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I just retuned to Panama from a two week trip home to Kentucky and I thought I would share one of the biggest complications I used to face when going home: setting up prepaid cell phone service.

In Panama setting up a prepaid cell phone service is a breeze. Just head over to your local mini super, electronics shop, street vendor, or kiosk / store at the mall and they will give you a prepaid SIM card for your phone in minutes. The service is cheap (I pay $15 a month for a 3GB data plan) and reliable enough. Another perk is that your phone number lasts for years on the SIM card even if you don’t use it. When I made a few trips to Panama before moving here it was great being able to pop my Panama SIM card in my phone as soon as I arrived and my service was still active.

If only it was this easy in the U.S.

I have dealt with AT&T’s GoPhone service and T-Mobile’s prepaid plan and with both services I have dealt with the same issue: The phone number and SIM card expires if you do not use it or load money on it every 90 days. This was a problem for me since I go home about every 6 months.

For the first few visits home I would go to the cell phone store, get a new SIM card, activate my service, and then accept that I would have to do this all over again for my next visit home. It was such a hassle and something I got sick of dealing with.

So I found the loophole

After doing some extensive research I found the “loophole” to keeping prepaid cell phone service in the U.S. active past the 90 days of not using it.

This is what you have to do:

[adrotate banner=”18″]1. Visit THIS LINK and order the T-Mobile prepaid SIM card kit and have it shipped to the address you are staying at. If you have a Miami forwarding address in Panama you could have it shipped to that so that you can activate the SIM card as soon as you land in the airport in the US. If neither of these are possible, find the nearest T-Mobile store to where you are staying at. You must use T-Mobile service for this to work.

2. Once you have the SIM card follow the included instructions to activate it. You will need to do this in the U.S.

3. The next part is key and is required to keep your account open for longer than 90 days of not using it. You need to load $100 on it which upgrades your account to Gold Rewards Status. When your account becomes Gold Status it allows all of your refills to keep the account active for a year after every refill instead of 90 days. After adding the $100 you will need to refill the account with a minimum of $10 a year to keep it active for another year. The original $100 that you put on the account will expire after a year if you do not use it. Even if you don’t use the entire $100 it’s kind of worth not having to deal with activating new service every time you go home.

4. Sign up for T-Mobile’s $3 daily plan. For $3 a day you get unlimited text, phone calls, and data (first 200 mb are at 4G speed and then it switches to edge). The good thing about this is that you only get charged on the days you use it. So once you return back to panama the charges will stop until you go back to the U.S.

That’s it! Now whenever I return to the U.S. I’m able to pop my T-Mobile SIM card in my phone, have service the second I land in the airport, and my $3 daily plan resumes. Also, all of this is assuming that you have an unlocked phone that will accept SIM cards from other carriers. If your phone isn’t unlocked there are plenty of websites online that can unlock it or head to one of the Chinese electronic stores in El Dorado and they can probably help you out.

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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