Philippines - Telephones - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Philippines - Telephones


I do not claim to be an expert on telephone technology or the telecommunications industry. What I relate here is my own experience and a modicum of research.

Can I bring my American phone to the Philippines?

That depends. There are two kinds of phone network in the US: GSM and CDMA. Each has its technical pros and cons. I won't get into that here. The relevant point is: The Philippines is on CDMA. So if you have a GSM phone, it won't work here. You won't receive any signal.

I understand that the newer G4 and G5 protocols replace both GSM and CDMA. So if you have a G4 or G5 phone ... I'm not exactly sure what will happen.

The first time I visited the Philippines I had a GSM phone, and it simply did not work at all. My second and following trips I had a CDMA phone, and it partly works. I can make phone calls and send text messages. Data does not work. So most apps don't work.

Many phones have an option for "wifi calling", making calls over the Internet. With my current phone, this worked in some places but not in others. Perhaps if I understand more about the technical issues I would understand just why. I guess something about the Internet service is different in differnent places, but exactly how it's different I have no idea.

So long and short is: Don't count on your American phone working here. I'd bring it along and see what happens.

When I saw my American phone only partly worked, I bought a phone here in the Philippines. Now I have an "American phone" with an American phone number and a "Filipino phone" with a Filipino phone number. I've found this works pretty well. I don't carry my American phone around with me, I just keep it at home. But I check it at least once a day to see if I have any messages.

Another advantage of keeping an American phone number: Credit cards often send a code number to my American phone to verify a charge, especially if I'm trying to buy something on line. They insist on an American phone number. In most cases there's just no way to enter a Filipino phone number. Try to enter a country code and it says "invalid format".

Filipino Phone Service

Most people in the Philippines don't have "phone plans" like in the US. They "buy load". That is, instead of making all the calls you want and getting a bill at the end of the month, you pre-pay for a certain amount of usage. The phone company keeps track of your balance. As you make calls you use up this balance. Eventually you run out and have to buy more load.

There are two big cell phone companies in the Philippines: Global and Smart. There's also TNT, which is owned by Smart, and several smaller companies. But there are nowhere near the nundreds (?) of mobile companies in the US.

My phone is from Smart. They have an app you can download to your phone that tells you how much load you have left. If you don't want to download the app, there's a special number you can call that will tell you your balance. (I forget the number. The app is easier.)

Your load balance is used for calls and text. You can slso use it to buy data. When you buy data, it often comes with a very short expiration date, like 3 days or 7 days. Check the expiration before buying data.

You can buy load at kiosks in most malls and at many convenience stores. You can theoretically buy load with a credit card but I found that this doesn't work for me. They accept my credit card number but then it just spins and spins and never completes the purchase. I called Smart and they said it's a known problem and they're working on it. I'm guessing it's because I have American credit cards and a Filipino card would work, but maybe not.

I've found the easiest way to buy load is with GCash. See my article on money for a description of GCash. There's an option within the GCash mobile app to let you buy load, so you can buy load for your own or someone else's phone from there. The Smart app also has an option to buy load with GCash.

I've found that cell phone reception is good in most places I've visited. It's as good in the big cities as in in any city in the US. In the provinces it's iffier, but I've gotten service most places.

My Filipino phone does pretty much everything my American phone did in the US. I can place calls and send text, access the Internet, use Google maps, and run every app I've tried to run.

Load is not expensive. I bought $2 of load at a kiosk and the cleark referred to it as a "big load". Most Filipinos buy about $1 at a time.

Talking to friends and family back in the US

My American phone company published roaming rates to place calls from outside the US. But I discovered that these romaing charges did not apply if I made my calls over wifi. I don't know if this would apply to your phone company or not.

But the better way is, there are many apps that let you communicate over the Internet. If you're connected to wifi, these service let you talk for free. If you're not connected to wifi, it's still usually much cheaper than roaming rates. Many Filipinos use WhatsApp. There's also Skype and others. Both you and the people you want to talk to have to have copies of the same app, but that's about the only catch.

When I lived in the US I used WhatsApp to talk to my Filipina girlfriend. Now that I'm in the Philipppines I use WhatsApp to talk to my family back in the US. Once you install it it's pretty much like using regular texting. It also has the option to make voice calls or video calls.


There's a new law in the Philippines that all cell phones must be registered with the government. When I bought my Filipino phone there was a policeman at the phone store who registered it right there. I had to show an ID and give a Philippines address. At the time I didn't live in the Philippines, I was staying at a hotel, but they accepted the address of the hotel as my "Philippines address". I don't know if the policeman was giving me a break or if this is the law. They accepted my US drivers license as my ID.

The process seems to be a little more streamlined today. I just bought my wife a new phone and the clerk at the mall registered it. Well, she tried to register it, but part of the process is uploading a photo of an ID. The system wouldn't accept the photo she took of my wife's ID. But when we got home my wife did it herself and the system accepted her picture just fine. Maybe there was just a problem with the lighting at the phone store or something, I don't know. But the point is, there was some web site she went to to register the phone and could do it all herself.

Miscellaneous Notes

Most Filipinos are poor, but everyone seems to own a cell phone. Considering that even a cheap cell phone is like two week's pay for the average Filipino, I don't know how they afford them, but they do.

© 2024 by Jay Johansen


Jay Johansen May 14, 2024

Minor update: I got a message from my cell phone company that my registration was "incomplete" because it did not include a picture of my passport. Apparently they've tightened up the rules so a drivers license is no longer good enough. No problem, I took a picture of my passport and uploaded it and they were happy.

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