Nowadays it is virtually impossible to not have at least a simple mobile phone and we are not going to spend time trying to show you the benefits of such decision.
However, buying a mobile phone (and specially a smartphone) is not something to be taken lightly. Mobile telephony has progressed a lot over the years as you can see by the technology tags such as 2G (2nd generation), 3G and 4G. If you are a traveller the support for these bands can make the difference between having a paper weight (a mobile phone that you cannot use to communicate) or a functional phone.
In particular we are going to discuss it in terms of the band coverage in the Republic of Panama. So whether you are coming to Panama for a tourism, business travel or moving to Panama for some time, you would definitely want to know whether your current (smart)phone -or the one you want to buy- will work in Panama. The same applies if you live in Panama but want to buy a (smart)phone abroad for use in Panama and possibly elsewhere.
In general you should always be very careful when buying. For example, some years ago a relative bought a quad-band 3G unlocked cellphone in The Netherlands. It had the bands used in Panama and yet he ended up with a paperweight. According to the seller (a private company) as well as the provider the phone was unlocked -despite showing the carrier logo upon startup-. So, you can never be too careful!
Major Players in Panama
As of the time of writing mobile communications in Panama is carried by “only” four (4) mobile networks and there are no minor telecomunications companies whose brand makes use of other network’s infrasture.
- Movistar Panama (Telefónica from Spain)
- Cable & Wireless Panama (English company but also government funded) operating +Movil.
- Claro Panama
- DigiCel Panama
Of these the first two have the biggest market share in Panama. We are not biased towards any of them so you are free to choose your local carrier.
2G Coverage in Panama
Second Generation wireless phone technology was launched following the GSM standard (Global System for Mobile communications) back in 1999 (Finland).
2G Frequencies or Bands Movistar 850 MHz & 1900 MHz +Movil 850 MHz Claro 1900 MHz Digicel 1800 MHz & 1900 MHz
3G Coverage in Panama
The 3rd generation mobile telephony was commercially launched back in 2001 (Japan). There are several technology standards that make up what has been grouped as 3rd generation, some of these are:
- UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service)
- CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)
3G Frequencies or Bands Movistar 850 MHz & 1900 MHz +Movil 850 MHz Claro 1900 MHz & 850 MHz Digicel 1900 MHz
4G / LTE Coverage in Panama
The 4th generation wireless mobile communications was originally launched in Norway back in 2009. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is currently offers the fastest commercial speed in Panama and is available with all local carriers. LTE has been available since March 2015 in Panama.
LTE bands are given a number that identifies their operational frequencies. The LTE technology comes in two spectrums: FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) and TDD (Time Division). The TDD uses the same frequency band for the uplink and downlink (unpaired) and consist of LTE bands between 31 and 41. On the other hand the LTE bands of the paired spectrum are between 1 and 22. FDD or paired spectrum means that each band has two different frequencies, one for the uplink and another for the downlink.
4G Frequencies or Bands Movistar 700 MHz (Band 28) +Movil 700 MHz (Band 28) Claro 700 MHz (Band 28) Digicel 1900 MHz (Band 2)
Blocked or Unblocked?
While unlocked phones had been available for years in Panama all mobile phones sold by Panamanian mobile carriers were network locked, meaning you could not use them on another network.
In other countries these phones could be unblocked by the mobile carriers once the contractual term was fullfilled. However, in Panama -usually lacking good regulations protecting the customers- mobile carriers almost invariably refused to unlock a cellphone after the contractual term was fulfilled.
For some time now however, some mobile carriers in Panama have been selling their branded mobile phones (startup screen with their logo) in unlocked form. Meaning that even though the phone displays their logo upon startup and comes with some preinstalled (non-removable) apps, you were still able to use them on another network without problems
Good news are that as of April 1st, 2017 all mobile carriers in Panama are prohibited from selling or distributing blocked (network locked) cellphones.
Numeric Portability in Panama
Back in 2011 Panama became the first country in Central America to implement Numeric Portability. At first it meant that all owners of a SIM card (used in cellphones to give you access to your wireless telephony number) were charged a nominal fee of about $0.23 cents per month (prepaid and postpaid) even if you did not actually use the network. The proceeds were charged by the ASEP (Autoridad Nacional de los Servicios Publico).
Nowadays however, there are no monthly charges with regards to number portability nor users get charged anything for actually exercising their right to move over to another local carrier maintaining their current mobile number.
Is It Friendly?
Your mileage will vary with the various carriers in Panama and in major cities you should not have coverage problems. In rural areas connectivity can vary dramatically, sometimes voice is okay but the data speed drops considerably. For that reason Dual Sim cellphones are becoming popular for those users who might want to have SIM cards from two different carriers to have a fallback in their area.
Unfortunately there are not many laws protecting the privacy of the user in Panama, in fact we think there are none at all. For example, with some carriers you may easily solve your problems via Twitter, WhatsApp or some other channel whereas for another carrier you cannot solve the simplest of problems without being asked up front for your name, phone email and national ID before doing anything at all. The problem there being that your data is not protected and soon you will find yourself being called by name by businesses or donation seeking organisms without your approval!
Additionally keep in mind that things work quite differently here in Panama. While in Europe your privacy and choices are more or less protected, here they are not. It is very common for local carriers to bombard your SMS (Short Message Service) inbox with “promotional” messages which can be very annoying; and making them stop is quite an ordeal!
When receiving such “promotional” messages make sure to click on the refusal button because in some circumstances users have been automatically subscribed when making the message disappear with the back button (or some other function of your mobile phone OS) instead of explicitly refusing the offer.
When acquiring a local SIM (Panama) also make sure that your “new” number is not tied to any Premium SMS service. When we acquired our new packaged SIM card some years ago the prepaid balance magically got lower without even using it! After quite some calls it turned out that our “new” number was still tied to Premium SMS services that the former user had not deactivated. In principle the carrier should automatically clear everything prior to reassigning the phone number to a new user but this is the third world, sadly…
If you want to use your (smart)phone in Panama make sure your phone supports at least the 850 MHz GSM and UMTS bands and if your (smart)phone is LTE-capable, it should be able to use the most common LTE band being used in Panama which is band 28 (700 MHz).