What’s one item you couldn’t get through the day without? We’re willing to bet that the vast majority of you said your cell phone. No longer just for communication, we also use our phones to hail a ride, look up directions, and make restaurant reservations.
It’s no surprise, then, that figuring out a suitable local SIM card or data plan is the FIRST thing that many people do when they get to Panama. Whether you’re a tourist or an expat who’s recently relocated, you’ll want to know what are the best prepaid card options and data plans, and how to activate them in English.
After reading this article, you’ll be able to make the best choice for you. That means you can take care of your cell phone needs right away when you arrive, without missing a beat.
Using Your Existing Phone
If you’re heading to Panama, whether for a short stay or a permanent move, the first decision to make is what phone to use. If you would like to use your existing phone instead of buying a new one, you have a few options.
Firstly, you need to use an unlocked phone. If you bought your phone as part of a promotion with a 2-year plan, then chances are it is locked. Unlocking your phone means removing the digital block that prevents your phone from working with another cell carrier. This process is legal as long as you have the consent of your phone carrier. Most carriers will give consent as long as the phone is paid off and you are no longer in a long-term agreement.
It’s best to contact your phone carrier before you head to Panama to find out the details. Most carriers can unlock your phone for you. There are also services you can purchase online to get your phone unlocked, though it’s best to use a reputable one. Once you’ve unlocked your phone, you can simply buy data and minutes from one of Panama’s various cell phone companies. We’ll go into more detail about these in a bit.
A second option for using your existing phone in Panama is if you have a contract with TMobile. At the time of writing, TMobile has the most comprehensive plan for international texting and data. TMobile offers unlimited access to texting and data in 210 countries, Panama included. On this plan, calls within Panama cost 25 cents per minute. Most TMobile users are satisfied with the service for basic communication and checking emails. However, TMobile’s data service in Panama is rarely fast enough to make live streaming or extensive internet use worth it.
If you don’t use TMobile, you can check with your carrier about what it would cost to include data, texting, and calls in Panama on your existing plan. Most big-name cell phone carriers can offer these services for a fixed monthly rate. That said, these costs can add up quickly. It’s better to switch to a local plan or use prepaid cards if you’re going to be in Panama for more than a few weeks.
Choosing a Local Carrier
Once you’ve arrived in Panama (unlocked phone in tow) the first thing you’ll need to do is choose a local carrier. Just like in most countries, there are a handful of cell carriers that provide comparable service across Panama.
The four biggest carriers in Panama are Más Móvil, Claro, Movistar, and Digicel. While each of these providers offers comprehensive service within Panama City, that is not the case everywhere. If you plan on spending most of your time outside of the nation’s capital, it’s worth checking with a representative to find out where coverage currently exists.
It’s hard to say at any given time which of these providers is the “best” given that they are all constantly improving their coverage. Additionally, if you’re planning to choose a provider based on cost, it’s worth checking out if there are any promotions available. While prices are comparable across providers, all are known to offer great promotional deals if you sign a contract at the right time.
If you’re going to be living in Panama City, it’s also worth asking neighbors and coworkers about which provider they prefer. Certain buildings are known to get better service from one provider than another.
Once you’ve chosen a provider, you’ll need to buy a SIM card from that company. A SIM card in Panama costs around $3 usually, a small investment. This is nice in case you choose to switch from one provider to another at some point. Insert the SIM card into your phone and you’re ready to go! From there, you have one final choice to make. Should you use a pre-paid card or enroll in a monthly plan? There are perks and drawbacks to both as we’ll outline below.
Prepaid cards are useful because they allow you to pay as you go. This choice is most beneficial for people who don’t use their phones a ton. This is also a great option if you plan on doing a lot of coming and going from Panama, as a pre-paid sim card means you are only paying for the services you use and nothing more.
You can buy a pre-paid card for any provider at the grocery store, convenience store, or many pharmacies. Tell the cashier that you want a “tarjeta de [name of your cell provider]” and the quantity you want it for. Most companies sell cards for as little as $2 all the way up to $50 or more. You’ll dial a number on the back of the card and enter your phone number to add credit to your phone. You can use this credit for talking, texting, and data.
Typically, it is a better deal to add more “saldo” (the Spanish word for the credit you’re adding to your phone) at a time. However, for most providers, any “saldo” you add will expire within 2 months. Ideally, you don’t want to add more than you will use during that time. It will often take a month or two to figure out how much is the right amount of credit to add for your habits. You’ll get a text message when your credit is running low so you know it’s time to pick up a new card.
More and more companies are improving their services for adding “saldo” to your phone online. This is not only more convenient but also allows users to take advantage of promotions that are sometimes available.
If you think the process above sounds cumbersome, you could always opt for a monthly plan instead. This is typically a better option for those who will be living exclusively in Panama. Monthly plans also tend to be more cost-effective for those who depend on their phones for everything.
The price of a monthly plan will depend on the package you choose. All carriers offer plans that include talk, text, and data, starting for as little as $15 per month. From there, prices scale up depending on the quantity of these three features you think you need. Plans that offer unlimited data usually run for around $35 per month.
Signing up for a plan requires an in-person visit to one of your provider’s service stores. If you aren’t particular about which company you use, it might be worth it to visit stores for multiple carriers to see what kinds of promotions they have available.
Unlike in the United States, most cell carriers in Panama offer services on a month-to-month basis and don’t require a long term contract. You can even cancel your plan for a given month if you plan to be out of the country and start it up again when you return.
Once you deal with the initial set-up, using your cell phone in Panama is a piece of cake. Most users find that cell service is of similar quality to what they have back home. And at a lower price, it’s hard to complain. Additionally, with the option of prepaid cards or monthly plans, changing providers doesn’t need to be a hassle. You can spend your time and energy enjoying Panama, instead of wading through contracts and red tape. If only everything were that simple!