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.