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Whether you’re traveling to Panama, Europe, or anywhere else in the world, having cell service during your trip offers a huge convenience and there’s no reason not to have it. You can utilize Google Maps instead of getting lost, use Uber instead of getting ripped off by a taxi, look up things to do, and most importantly – upload photos to social media.

Many people opt for subscribing to an expensive international roaming plan and this is not always the best way to go. There are much cheaper and easier ways to stay connected and after traveling quite a bit I have it down. These are my top tips on using your cell phone while traveling abroad.

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Locked vs Unlocked: If you signed a 2-year contract to get a cheaper phone it’s probably locked which means it will only work with your current service provider. An unlocked phone is free to work with any service provider.

SIM Card: This is the chip that is inserted into your phone and has your phone number on it. The phone will need to have GSM capabilities to work with a SIM card.

Pre-paid service: There is no commitment and you just pay for the phone service in advance.

My Favorite Methods

Subscribe to T-Mobile or Sprint: This only applies to Americans reading this post, but T-Mobile and Sprint DO NOT CHARGE ROAMING FEES. If you travel a lot change whatever carrier you have to one of these because you can use your phone like normal without the hassle of setting anything up. Verizon and ATT offers a roaming plan of $10/day to use your same service, which is fine for a weekend trip but that can get expensive for extended stays.

Prepaid SIM Cards: Signing up for prepaid phone service is the way to go and offers several benefits like having a local phone number and it saves you money. For example, a week of phone service in Panama that includes data, minutes, and texts for a week is only $5 on the Digicel network. The downside is that each country can be a little different to set up and if you don’t speak the language that can be another barrier. I find it best to do a little research beforehand on who the local service providers are and how much they cost. Many times you’ll see SIM cards being sold at the airport with a crazy upcharge so it’s better to wait and visit one of the cell phone stores at a mall and the staff can help you out. Be sure to tell them you want a data plan activated because if you only put the balance on without activating a plan it can eat up all the data quickly.

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Keep Go: It has taken me forever to find the perfect SIM card for traveling, but Keep Go may be it. I frequent Latin American countries quite a bit and while it’s cheap to set up local phone service in the countries I visit, it’s a bit of a hassle to swap SIM cards, add money, and activate service every time I cross the border. I’ve wanted to find a SIM card that either works all over Latin America or worldwide, and Keep Go has exceeded by providing service in 70+ countries (including all of Latin America). It’s a data only SIM card that gives you a full year to use the amount of data, rather than expiring after 1-month. The data is expensive though. $50 for 1 GB or $85 for 3 GB but you can stretch that out over the course of a year through several travels. My strategy is to turn off the data for most of the apps on my phone, leaving on the most important: Google Maps, Uber, Safari and Whatsapp. Everything else can wait until I have a wifi connection. I love this for a weekend trip from Panama to Colombia or a trip where I’ll be visiting several countries. Then if I’m somewhere for more than a few days I will go on and purchase a local prepaid SIM so that I can use my phone more freely. Visit THIS LINK to order a Keep Go SIM card and if you enter the code KEEPGOREF15 you’ll save 15% off your order.

Telcel: During my recent trip to Mexico City I bought a local SIM card from Telcel and found out the service works also works in the U.S. and Canada without any extra fees. It’s the cheapest roaming service I have found that works in the U.S. and has become my primary SIM card for trips back home. The most expensive plan is 500 MEX Pesos ($25), which gets you 2.5 GB of data + 1.5 GB of Whatsapp data + unlimited talk and SMS (you will have a Mexican phone number). They also have cheaper plans if you don’t need that much data. To use the service you need to purchase a Telcel SIM Card in Mexico or on Amazon. Then visit THIS LINK to add money to your account. The amount you add should coordinate with the rates located HERE (For example, if you add 500 MEX Pesos it will automatically activate the 2.5 GB data plan).

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Movistar: If you happen to be backpacking through Mexico & Central America then Movistar service is the way to go. For example, if you sign up for the service while in Panama it will also work in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico (Honduras is excluded). Activate enough service for a month and then buy a few of the top up cards to take with you to activate later on if you need to since this will need to be done in the original currency.

You Must Have An Unlocked Phone

You know that $199 iPhone you just bought and signed your life away to for the next two years? It’s probably locked. The exception to this rule is a Verizon iPhone 5 and up, which automatically ships unlocked even if you signed a contract.

The easiest way to test if your phone is unlocked is to insert a friend’s SIM card that has another carrier into your phone and do a test call to see if it goes through. If you can call and receive using your friend’s SIM card then you’re all set to go! If you can’t get the calls to go through then your phone is locked and you’re going to have to try one of the below methods to unlock it…

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Unlocking Your Locked Phone

Call your service provider: DO NOT go to your nearest cell phone store and ask them to unlock your phone. They are most likely not going to know what you are talking about and even if they did they are not going to know how to help you. All you need to do is call the 1-800 number for your service provider and explain to them that you will be traveling and would like to use a local SIM card in the country you will be in so you need your phone unlocked. Don’t let them talk you into signing up for their international roaming plan because these are never a good deal. If the customer service representative is having a good day and your account is in good standing they will usually put through a request to unlock the phone from their network. If you succeed in doing this then they will give you a code or a few other steps to enter into your phone for the unlock to take affect.

Online unlocking services: There are plenty of services available online that provide phone unlocking services but I’ve found the most reliable place for this is on eBay. Do a search on eBay for “your phone model + permanent + unlock”. This will bring up a long list of sellers offering unlock solutions and you can choose the best ones based on price and user reviews.

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Buy an unlocked phone: If you travel constantly then you really should invest in an unlocked phone. Prices on these can vary drastically and it really depends on the phone you want to get. If you want the newest iPhone or Samsung that’s out, this is going to run you about $800 for a brand new unlocked version. But you can find pretty good deals on unlocked versions of these phones on eBay or craigslist for under $200. When doing your online searching be sure to include “phone model + unlocked” and all of the compatible phones will come up in the search results.

You can also buy a generic unlocked smartphone for under $50 on Amazon. But please buy a smartphone and not a simple phone that can only call and text. The reason for this is because people outside the U.S. and Canada do not text, they Whatsapp. To send a normal text is very expensive because unlimited texting plans do not exist so everyone communicates with messaging apps that use data plans. If you don’t at least have Whatsapp installed on your phone no one is going to talk to you.

Other Ways To Roam?

The above methods are just a few of the easiest ways I’ve found to stay connected while traveling. What are some of yours? Leave a comment below.

Experience Panama


I'm Joey, a guy from Louisville, Kentucky that packed up and studied abroad in Panamá at the age of 20 and haven't moved back since. What started as a semester trip to Panamá has turned into 10+ years of living in Latin America and becoming a full-time travel blogger. I now rotate between living in Panama City, Bogotá, and Lima. Follow me on Instagram @joeybonura for more updates on my life abroad!

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