Having phone service while traveling is a must. You can lookup directions on the go with Google Maps, call an Uber, research things to do in the new city, see if a hostel / restaurant / bar has good reviews, contact people with Whatsapp, upload photos to Instagram and Snapchat to make people jealous, etc.
A lot of people get sucked into expensive international roaming plans or put their phone on airplane mode during the entire trip, but it’s actually simple to use your phone abroad. It just requires having an unlocked phone and purchasing a prepaid phone plan in the country you’re visiting. Or if you have T-Mobile you don’t have to do anything because they let you roam the world for free.
Here’s a quick guide on how to use your phone while traveling to Panama or anywhere else in the world:
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.
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 you’re phone is locked and you’re going to have to try one of the below methods to unlock it…
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 is bring up a long list of sellers offering unlock solutions and you can choose the best ones based on price and user reviews.
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 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 around $50 in Panama if you want to wait to get it while you’re here. But please buy a smartphone and not a simple phone that can only call and text. The reason for this is because in Panama people 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.
Setting up pre-paid phone service in Panama
Airport: Once you exit the baggage claim at the airport there are a few vending machines with SIM cards and an employee there to help you set everything up. This is great because you can immediately have your phone working before leaving the airport but they only have plans on Movistar which just gives you 1GB of data, some minutes and texts for $20. If you can wait it out then follow the below instructions to get the ultimate data plan.
Go With Digicel’s Prepaid Plan: Digicel has the most amazing pre-paid I’ve ever seen in my life. For only $15 you get an all-inclusive plan of 6GB of data, free data after 10PM, 150 minutes and 50 texts for a period of 30 days. They also have 1, 3, 7, and 15 day all-inclusive plans for even less money.
The problem is that they don’t sell Digicel SIM cards at the airport so you will need to go to a Digicel store at the mall or random cell phone shop on the street and they usually sell them. You just need to tell that that you want a prepaid Digicel SIM card and a refill card with the amount of the above all-inclusive plans. Hopefully they know how to setup the all-inclusive plan but if don’t here are the steps to activate it:
- Insert SIM card in your phone and wait for the Digicel icon to appear at the top.
- Load the refill card onto your phone if the people at Digicel didn’t do it. This is done by dialing *120# + scratch off code on the card + #
- Dial *111# and select option 1 (todo incluido) and follow the on screen instructions.
- Wait for the confirmation text that your plan is activated.
And that’s it! Enjoy your affordable prepaid phone plan in Panama! Now download these 20 useful smartphone apps in panama.