Recently I was in Panama City for a day, before flying back to the US for a family wedding. In my hotel room, I went through the ritual that’s becoming familiar to all of us internet-connected travelers: I checked into my flight online and then tried to download my boarding pass.
I don’t know what happened, but between a very slow internet connection and who-knows-what, I was unable to get the boarding pass. My check-in was fine, but no printed proof.
So I took a different tack. I picked up my smart phone and went to the airline’s website where I was able to download the confirmation for mobile devices.
Turns out it’s a little QR code.
I assume when I get to the airport I just hold my phone up to a reader somewhere that will scan that QR code and spit out a boarding pass for me. I’ll let you know for sure after I’ve done it.
This is not the first time since I arrived that I’ve relied more on my phone than on my computer.
Not everyone needs — or even wants — the level of connectedness I have. But I’m very happy I chose a smart phone that lets me receive my email, browse the internet, and take advantage of GPS navigation.
If you’re thinking about a smart phone to take overseas with you from the US, there are some things you should know up front.
Buy an Unlocked GSM Phone
In the US, most phones are “locked” to a specific provider — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc. This means if you want to change providers you can’t expect the same phone to work.
Most countries don’t do this. In most parts of the world you purchase a phone and you can use it with any provider you want.
If you want to take your US phone abroad you’re likely to have a problem.
The solution is to buy an unlocked phone.
You also need to choose a phone (and service provider) that uses GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications). GSM is the standard throughout Europe, Asia and Central and South America.
In the US, Sprint and Metro PCS use a non-GSM system, so if you want a phone to use there, choose a different provider as well. (You can see more information about these standards here.)
You can find unlocked phones on eBay, Amazon.com and several other places.
Make sure the voice and data will work in the country(s) you plan to visit
If you want to use your phone for calls in multiple countries, buy a quad band device. It’ll work for voice calls almost anywhere in the world.
Data’s a little trickier, and sadly I learned this the hard way.
In the Americas you have your speedy 3G and 4G networks. In Europe and Asia, they use a different system.
Unaware of this, when I bought my unlocked Android phone, I chose one made for the European market. If I go to Europe or Japan, I’ll enjoy lightning fast data connections. Unfortunately, in the US and Panama, my internet is s-l-o-w.
Lesson learned, so I hope you can benefit from my mistake.
Rick Bird says
Hey Susanna: enjoying your blog. Actually coming to Panama week of 5/14-20 and plan on making Las Tablas one of my stops. Any info on long term rentals and/or an overnight stay would be greatly appreciated.
BTW I’ve had excellent comm using my IPad in Belize, and Ecuador, including Netflix, home town Internet radio, email etc. Also use Magic Jack on IPad for calls back to US. ($20 a year). 🙂
Hope to hear from you.
Rick, would be happy to share what I know about Las Tablas with you.
I recently got an unlocked GSM smart phone (one destined for sale in the UK). It is my first smart phone and I confess to being very naive about the operation of these devices. I managed to get service from AT&T here in the states and it worked fine, except the internet was very slow — seemed even slower than dial-up. I brought it into the AT&T local store and let some of the young employees there play with it. While they sell the same “locked” version, they were rather fascinated to play with an “international” phone — and play with it they did, as they had no clue what was wrong. What I learned from these “kids”.. err, I mean young employees, is you can’t be afraid to play with your phone and change settings “just to see” what might happen. After a while it started working FAST! It seems there are “several” network settings and you need to go into that part of your menu system and try to find the right one. It might work for you too!
p.s. the mobile network setting on my phone is now set to GSM/WCDMA (AUTO MODE) — your options may be called by different names.
Phil, that’s very good to know! I’ll take another look at mine. Is your phone able to use the 3G/4G network now that you’ve changed those settings?
Yes, the 3G/4G service works perfectly now.
Of course when I got service (SIM card) from AT&T initially, I purchased a “data” plan — which they require you to do if you have a smart phone. Because I had the data plan, I was supposed to automatically get the 3G/4G connection, which is why everyone (most of all, me) was so perplexed why this was not happening. The network setting did it–and while this seems (in retrospect) an obvious fix, it was not because the local AT&T store employees here have only used their own “locked” phones which apparently don’t have these menu options, so they didn’t know what to look for.
I am traveling overseas soon and will see what I can do with the phone once I am out of the country (I will need to buy a SIM card in whatever area I happen to be for it to work, of course). First stop is Panama City on the 15th, I’ll let you know if I can get it to work there. By the way, do you know, off hand, where I can get a SIM card in Panama City? I’m hoping there will be a booth at the airport selling them, but I don’t know for sure.
Thanks for the great blog, I really find it helpful — and it is the number 1 reason why I am scouting Panama on this trip.
Phil, I know they have cell phone shops in the airport, and I would imagine they’d all have English-speaking employees. You should be able to walk into any one of them to get a local SIM card, and prepaid service is quite affordable. I used Movistar, and now that my husband’s arrived we’re getting him set up on Claro so we can compare the two. I got my SIM card in Las Tablas when I arrived here, so I don’t have any personal experience with it in Panama City.
Let me know how it works out for you!
I’m back. I got a SIM card at the airport as you recommended (and yes, they did speak English reasonably well). My phone worked with voice and data and the data was very fast. 3G and 4G (depending on what tower I could reach). I used Moviestar for my service. Thought I’d let you know.
Good to hear, Phil. I’ve been reasonably happy with Movistar service here in Las Tablas.
I will be in Panama this week. Do you know if I can purchase a Movistar pre-paid SIM that I can then use to activate a data plan? I see where Movistar has data plans and am curious whether I can get one at the airport. Any suggestions on how to stay “connected” would be most appreciated.
That’s exactly what I did. I brought my unlocked phone down with me, walked into a Movistar store and got their SIM with data. I spend about $10/month on calls and texts, the data plan is $15 each month. I’m sure Movistar has a kiosk at the airport, but if not you’ll find them all over. Of course, since I’m living here I have my computer as well as my phone.
With your phone you should be able to use Skype, either through the data plan or with a WiFi connection in your hotel, restaurant, etc. There are other ways to stay connected as well. . . perhaps it’s time for me to write an article on just that. 🙂