Cell Phone Services In Panama: A Near First World Experience

Being Cell Phone Savvy In Panama

Imagine yourself standing on the deck of a sturdy boat, a beautiful, sunny day ahead of you, and just in front of your vessel, a small island and city…

You are minutes away from the dock and sandy footpath that leads to the beach…

Soon, you’ll be focused on gathering your things to disembark, but the beautiful panorama distracts you momentarily. Quickly, you take your cell phone out from its familiar pocket, lean back to take as wide a shot of the scene as you can, then lean in and take a selfie.

After a couple more swipes on the screen and before the phone is even slid back into its pocket, photos have been sent to friends and family in three states and on two different continents. It’s quite the single-handed accomplishment—literally!
Having been an expat in the days when the phone booth was the only way to reach folks back home, I am thoroughly satisfied with what a reliable cell phone and nearby tower can accomplish, these days. And with so much competition amongst service providers, the deal is even sweeter.

The question is: Which deal is the sweetest for you in Panama?

The answer to this question partially depends on what kind of phone and service you had before leaving home.

In some cases it might be best to start from scratch—new phone, new plan.

A variety of companies make this easy enough to do. The big names, Más Móvil, Claro, Movistar, and Digicel all offer their own combo of data, talk, and text. At the top are contract plans that can sometimes run you more than what you would pay in the First World. These provide a smartphone, the most airtime for calls and texts, and access to the fastest internet speeds… at least until you exceed the plan limits.

As you move down the pay scale, you simply move up the date you’ll go over those limits because your amount of service is reduced accordingly—the phone provided will not be top-tiered, either. The same rules and principles apply to non-contract plans, too.

Do The Math

Let’s put this in perspective with some numbers…

I’ve seen Más Móvil advertise a promotion for an 18-month contract plan, a bottom-rung phone, and 2G of data for US$12.99 a month. Pretty cheap, minus the obligation, if you want to be free of these types of things.

I’ve seen Movistar advertise a regular-priced, no contract plan, with no phone, and 51G of data for US$150 a month. Pretty exorbitant—you’re overpaying for something you’ll never use up; plus, you have to buy a phone.
This limit on service, it appears, is the biggest adjustment you’ll have to make if you’re used to a phone plan from, say, the United States. The so-called “unlimited” plans Americans and others are accustomed to are not industry standard for Panama… more on the effects of that in a minute. But adjust you must.

You may want to roam the Earth perpetually… but roaming charges for service in another country are the pits. You’re going to have to get local service.

The same big companies I mentioned provide a range of prepaid plans for compatible devices, some for as little as a dollar a day. Many independent retailers sell the SIM cards for this type of phone service, a Claro or Digicel rep may even hand one to you as you are walking down the street. Generally speaking, they cost US$2.

If you buy a phone card for a few more dollars to activate your service, you can be up-and-running on Panama’s network for US$5 in less than five minutes from the time you install the SIM card in your phone. For cost and efficiency, this beats North America hands down. US$15 is sufficient to cover my data and voice needs for an entire month in Panama (Wi-Fi is available in many locations to save on data).

Some expats arrive and opt for a mix of the two scenarios by bringing their current, unlocked phone, but setting up new service in Panama; that’s what I did. It felt good not having to replace my tried-and-true phone from the States. Actually, to see it power up with a local SIM card and take messages for the first time felt like I was getting one over on the system!

And Speaking Of Getting One Over On The System…

The defining differences in phone service between the First World and the Third World—unlimited service plans versus limits on service, and how this difference changes phone usage habits from one place to the next.

Residents in Panama have utilized a number of messaging apps to overcome caps in service, particularly the limits placed on text messages and phone calls each month.

One popular app, WhatsApp, has risen to the top. Haven’t heard of it yet? In Panama (and much of Latin America), it is impossible to reach certain people without it. This app uses either data or Wi-Fi to send and receive messages, pictures, calls, contacts, documents, etc., with minimal file space. Your account balance can essentially remain the same all month. The only catch, your contacts need WhatsApp, too. Again, in Panama, this doesn’t take much convincing; this is the default means of communication for most of us.

The challenge can be to persuade your uncle in Ottawa or yours parents in Ohio why they need to go through the trouble of downloading anything to their phone when they already have unlimited service (I speak from experience). But once that is done, you have now joined the thousands of people in Panama who have a leg up on their phone company.

What If Your Phone Breaks?

Panama has really grown by leaps and bounds over the past six years. The variety of brands and products available to consumers has blossomed immensely, as well. It used to be, if you wanted a phone, you could get a black-and-white Nokia or aspire to save for a Blackberry. Without much mid-range selection or a middle class to push demand, that duopoly held sway in the early days.

Nowadays, other names dominate and have flooded the Panamanian market with low- to top-tier phones. As a result, a thriving retail and repair market has developed to accommodate everyone’s passion for gadgets.

Places to buy phones, accessories, and have them repaired when they fail are a dime a dozen. The sheer number of choices in these stores will make your head spin, but, more importantly, what is being sold is consistently of good quality. Competition in the free market here is so dense that if you even sense you are not getting the best deal on a product or repair, you can immediately take your money two doors down and do better. You have to see it to believe it.

From my experience with getting phones and tablets fixed in Panama City, I would make one recommendation: Take a good look at the repair station of the person you are taking your precious phone to.

Is it clean or disorganized? Do you have to wait in line or is it empty in the store? These are key indicators of the thoroughness and quality of the worker. I can’t think of anything more annoying than a newly repaired phone permanently displaying the repairman’s oily fingerprint on the inside of its screen because he does sloppy work.

You Can Get Spoiled Here…

Sizing up cell phone service overall in Panama, it is a satisfying experience.

Limits that exist in service plans here are a change from the usual for many of us, but getting around these minor hindrances is possible. And it just might be that you don’t have any overages, regardless of where you live, so no love lost.

I found that the price to keep my phone chiming in the United States is the exact price to cover the cell phone needs of three people with comparable service in Panama City. You’ll likely experience the same reduction in cost.
Being able to walk into a shop and select from a wider variety of phones than even available at the largest U.S. electronic stores allows you to fine-tune a purchase. You can even find phones that hold two SIM cards at once, a very handy feature if you will be traveling around or back and forth. Without having to shop online, you can test the phone in hand and walk away satisfied; no need to compromise.

Panama’s networks have a lot going for them, whether you are here part-time or full-time, no need to economize your usage here.

So lean back, take in as wide of a shot of that island panorama as you can…

Take that selfie and send it off as proof you made it…

And then call your family back home and tell them to come visit!

Matthew Pond
Panama Insider