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Panama Cell Phone 101 or Cell Phones for Dummys

I always wondered how anyone could buy blah blah blah for idiots, but now I will in a thousand words or less try to answer the proverbial “will my cell phone work in Panama” question.

First and most dramatic understand Panama has four, cell phone companies, 3 totally private sector, one with a minority interest held by the government, often a bad omen, Cable and Wireless, often referred to as Clueless and Worthless. I use Cable and Wireless because although some view them as worthless, they work best where I live and have unlimited data for my iphone for $14.95 a month. Still another, issue, coverage is not complete for any cell company, they have different generations of technology and different rural coverage, each has a coverage map. The maps range from accurate, to Seco induced fantasies of commercial artists, who likely have never been out of Casco Viejo.

If you visit Panama consider this, Panama has more cell phones than people. There is a reason, Panamanians have mastered the art of using cellphones for free. In Panama anyone can buy a cell phone on virtually every street in every pueblo in the country. Contrast that to Costa Rica, something often done buy people visiting from North America, where you must be a permanent resident and deal with bumbling government employees of ICE, a cold group, who may or may not have a SIM chip to spare.

How do you use a cell phone for free. To really go native, learn the secret and be a one step closer to assimilation. In Panama you are only billed for outgoing calls. Lacking the creativity of North American banditry, Panamanian cell phone companies only earn half the coin per call. So, the correct way to use a cell phone in Panama is ring once and hangup, disconnect, cut the cord baby. If the person receiving your plea cares to speak to you they will call back and they pay the bill, if not, well they were not ever worth knowing anyway.

Back to the next point, reached in an obscure way, routed through San Jose. All cell phones in Panama are GSM Network phones meaning they use a chip. If you have a cell phone from another part of the world and do not know about chips, it probably will not work here. It might work here if it has a chip and you don’t realize it has a chip, but if it is chip-less, forgetaboutit.

If you live in the US then you can follow this link to see if your cell phone carrier is GSM and what frequency they use. The big boys, use GSM 1900 in the US. If you come from the land of sled dogs and frozen beaver tails, you really need to be in Panama with all your ex-neighbors, check here. If you think communicating in English to a Spanish speaker is difficult, try communicating with a GSM 850 phone to a GSM 1900 phone, it does not work. Some phones, triband or quad band can morph as necessary and will work on both and one or two more. These phones also known as world phones have great value and can be used to barter for bus fare to Costa Rica, where they probably won’t work.

If your cell phone is not a triband or quadband you might have hope in Panama. Cable and Wireless and their worthy competitor Movistar use GSM 850 but the upstarts trying to steal their client base, Digicel the Claro, not to be confused with Carlos Slim, who just owns Claro, an almost cute anagram, but is not Claro, use GSM 1900. So if you have a cell phone that has a chip and can use either GSM 1900 or GSM 850 you are in luck just investigate and you shall be granted wisdom.

Your other option is a burner. A burner is defined by every police program produced in North America as a cheap throwaway cell phone. The reason Panama has more cell phones than people is elementary dear Watson. All burners from all the world migrate to Panama after they are discarded, here they are befriended by kind, loving people who cannot yet afford a Blackberry. They can be acquired with a chip, usually with some free airtime one almost any street corner in the country for under $30.

Next the plan, or better in Panama no plan. If you are a tourist there are no plans, just float with the wind and use prepaid services. If you are a permanent resident and want to fit in with the masses, be like everyone else and be clueless and plan-less, use prepaid. For most people a postpay plan is more expensive, more work and more confusing then scratch and squint.

Warning: Cell service is the only thing you should ever prepay in Panama, otherwise you will discover yourself a real idiot.

Each cell company sells scratch and squint cards or you can recharge your phone at any ATM in the country through something described as a RED or network. Through the wonders of light speed technology, your cell phone never needs to leave your pocket. If you do this watch the pixels of the screen for what superfluous charges might be added for an alien debit card.

Once you buy the chip, usually a $1, charge it up with a ATM or card and you can enjoy smooth communications requiring only a babel fish in your ear and a thank you to Douglas Adams for the inspiration.


Comments

  1. Matt, Toronto says:

    Well I read it all and I still can’t get it through my thick skull.

    I can report however that last April I bought a prepaid phone in Penonome with air time for $20+ and made a couple of calls to Air Panama and several to David from the Santa Clara area. All in all it was a terrific experience.

    I believe the cheapest pre-paid cells in Canada cost about $50, a land in which the customers exist for the sole purpose of making the service providers rich. Don’t get me started on Internet, TV, and landline telephone services.

  2. Do you know if a nokia 1208 cell phone will work in the States?(I believe so). And even though Movie star says they unlocked it, is there any way of testing it before I go to the states to see if it is unlocked

  3. If your Nokia will work on the 1900 Megahertz frequency, it should work in the States. My GSM phone here in the U.S. operates on the 1900 MHz band. But check your roaming charges – For example, my U.S. carrier will charge me $2.99 per minute for a voice call made in Panama, although texting is much cheaper.

    Unfortunately, my older model tri-band “world phone” works only on 900/1800/1900 MHz. It does not work on the 850 MHz frequency popular in Panama. Operating in Panama on 1900 will limit me to using Claro or Digcel. I suspect that Cable & Wireless has better coverage,so maybe I should buy a cheap pre-paid phone when I get to Panama.

  4. It’s a little early yet, but eventually I would like to ask you a few questions when I get down there. I’ve got an iphone 3G and noticed you use an iphone as well. Nice to know they work there, too.

  5. Well, I didn’t think I was a dummy, but this is about as clear as a Boquete river after a rainstorm. Thanks anyway, and I’m glad that my Panama cell phone (C&W) works almost everywhere with no problems. If I were visting as a tourist, I’d just buy a really cheap phone on the street for my use while here. If I was moving here from the US with one of those expensive smart phones, I might care about converting it to use here, and I think I’d try to figure that out from the US end of things before I arrived.

  6. James Turner says:

    *** WARNING ABOUT CLARO CELL PHONE SERVICE – DO NOT TRUST THEM *** We had Digicel and they went from 12 cents second billing to 15 cents 1 minute billing and our money started to get really eaten up. So we saw Claro advertising everywhere for 8 cents a minute. My wife asked them if like Digicel the pre paid minutes were good for a year. We usually are always loading them up but sometimes travel and its nice to know they are still good. The salesman (conman who defrauded us to purchase) says yes they are good for a year and usable. Here is the fine print we discovered on the website. If you buy say $5.00 the minutes are only good for 7 days. Then you have to load up again to use them. Things in Panama are difficult enough without having load your cell phone every time you want to make a call. The point is we asked specifically and got the wrong answer. In the end after going around and around Claro wants to defraud us out of money we paid for the phones. I would not recommend anybody use them. They should have corrected the sales persons fraud with a prompt refund. We would have been happy to be customers of Claro if they honored what they told us but they lied to us to make a sale and took our money.

  7. I enjoyed reading your post, thank you. Question: do you know of, or have had experience with an external antena-one you can put outside your house- that can boost cell phone recepton?

  8. I do not have any experience with external antennas, sorry.

  9. Great read. Thanks for the info.

    I use my old, trusty sony ericsson triband (900/1800/1900) when travelling and we are coming to Boquete & Bocas soon. Based on your article it looks like a SIM from digicel panama is the only option for this phone.

    Do they have decent coverage while travelling near Boquete & Bocas or should we get a local 850 phone from another vendor? Any ideas on $/min costs to call the US?

    Thanks in advance.

  10. I fly to panama regularly and have a local GSM SIM that I exchange. Do you know if GSM smartphones unlocked are available for purchase in Panama. I cannot buy one in the US without data plan etc. nothing fancy just functional. Tank you

  11. You can buy unlocked phones here or in the US in both cases they cost more than phones locked to a carrier.

  12. Lee – do you know if Cable & Wireless carries the nano-sim card for iPhone 5?

  13. They sell the Iphone 5 so I suspect they have the SIM. I cannot tell you for certain if they will sell the the SIM without the phone.

  14. I am in Canada now and do not have Giovanni’s tel# with me. Can you provide it or email it to me? Thank-you.

  15. Lee – a friend checked with Giovanni. Yes, they have them.
    Thx..

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