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GSM phones in Central America

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I don't know how many world travelers are here at Binrev, but here it goes.

I am considering a trip to Panama sometime in the near future. I wanted to ask in this forum if there is any information that has been assembled all in one place regarding GSM phones in other countries. Specifically, I would like to know if it is possible to get a SIM card after arriving in a particular country. I would then like to insert that SIM into an unlocked handset so I can do local calling during my visit and avoid insanely expensive roaming charges from my American based carrier, AT&T.

For example, I know that such a thing is possible in England. Unlocked handsets and prepaid SIMs are much more common over there.

I have bought 3 different travel guides about Panama. I have Fodor's, Lonely Planet, and Frommer's. Frommer's, to their credit, is the only one that even mentions the phone system in the country of Panama. From what I read, it is possible to "rent" phones from the airport, but I hear it is more expensive. Better rates can be had from the mall in Panama, so I'm told.

As an aside, I think it would be useful to start providing information like this to the travel guide publishers. They might even be willing to pay for such information.

I will be looking into this and I will follow up with any results that I find.


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The above link is the best reference I have found on Panama. Not one travel guide has as much information as that page does.

Panama telephones, cellphone services and more.

Panama Phone Dialing Guide

Phoning TO Panama (from outside the country)

Country Code 507

(Code used to call Panama from another country)

To call Panama dial your International Access Code + 507 + local number (seven digits)


From USA 011 + 507 + seven-digit local number

From UK 00 + 507 + seven-digit local number

From Hong Kong 001 + 507 + seven-digit local number

Phoning FROM Panama to other countries (int'l long distance)

Prefix used to make an international call from Panama: 0

To call a country from Panama dial 0 + country code + area code + local number


To USA 0 + 1 + area code + local number

To UK 0 + 44 + area code + local number

To Hong Kong 0 + 852 + area code + local number

Discounted rates apply between 10p.m. and 7a.m. daily. An operator assisted call will cost twice the sum of a direct call. To make a collect or credit card call to the U.S., dial one of the access numbers. Public phones will require a deposit for the procedure.

AT&T 00-800-001-0109

Sprint 115

MCI 108

MCI 2810-108 (from a military base)

Phoning WITHIN Panama

There are no domestic access codes, just dial the 7 digit telephone number direct. All calls within Panama are considered local. (Useful to know: The first digit of the seven-digit number can indicate the destination of a call, as shown in the following table:)

Bocas del Toro 7

Chiriqui 7

Cocle 9

Colon 4

Herrera 9

Los Santos 9

Panama City 2

Veraguas 9

Good to know info about Panama Telephone service

--There are no area codes in Panama.

--Subscriber numbers contain seven digits.

--Toll-free and premium telephone numbers are not available.

--Cell phone numbers start with the prefix '6'.

--Callers must dial a '9' when trying to get an outside line from an office or other self-containe (PBX) telephone system.

--Subscribers can sign up for call waiting, voicemail, conference calling, and call forwarding services.

--The telephone system in Panama is controlled as a government monopoly; deregulation is due to begin in 2003.

Emergency and Assistance Numbers

Police 104

Fire 103

Ambulance 103

Directory 102

Panama Cell Phone information

Cell phone numbers are seven digits in length. More recent, and future numbers, have two-digit prefixes in the range of 60 to 69. Other prefixes include 208, 209, 218, 219, 408, 418, 708, and 718.

International calls to cell phones in Panama follow the format: country code [507] + seven-digit number.

Frequently Asked Questions regarding Cell Phones from visitors to Panama:

1. Will My Cell Phone Work in Panama?

Yes, if your home country service provider has a roaming agreement with a carrier in Panama and your phone is compatible; check with your home country service provider on these two issues before you leave.

Note: Panama's cell providers offer older digital TDMA 800 and new GSM 850 technologies. Travelers from GSM 900/1800 countries who are interested in a roaming agreement with a GSM 850 carrier should make sure their phone is tri-band (850/1800/1900).

2. Receiving Calls

Provided your home country service provider has a roaming agreement with a service provider in Panama and your cell phone is compatible with a network in Panama, your cell phone number travels with you. Your calls get through even if people don't know your location.

3. Making Calls

Dialing procedures are the same as for local cell phone users, which are identical to general telephone usage (see above for guide).

4. Local SIM Cards

Panama's GSM 850 cell phone networks allow the use of SIM cards. Cards with various payment options are readily available for use; however, before making a purchase, ensure that your cell phone is not locked to a specific network.

Local Panama Cell Phone Service Providers

Renting a Cell Phone

Travelers wishing to rent a cell phone may choose one of two options:

1. Before departure: Rent a locally compatible phone (short-term rental) before departure and have the advantage of cell service immediately upon arrival.

2. After arrival: Ask at your hotel for a local cellular phone rental service .

Setting Up a Local Account

Another option for cellular phone service is signing up with a local provider in Panama. This may be the most cost effective option if you intend to stay for an extended period.

Cellular Systems Available in Panama (All digital, no analog available)

Cable & Wireless Panama TDMA 800 n/a Web:



(BSC de Panama) TDMA 800 n/a Web:

TelCA Panama

GSM n/a Tel: [507] 263-4444

Fax: [507] 264-5962

Phone/Modem Plugs required

Illustration © Copyright 2001 by World Trade Press.

Telephone / modem plug adapters are available through iGo Corporation and other suppliers.

Panama Telephones: Public Phones

Considering the Panama Canal, and its significance to the international business community, it is no wonder that the phone system, as well as the public telephones themselves are easy to use and readily available. The Panamanian phone system ranks high compared with many of its neighbors'. Both coin- and card-operated telephones exist throughout Panama for public use. Coin-operated telephones accept 5, 10 and 25 centivos coins.

Coin/Card Telephone Instructions

Lift receiver

Wait for dial tone

Dial number

Insert coins or card

When call is completed, hang up and remove card

Note: These phones often reject nickels.

Card Telephone Instructions

Lift receiver

Listen for dial tone

Insert card

Dial number

Upon completion, replace receiver and retrieve card

Panama: Telephone Calling Cards

There are three fundamental types of calling cards:

--Those you purchase directly or indirectly from a local telephone monopoly.

--Those you purchase from third-party telecommunications suppliers.

--Those calling cards that are extensions of your current telephone service.

How They Work

Telephone Monopoly Calling Cards:

Calling cards can be purchased from stores or vending machines or through speciality suppliers prior to departure.

Calling cards purchased from the local telephone monopoly are generally used as if they were cash money in the pay telephone.

Cards are generally sold in incremental values. (i.e. 10, 20, 50)

Cards can be used for both local and long-distance calls.

To place a call simply lift the receiver, insert the card and dial the number. When the call is completed remove the card and retain until all value is used.

Third-Party Telecommunications Suppliers:

Calling cards can be purchased from stores or vending machines.

Calling cards purchased from third-party telecommunications suppliers often require that you call an access telephone number and/or enter an authorization code prior to placing your call.

Prepaid calling cards can be used for both local and long-distance calls.

Calling cards can be purchased in pre-paid disposable and pre-paid rechargable forms. Rechargeable cards can have value added at any time via the telephone or Internet.

To place a call simply lift the receiver, dial the access telephone number, the authorization code and the number you wish to reach. The cost of the call is deducted from the value of the card.

Your Existing Telephone Service Calling Card:

Obtain your calling card and country access telephone numbers before you leave your home country.

Cards can be used for both local and long-distance calls.

To place a call simply lift the receiver, dial the access telephone number, authorization code and the number you wish to reach. The costs are added to your regular telephone bill.

Information to Consider When Buying a Pre-paid Calling Card

--You should ensure the following information is either posted at the point of sale or included as a part of the packaging:

--The telecommunications supplier company name.

--List of countries where the calling card can be used.

--A number to reach the company's technical support if you have questions or problems.

--The calling card expiration date if one exists.

--The maximum charge per minute or unit for calls.

--Any additional surcharges, fees or taxes.

--The procedure for extending the card's time/value, if possible.

Telephone Call Back Services

You can (potentially) save significant sums when making calls in Panama by using a call back service. Fees for call back services vary widely, depending on the company and the type of service required.

How It Works

Call back service should be established before you arrive at your destination.

Call back service is not for temporary service or for traveling tourists. It can only be accessed from a predetermined number or numbers at your overseas location.

Call back service companies enable you to save money on calls by accessing another country's phone system in order to take advantage of lower rates. For example, a call back user in Argentina calls a number in the USA that automatically calls back and allows the caller to dial any number in the world as if they were in the USA. Hence "call back". The user is charged a premium on the USA rate, but for a total cost that is usually much less than the Argentinian rate.

How To Use

Select a call back service based on rates and services offered.

Provide the call back service with a telephone number in the country where you will be staying.

The call back service provides you with an access telephone number. This is the number you call when overseas to trigger a call back.

Dial the number provided by the service from the overseas telephone number that you provided and hang up after the 1st ring.

The service will immediately call you back at the telephone number you provided with a dial tone that allows you to dial any number in the world.

Panama Fax service

Fax machines are widespread, and service is generally good. Most commonly they are found in hotels and hotels.

Panama Telegram service

Most post offices and top-end hotels have telegram services.

Panama Postal Service

Mail to North America takes up to one week. Airmail to Europe takes about 5 to 10 days. Incoming mail could take considerably longer. It is best not to send anything valuable.

Hours of Service

Monday to Friday 6:30a.m. to 5:45p.m., Saturday 7a.m. to 5p.m.

Edited by m2mike

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