in mind, I have never used Claro or Digicel, only MasMovil and Movistar.
Type of Local Service
You can buy minutes and Internet as you need them via pre-paid cards or by signing up for a monthly plan. Your choice will depend upon your needs and preferences.
Pay As You Go – Minutes
You can buy minutes as you need them. You simply buy a prepaid card. You can buy these cards at grocery and other stores.
Ask for a “tarjeta de (your provider)”. Tarjeta means card.
The cashier will ask you what value you want on your card. I have the best luck using $5 cards. I don’t know why, but often when I try to input a card with a higher value I have more difficulties. You may not find that true.
Instructions for inputing your minutes are on the back of the card. The instructions are in Spanish. It is very simple.
- Scratch off the obvious scratch off section, which reveals your code.
- Dial *312 then input the code then hit “call or send”.
- Listen to the recording. It will be in Spanish. But if you hear the value you input, “cinco balboas” for $5, that means it worked. If it didn’t, do it again. It will probably work the on the 2nd try.
You can input a new card into your phone when you run out of minutes or you can recharge your phone online. Your provider will most likely text you instruction on how to add more minutes to your phone online. If not, you can ask someone, or look on your provider’s website.
Once you input the minutes into your phone you have 2 months to use them. Any remaining minutes will expire.
However, the clock does not start running until you input the minutes into your phone. It is good idea to have an extra card on hand for when you unexpectedly run out of minutes, or when you re-enter Panama after some time away.
Internet – Pay As You Go
You can also use these prepaid cards to input data onto your phone. It is not the best method if you are going to need data on a regular basis, but it works for your short-term needs.
Technically, you can automatically use your minutes for talking or internet, but I find it works better if I explicitly ask for the data. Plus, it means you will save that value for internet alone, and it won’t be used up by a phone call.
Typically, after you input your minutes, your provider will send you a text telling you how to convert those minutes into data. But not always. Here is what you do.
- For MasMovil, dial *456# send
- For Claro, dial *111# send
- For Digicel, dial *111# send
- For Movistar, dial *888# send
After hitting send, you’ll be guided through an on-screen setup process asking what you want to buy and how much of it you want. It is all in Spanish, but it is easy to figure out. Basically, you want to respond that you want a “paquete de datos” and yes, you want to buy (“comprar”) whichever packet of data you selected.
Local Monthly Plan – Talk & Internet
All the providers offer a monthly data/talk/text plan.
The price depends upon the amount of data. No provider offers unlimited data plans.
Visit their offices or websites to get more information of what each plan offers. You can only start your plan in person, by visiting one of your provider’s service stores.
My Local Monthly Plan
I have a monthly plan with Movistar that costs me $17 a month. They have less expensive and more expensive plans then mine.
To set up my plan, I needed to visit an official Movistar office in person. It was easy to do and the gentleman who helped me spoke English well.
I have never used my online Movistar account. The only thing I can use it for is to change my plan. I cannot start or stop my plan online. To stop my plan I must visit the office in person. This requirement means I often pay for Internet even when I am not in the country, but at $17/mo it isn’t much of a hardship.
Typically there are no long-term contracts (or any contracts) required for service plans in Panama. They are all monthly plans that you can cancel at anytime. Well, as long as you do it in person.
Use Your “Home” Service Provider
You can keep your “home” cell phone plan and add international coverage. Check with your provider about this option. Some are quite spendy and some are very reasonable.
Hands down most people using this method use TMobile. That is, most Americans do it this way, since TMobile is only offered in the USA.
(Note: TMobile has a plan for people age 55 or older: 2 lines for $60, with unlimited data, etc in the USA. )
TMobile also offers free texting and data (3g only) in Panama (and in over 100 other countries). The data service can be slow in Panama since they do throttle the data here. TMobile says they don’t throttle data in the US, but I cannot confirm that.
They charge a reasonable rate for phone calls made while in Panama: $0.20 a minute. Of course, you can use WhatsApp, or other wifi based call app, for your calls and then you can avoid those roaming charges.
You pay the same amount for your TMobile service whether you are in Panama or in the US. Well except for any roaming call charges.
However, if fast Internet on your phone is important to you, you might want to go with a local service provider.
Calling Back Home
Some local providers & your “home” providers offer international calling plans. However, before you spring for one of those, keep in mind there are many free ways to call internationally using wifi.
- Magicjack app
- Facebook Messenger
- Google Hangouts (Ideally, port your phone number to Google Voice BEFORE coming to Panama)
You can even buy an international calling card, available at most of the same places that the prepaid cards are sold.
Conclusion & Smart Phone Advantages
It is pretty easy to set up a cell phone in Panama. If your first provider doesn’t work out, it is pretty easy to switch. A SIM card only costs about $3.
Your whole communication set up will work better if you have a smart phone. At this point, if you have somehow avoided buying a smart phone, congratulations. That is quite the accomplishment. But you might want to make the leap before you move to Panama. Having a smart phone will make communicating both with people in Panama and back home much easier.
For instance, almost everyone in Panama uses Whatsapp to both call and text. It is a great app. If your friends and family back home don’t have it yet, encourage them to get it. It allows you to communicate with them for free, if you both have the app.
And there are just so many other apps you can get to improve your communication as well as your entertainment. I will discuss those in a future post.