Well, we’re on the home stretch of our super-long border run to Nicaragua. We’ve had ups, downs, and plenty of sideways moments – especially when it comes to internet / data with our phones. With that in mind, I thought to myself; “self, these phone shenanigans would make for some good blog material”. And then I thought to myself; “self, you really should use the word ‘shenanigans’ more”. So I listened to myself and am now sharing with you the phone shenanigans (or differences and similarities) of pre-paid cell phone plans in Nicaragua & Panama cell phone plans because I know this interests you my faithful reader. Shenanigans.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you know you’ll need a SIM card for that country, and those will vary slightly in price as well. From our experience, we needed to go to an authorized dealer/carrier to get SIM cards, or a “Cheeep” (chip).
Okay, let’s start off with Panama cell phone plans…
In Panama you buy a $5, $10 or $15 card for your carrier of choice. Said card comes in a tamper-proof plastic wrapper. Next, you tear into the wrapper like a kid on Christmas morning in order to reveal the card…which was already visible through the plastic, but inaccessible due to the aforementioned plastic wrap.
But here’s the thing, you then get to take a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter and scratch off one of those silver scratch areas like you’re going to win something, much like those scratch-n-win tickets from back home. It has to be one of the finer moments in pre-paid phone history.
From there, you get a PIN number, and depending on carrier, you dial a series of digits plus your PIN. What this does is it tops up your account. Now, if you want internet/data, you’ll need to tell your carrier you want to allocate some of your account to data. So for example, if I want to allocate all of my $15 card to internet/data with +Movil, I press *456# and follow the prompts to add desired data. You have to be careful though, because when your phone is out of data but you have phone minutes/balance, if you have things like Facebook notifications coming through it’ll eat up your account balance and you may have to buy more data AND more phone minutes. Shenanigans, right!
And now, phone plans in Nicaragua…
In Nicaragua, they don’t have pre-paid scratch-n-win cards like Panama does, so you need to go to a pulperia (a corner store otherwise known as a Chino in Panama). But not just any pulperia, it has to be an “authorized dealer”, or in this case, a pulperia with a sign that says “recarga aqui” for your carrier. You tell the pulperia dude how much money you want on your account and they phone it in for you to add it to your account. And then when that money is added to your account, like Panama, you then need to tell the carrier how you want to allocate the funds – either to phone minutes (default) or to data/internet.
That’s great dude, but what about the costs?
Here’s the deal on price.
Data in Panama cost us $15 for 30 days with 3 GB which we never use up. Even tethering we somehow never used that 3GB. We would also periodically buy a $5 card for phone minutes which would last forever because if someone phoned us we would let it ring, and then we would WhatsApp that person and say “why are you phoning me”? Seriously though, don’t phone me.
In Nicaragua, internet/data is a little more expensive, and I think it’s more closely monitored. For 150 cords (Nicaraguan Cordoba, not corduroy pants) we could get 7 days of data or 500MB of data, which ever came first. That’s $5.45 USD. So let’s recap and play with some math…
If I want a month of data in Nica: I need to go to a pulperia four times and pay $22 and I get 2GB of data over 28 days. Oh, and I forgot, you have to give the pulpleria proprietor a quarter to top up your account for you, so there’s another $1, bringing our total to $23 for 28 days.
If I want a month of data in Panama I need to go to a Chino, buy a scratch-n-win cad to get my PIN and top up my account for $14.99 over 30 days.
But wait you say, why not just have pulperia dude in Nica top you up with enough that you could buy a month of data? Because here’s the deal in Nica; if you use ALL your data, but you still have, let’s say 2 more days to go, and you go and top it up with more money, you still have to wait those 2 days for that “contract” to expire. I use “contract” as that’s what it might as well be. You’ve said “I’ll use this data over 7 days”, and they say “Yes, you’re committed to these 7 days…but you might not have any data left”. They’re like Kit Ramsey in Bowfinger…Gotcha Sucka!
But wait you say…AGAIN?! Why not just monitor your data so you know how much you’re using and adjust accordingly? Because…
There are similarities with both country’s systems though. Things like:
- In both countries…I still have no idea what “H+” and “E” mean on my Samsung phone. I just know one is better.
- In both countries…I still get a $hitload of text message “Promos” from every carrier.
- In both countries…You probably want more than one SIM card as signals are better with some carriers than others depending on where you are.
- In both countries…We cross our fingers and toes in hopes that when we attempt to top up our accounts that it actually goes through and we’re not wasting $5-$15.
So, we’re looking forward to our return to Panama, if anything to save money on phone data…and save our sanity…and save time…but not save on spam messages…or Bowfinger movie references (two in one post…gotta be a record).