If you arrive in Panama and look for a prepaid mobile service, read on. This post is for you if you:
- Don’t speak Spanish (or your Spanish is weak)
- Stay in Panama longer (for months rather than weeks), but not permanently
- Look for a prepaid plan not requiring a credit card
- Need a data plan
- Want good coverage in Panama
- Like it cheap
This profile describes me so I will share my solution to getting a prepaid mobile service in Panama in a step-by-step procedure. Let’s begin!
Selecting the Wireless Carrier
Panama has four mobile network operators, namely:
- Más Móvil aka +móvil (by Cable & Wireless)
After some research, I have selected Más Móvil. My reasons were the following:
Maintenance is simple (once you get the SIM card). The phone can be refilled without talking to anyone. No need to go online, or download an app, or give a credit card number.
Más Móvil offers a decent data plan. For $10 you get 300 minutes, 1.5 GB of data with free WhatsApp connections, all valid for 30 days. (Since WhatsApp is very popular in Panama, you tend to use it often. Consequently, it’s a useful option to have.)
They have good coverage. I’ve had good connectivity while traveling across Panama, including islands.
No need to pay for the service when you are not in Panama. This is a big advantage compared to monthly recurrent plans. When you come back you reload it again.
Works internationally. I have called both the USA and Europe from Panama for what it looked like a local rate.
In summary: I have been using Más Móvil for almost a year and I am happy with it.
Disclaimer: I do not benefit in any way from recommending their service to you.
Obtaining Más Móvil SIM Card
The SIM card needs to be installed in your cell phone to start the service. Getting it is a hassle, as there are some hurdles to overcome. You have to do it only once though.
Hurdle 1: You can’t get a SIM card at the Panama City Tocumen airport when you arrive. There are only some vending machines that sell grossly overpriced SIM cards. Don’t buy them.
While you are at the airport, you can use the free airport WiFi to contact people and arrange transportation (e.g. with WhatsApp). The WiFi is free for 30 minutes.
Hurdle 2: It is best to buy the SIM card at Más Móvil office, so they can install and initialize it for you. There are several locations throughout Panama City. I have purchased mine in the popular Multiplaza Mall.
The SIM card costs only about $1, but you’ll need to pre-fill it with a few dollars to start the service. Pay cash. Some Spanish may be required at this point, as not everybody speaks English.
Refilling Your SIM Card
Once you have the SIM card installed, all the rest is easy! You need to buy a mobile refill card (tarjeta de recarga) every month and follow the instructions below.
You can buy them in grocery stores, mall stands, and in most convenience stores, i.e. everywhere. I usually buy one for $15 (explanations to follow). The cards don’t expire, so you can buy a supply of them.
The back of the card contains a 16-digit secret code, which you reveal by scratching the back with a coin. Enter this code using your phone’s keypad as follows:
*166*1234567890123456# Send (i.e. press the call/send button)
Your account is now reloaded (confirmation to follow via text message). To check your prepaid balance, enter *165# Send. The pic shows the response screen. When you leave Panama, you simply stop reloading.
Choosing a Data Plan
Usage charges are applied against your prepaid balance at the standard rate (tarifa ùnica) that is expensive for data (over fifty bucks per GB). Therefore, buying a data plan is a necessity.
Entering *456# Send on your keypad will display a menu with the choice of data plans. I chose the plan that I mentioned earlier (option 1). When you activate the plan, you apply $10 from your prepaid balance to the plan. Now you are good for 30 days!
Once the plan is activated, entering *456# Send displays the menu with the balance of minutes and data remaining in the plan.
In this solution, you use a different (local) SIM card in each country you stay long term. Replacing the SIM in your phone is a slight hassle, but saves you roaming charges. (International data roaming can be very costly!)
Additional benefits: you don’t pay for the service when out-of-country and you have a local number. It may come in handy. I assume that you have an unlocked phone that accepts other SIM cards.
If you are interested in more detail or want to share your experience, give me a shout. I would love to hear from you.