This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.
General Availability: High
Quality of Bandwidth: Medium
Frequency of Internet in Campgrounds: Average. Camping in a hostel or hotel, there will be internet. Camping at a national park, there won’t be any access.
Frequency of Internet in Hotels: High
We spent just under three weeks in Panama, and although that seems like a long time we didn't see much of the country. We spent a few days in Boquete, a few more in Santa Fe, and then headed to the Azuero Penninsula. We stayed a week on Playa Uverito near Las Tablas and then went to Panama City for a few days to arrange the shipment of our car to Colombia.
In general, internet is available everywhere. There were small internet cafes in every town, and several in tourist areas. Some restaurants and coffee shops had internet, but not as many as you’d think. Surprisingly, in the town of Boquete which is known for its huge selection of coffee shops, we drove around for more than an hour looking for one that internet without luck.
We only camped two places in Panama: Boquete and near Laguna Yeguada. The place we stayed in Boquete was a hostel and had wireless in the common area. Laguana Yeguada is a protected park and the list of amenities started and ended with a pit toilet.
As usual, bandwidth quality was all over the place. The house we rented in Playa Uverito (near Las Tablas) had painfully slow and unreliable internet. Our hotel in Panama City had shockingly fast internet which worked about half of the time we were there.
Like the rest of Central America, don’t count on fast anything. Panama is better than most other countries, but not without issues. If you need reliable connections pick up a 3G USB modem.
There are several options for setting up a USB modem in Panama. Claro sells a prepaid modem for $33.99, and we don’t think it comes with any free time. Recharging costs for Claro are listed here. Prepaid packets range between $1 per day and $15 per month.
We attempted to buy a Claro SIM and install it in our unlocked modem. Even with the right APN, the card only worked for a few minutes. Our modem may have been blocked, but we don’t know for certain.
Cable & Wireless (branded as Mas Movil) did not offer prepaid modems, but they did let us buy a SIM and said it would work in our unlocked modem. The employees at the store were very helpful and offered to set it up for us. They also said that if it didn't work, they said they would refund the cost of the SIM.
We put the SIM in our phone and signed up for a one day data package (call *465# and follow the prompts). After signing up for the data package we put the SIM into our unlocked modem and plugged it into a laptop. We setup a new connection profile using the APN I looked up online using our phone. (See the Costa Rica Phone and Wifi Report for how to set this up.)
The Cable & Wireless setup worked fine. The connection speeds weren't great, and out at Playa Uverito the signal was terrible. A lot of the time we were on Edge or slower networks. Moving the SIM to the phone every time we wanted to sign up for another day was also a pain. But, all in all, it was substantially cheaper than buying the Claro modem.
Movistar and Digicel also operate in Panama, although we asked at both offices in David, and neither sold prepaid modems. Digicel does advertise on their site that you can setup an unlocked modem by installing a prepaid SIM.
Cost for a SIM card is about $5, but it usually includes $5 of free time. Cable & Wireless (aka Mas Movil) told us the cost to call the US was $.04 a minute. It sounded too good to be true, and it was. The actual cost is $.04/ minute international surcharge on top of the regular $.09 a minute to make regular calls. Claro and Movistar have similar rates, about $.12-$.14 per minute.
The week before we left Panama we discovered an international packet that cost $2.00 for 60 minutes of phone time to call the US. With Cable & Wireless call *123# and follow the prompts. This type of packet is common throughout Central America, but is often not advertised. Check your provider’s website, and watch for the promo text messages on your phone, this is how we found out about it.
Internet in hotels and internet cafes is your best bet. Don’t count on it in restaurants or café, except in some areas of Panama City. If you need reliability get a 3G USB modem and stick to the beaten path.