Unless you are staying for a few days to be spent mostly at the beach, the first thing you must do upon arriving in Cebu is get yourself a cellphone. These are absolutely essential if you are to be part of, or interact with, society in Cebu.
Actually you may only need to buy a SIM (for Subscriber Identity Module). These cost almost nothing - about 250 pesos or US $5 - but you do need a compatible cellphone. The SIM gives you your cellphone number, or your account with the cellular phone company. There is no activation wait, as is the case in some other countries. Insert your SIM and you'll be accessible instantly. SIM's have been evolving at a good clip since 2003, when the first high-memory SIM came on the market; you can now get a SIM which stores as many as 750 phone numbers and scores of text messages.
Shops selling cellphones and SIM cards are ubiquitous. There is no need for me to provide you with a list because cellphone shops are at every street corner, though it should be noted that - if you like malling - SM is a far better place to get a cellphone than Ayala, having far more shops selling cellphones.
One other thing to note is the "open line" concept. A cellphone handset is considered to be "open line" if it can be used with any carrier, i.e. cellular phone company. If you buy an "open line" phone, you can use it with any cellular phone company. Now, some phones are subsidised by the phone company and are not "open line." In most cases, however, you can have a technician at the shop - or at a nearby shop - turn a phone that is not "open line" into a phone that is "open line." This may be a illegal but has been common practice for a few years; as a result the great majority of cell phones sold in Cebu nowadays are "open line." Still, you should check with the salesperson whether a phone is "open line" before buying it, otherwise you will be stuck with one particular phone company no matter how much they disappoint you.
There are two major cell communications providers, and three minor ones. The two titans of the industry which own almost all of the market share are SMART Communications and Globe. A third player, Sun Cellular, entered the market in 2004. SMART and Globe each have a subsidiary, a separate company in name only, since the services provided by the subsidiaries are identical to that of the parent company and all infrastructure is shared. The subsidiaries are called Talk 'n' Text [for SMART] and Touch Mobile [for Globe]. The bulk of subscribers are with SMART and Globe.
There is little to choose between SMART and Globe. Sun Cellular, the upstart competitor, initially offered rates just about identical to the two established players, even though Sun's network coverage is still far inferior. Needless to say, this didn't get them anywhere, so they came out with something pretty astonishing: unlimited free texting and calling between Sun phones, and not just late at night. Wow! Needless to say, it worked. These days I see a lot of people carrying two phones around, one of them Sun - for staying in close touch with someone special or important - and one of them SMART or Globe, which are still preferred due to far wider coverage and better network availability.
Incidentally, there was a cellular phone company which also tried this - unlimited calling - but they were using an old analog network and it didn't work. The name - Party Phone - probably didn't help, either.
I've tried all three cellphone companies, and my personal recommendation is SMART, because - as far as I can tell - their coverage of the rural areas is slightly better and the service is more reliable than Globe's. One definite advantage of going for SMART is that the SIM packs have the phone number printed on the outside, so you can choose your number from those available at the shop you're at. (Sometimes, lazy clerks hide them and claim to have only one available. If you pester her, she will usually remember that she has a whole bunch.) The prepaid credits are also far easier to load with SMART; you just dial one number and that's it, whereas in the case of Globe you have to fiddle around with the pound key. The main advantage of Globe is that it is - and long has been - considered somewhat trendier to be with Globe, probably because of hip marketing and streetwise advertising.
If you have a credit card and don't mind having strangers look at your statements (reports from the credit card company which say what you used your credit card for recently), you can get a post-paid account, known as a "line." You'd have to go to SMART or Globe office - there are many, including in the malls - and sign up. Most people just buy a SIM, which in effect is an instant prepaid account. A limited amount of initial "load" comes with the SIM, and all you need to do is reload your account every now and then.
There are two ways to reload a prepaid account. The "traditional" way is to buy scratch-off cards at the ubiquitous cellphone shops, groceries, gas stations, or even the load guy shown at right. These cards, commonly referred to as "load," come in denominations of 300 and 500 (1000 is available at the official SMART outlet). Now, when purchasing prepaid cellphone cards at a gas station or sari-sari (neighborhood) store, don't ask for "pre-paid calling cards" or anything along those lines; the clerk won't have a clue what you're talking about. Say the name of the wireless company followed by the denomination. For example, if you're with SMART, say: "SMART 300". If you're with Touch Mobile, say, "Touch Mobile 300."
Lately the communications companies have introduced an alternative method, called e-load, or electronic load. If I'm not mistaken, this is a uniquely Filipino innovation. You can purchase load without buying an actual card. Just tell the clerk your cellphone number and the load will be automatically added to your pre-paid account, as soon as the clerk processes it using her cellphone. She should ask you to write your cellphone number down, or let you confirm it after she has keyed it into her cellphone. E-load is available in much smaller denominations than cards, starting at around 30 pesos - this is by far the most popular as Cebuanos prefer to buy anything and everything in the smallest quantity possible. Note that e-load is not sold at the same retail outlets as the cards; though some outlets, such as cellphone stores, have both, e-load is offered mostly by small neighborhood sari-sari shops selling everything from shampoo to rice.
The cellphone companies use a nasty trick to get you to buy more load if you are by any chance frugally-minded. The load expires - i.e. disappears into thin air - unless used within a certain time frame. The smaller the amount purchased, the quicker it expires. 30 pesos worth of load expires in about a day or two.
The load is consumed mostly in the form of text messages; most Cebuanos prefer to text rather than talk on the phone. One text message costs 1 peso. Yakking on the phone is strictly for the business elite who can afford it. If you're from the US, you've probably never texted before: note that you are not supposed to spell correctly when texting, since nobody bothers to spell correctly in order to save time and space. The number of characters which can fit into one text message is limited (some phones will let you exceed the limit but you will be billed for two or three messages, and the messages may be chopped up into constituent parts upon receipt, depending on the model of the recipient's cellphone). Here is a perfectly ordinary, polite text message: "wer r u n0w?"
The numeral zero (0) is often used as a substitute for the letter "o" since "o" is found on the same button as "m" and "n", and it therefore takes a second or so longer to type "now" as opposed to "n0w". Numerals may also be used to shorten the word. "Wait" can be spelled as "w8" and "forget" as "4get". "8" can also mean "it". Sometimes, the abbreviations are shocking to the pedantic writer of English: "design" becomes "dzyn", "really" becomes "rili", and "food" becomes "fud." Incidentally, "gud am" and "gud pm" mean "Good Morning" and "Good Afternoon," respectively. Oh, and "143" means "I love you", due to the number of letters comprising each word in that hackneyed old phrase. Strange, because "I hate you" results in the same number. Go figure!
Cellphone communication has developed its own jargon. A missed call is an instance in which the call was not answered. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the phone rang and rang while you were in the shower. Cebuanos will often send a text message - for one peso - and then make a deliberate missed call, lasting a fraction of a second, to check that the other person is within signal range. This is a verb. Example: "Oh no! My husband just missed called me!"
A dropped call is a call lasting less than five seconds. The caller will say a short phrase and abruptly hang up, because the first six seconds of a call are not charged. Apparently this is only true for Globe. This is another reason you should go for Smart, for it can be exceedingly annoying if someone starts dropped calling you - i.e., making a series of dropped calls to convey a message.
About 200 million text messages are sent every day in the Philippines. This amounts to more than 40 per day per cellphone user. The government and the communications companies have been arguing for almost a year now about a plan to tax text messages, but so far it hasn't materialized.
With that many text messages sent every day, it's not surprising that some lose their way. A misdirected text message is referred to as a wrong send. This is a noun. Example: "I just got another wrong send from Eddie. He must be high again."
In early 2004 SMART debuted a new product, called Pasa Load. The pasaload system allows you to transfer some of your load to a friend who also uses SMART or Talk n Text. It costs about a peso to transfer the load; the maximum amount transferrable is 15 pesos and the minimum is 2 pesos. Globe quickly followed with Share-a-Load, which works between users of Globe or Touch Mobile. There's no excuse for not replying to texts anymore!
Both cellular phone companies make huge profits, but instead of putting up more signal towers (a job which is admittedly made harder by the government, which interferes in this process), both Smart and Globe waste vast amounts of good money on new-fangled services which nobody every uses. Perhaps stimulated into excitement by hype in industry journals, have been rolling out interactive services - such as SMART's Addict Mobile - in which subscribers are supposed to retrieve multimedia information or interact with their banks via their cellphones. While it is fantastic that the Philippines is on the vanguard of cellphone use, the cellular phone companies really should do something about their weak signal first - although, admittedly, the signal strength is of little issue as long as the vast majority of subscribers rely on text messaging as opposed to voice data for communication.