- Using a phone in the Philippines is easy and cheap.
- Nearly all cellular communication is through text, not voice.
- Unlocked, dual band SIM phones will work fine here.
- Turn of your cellular data when you arrive!
In addition to lechon baboy and videoake, Filipinos truly love their cell phones. Even in a country dealing with rampant poverty, approximately 98% of the population has at least two cell phones per person. The Philippines is also known as the text capital of the world, with most Filipinos able to churn out texts at an astounding rate, often without even looking at the keyboards. All in all, the Philippines cranks out about two billion texts a day! On a side note, you’ll also see quite a few Filipinos reading and writing texts while riding their scooters – yeah, it might make the driving conditions a little more sketchy, but it does add to the excitement of getting from point A to point B……
Note that most Filipinos don’t have smart phones. Typically, they prefer to utilize “old school” NOKIA phones that don’t have a dedicated keyboard for texting. Although I was never able to become proficient in single thumb texting, it doesn’t seem to slow them down in the slightest.
CAN I BRING MY PHONE WITH ME?
I brought a few phones with me from the United States and they all work fine. High-end cellphones are typically more expensive in the Philippines than in the US (sometimes MUCH more expensive), so you might want to consider buying one in the West and bringing it here.
Basically, for your phone to work here, it needs to fulfill the following requirements:
- SIM CARD: The phone has to have a SIM card. If it is a Verizon or Nextel phone (or CDMA), it won’t work here.
- UNLOCKED: The phone has to be “unlocked” (also called “openline” here in the Republic). Cell phone companies in the US will typically “lock” the phone to their carrier, so that you can only use their system with it. There are ways around this – I got some AT&T iPhones unlocked on Ebay before I moved here, and they work just fine.
- DUAL BAND: The phone has to operating at 900 of 1800 MHz (dual band). If you unsure if your phone is dual band, you can check it out at http://www.worldtimezone.com/gsm.html
BUYING LOCAL PHONES
A large number of local companies assemble and sell cell phones in the Philippines, among them Cherry Mobile, Star Mobile, MyPhone and SKK. Depending on what you are looking for, the quality of these “openline” (unlocked) dual band phones is actually pretty good. The offer a wide arrange of “smart” (typically using the Android operating system) and “dumb” phones, and the price points for what you get compared to those in the West are pretty sweet. I actually picked up a MyPhone Inifiinity Lite a short time back (after losing an Android that I brought with me), and I am VERY impressed with its speed (Octo-core) and build quality – it’s sort of like the love child of an iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy, all of which cost about $200 USD. Also note that just about every local phone company makes their phones “dual SIM.” This is convenient as a lot of folks her use two SIM cards to make calls and texts to different companies – here it is a mix of Globe and Smart.
As when buying any phone, there are a few things to keep in mind. Among them are:
Is it real? – There are a lot of bootleg phones sold in the Philippines as the real deal. There is actually a counterfeit iPhone 4 going around now that is identical to the real one – it even uses the same charger/USB interface as an iPhone. It runs Android, however, and you can tell it’s not real by the weight. Samsung is also widely counterfeited. Just because it says “Made in Korea” on the back, doesn’t actually mean it is.
Build Quality – Pretty simple, really: Does it appear or feel cheap, with loose body panels or a strange clattering noise when you shake it? Does the screen have dead pixels and does it “flow” smoothly? If you squeeze the phone, does it make a strange “creaking” noise”? Make sure you also test the charger and also check the SIM slot with your own SIM if the salesperson will allow it.
Camera – This one is pretty important to me, as I take a lot of photos for personal and professional purposes. Take a few photos with the camera (normal, macro and front camera) and check them out, taking care to zoom in a bit to check the image quality.
Sound Quality – A few makers (Cherry, I’m talking to you) sometimes have weak speaker/earpieces. Test out the ringtones to make sure you will actually be able to hear incoming calls and text notifications.
Warranty – This one is pretty important. Most locally produced phones come with a one week replacement warranty and one year service warranty. Not all service warranties are equal, though. Cherry Mobile has to ship their phones for repair, and it typically takes three months to get it back. MyPhone – on the other hand – has more service centers and turn around is typically a week or two. Big difference. Above all else, be sure you keep your receipt and warranty card!
If you are considering buying a local phone, just do a Google search of the maker and the model you are considering and check out the (often exhaustive) reviews on local websites like www.unbox.ph, www.geekypinas.com, and www.pinoytechnoguide.com.
Unlike the West, not too many Filipinos have “locked in” calling plans like we have in the US. This is actually a good thing, as you are not held captive by specific carriers and you can change things up as you go along. It also means significant savings as most local carriers here have “promos” going on that make texting (and limited calling) quite the bargain. Right now, we have the SMART Mega250 plan – it costs 250 pesos a month ($5.58) and gives us unlimited texts to all networks, 100 MB of cellular data (which I never use), and 1 hour of free calls to other SMART subscribers. And since nearly all communication here is via text, this fulfills all our needs quite nicely.
If you want a data plan, you either need to purchase an expensive monthly plan from one of the carriers or buy “data load” which will allow you to utilize cellular data. With the widespread availability of Wi-Fi around the country, I have never seen a need for a data plan. I just turned it off when I got here, and I have not used it since.
A final thought: If you need to make international calls, SUN offers a SIM card just for that – cost to foreign countries varies, but it averages out to about 2 pesos per minute.
SETTING UP YOUR PHONE
This is actually a lot easier than it looks. Basically, you just need to buy a SIM (Globe, SMART, TM, etc.), insert it into your phone, then buy some “load” so that you can make calls and texts. You can identify stores that do this by the big banners and posters outside, typically saying something like “Load na dito!” (“Top up here”). If you are totally clueless (like I was), just sheepishly pass the phone to the store clerk and they will set everything up for you. Just make sure to give them a smile and decent tip (50 P or so) in appreciation.
Once you have a SIM and load, there are a few more things to do:
MEMORIZE your new number – typically something like 0918-123-4567.
KEEP YOUR SIM PUNCH OUT CARD – this is the card from which your actual SIM is taken from. There’s usually some writing (including your new phone number) on it. Put it in a safe place because if you ever lose your phone, your carrier can port over your old number just so long as you have the original punch out card.
TURN OFF YOUR DATA – Having celluar data on will make that 500 pesos load you just installed vanish within a few days. Make sure you turn it off!
BACK UP YOUR NEW CONTACTS ON THE CLOUD – Yep, I learned this one the hard way. If you have an Android phone, make sure to back up your contacts to your Gmail Google account – DON’T save it to your SIM! Likewise with iPhones – back up your stuff to their Cloud service, so that if your phone suddenly vanishes, you can restore a new one with your last backup.
GET USED TO TEXTING – I used to hate texting in the US, but here you will be doing it all the time. And don’t forget to preface your text with “Gud AM/PM…..” It’s just the polite way to start a cellular conversation.
There are a number of very useful smart phone apps that you can utilize in the Philippines. These are among my favorites:
Google Hangouts: Used in conjunction with a Google Voice account, this allows for virtually crystal clear phone calls to the United States for only 1 cent a minute. Requires a decent WiFi connection, and if you are calling other countries, it could cost a bit more.
Viber: Free calls over Wi-Fi to other people who are using Viber. Downside – you both have to be connected to WiFI for it to work.
Skype: Video calling and phone calls. Downside – needs s good WiFi connection and the calls cost some money.
Off-Line Navigation: Google Maps usually needs to update off WiFi to load new map areas. Cities to Go and NavDroyd offer offline GPS navigation options, are free, and have pretty accurate maps. They are still best when you can connect to Wi-Fi every now and then in order to update your location.
Games: Considering that you are going to find yourself caught in long lines every now and then, it’s good to have a few games on hand in order to pass the time. I don’t really get into the latest game crazes here (like Candy Crush Saga and Flappy Bird), so I just keep a Spades and chess game.
PROTECTING YOUR PHONE
- Having a screen protector and a soft case (called “jelly case” here) is a pretty good idea.
- It also rains a lot here, so I like to keep a Ziploc bag on hand (or in my backpack) to squirrel away cash, phone and other things in the event of an unforeseen downpour.
- Use a lock code. If your phone mysteriously vanishes, you don’t want some stranger getting access to your emails or other sensitive information.
- Don’t put your phone down on the table when you are out. It might get snatched.
- And again, to mitigate the loss, theft, failure of a phone here, make sure to make regular Cloud backups of your data and contacts!