Seven Panama Oddities Nobody Told Me About

Dec 14, 2020

By L.P. Wirth

No matter how diligently you read public blogs, here are some insider scoops on unusual things and more than seven oddities in Panama that caught me off-guard.

When we arrive in a new country as an expat, unexpected surprises may loom; oddities. Some could be unpleasant, casting doubt on our wisdom to move here. Even when we think we have done our homework researching our host-country, there are often nuances to the way things work that we didn’t expect. Today, I am highlighting a few that caught me off-guard.

No Shorts For Official Business by LP

No Shorts for Official Business – By LP

1. No Shorts at Government Offices in Panama

In the first weeks of your arrival in your host country, you will visit government offices; Immigration, DMV, the Electorate, and others. Make sure you do not wear shorts, male or female. Officials will turn you away to get ‘properly’ dressed. Females can wear dresses. Otherwise, no ifs or buts.

2. No Postal Address in Panama

Although ZIP codes exist in Panama, there is no governmental postal delivery service here. You will find your utility bill under your door.  There are postal offices with post boxes, but getting one can take at least six months. I am still waiting for mine. Sending mail isn’t straightforward either.  Go to one of the few post offices and mail your item in person. Alternatively, you can use private services, but sending mail this way can be cost-prohibitive. My advice: make sure you know where your nearest post office is and apply for a postbox.

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3. Panama is a Cash-Society

Paying cash in some western countries has become difficult. But here in Panama, it’s normal. From utilities to supermarkets, cash still rules. In the two-plus years I have been in Panama, it has become easier to pay bills online or directly at an ATM, but you won’t find a card-accepting cab just yet in Panama.

4. Taxis are Cheaper than Uber

Taxis are a Cost-Effective Alternative to Uber in Panama by LP

Taxis Are a Cost-Effective Alternative to Uber in Panama – By LP

If you speak the language reasonably well, and if you’re confident, hail a cab. These fares are about 20-30 percent lower than ordering a ride-share. As become more accustomed to life in the city, I am comfortable taking a cab. Always negotiate the fare before getting in the car and have the correct change on you.

5. US Dollars Accepted

Not only are USDs accepted, but they are also THE commercial currency in Panama. The native currency is the Balboa, which is tagged to the USD 1:1. There are no Balboa banknotes, but they have commemorative and colorful Balboa quarters, which match the size and weight of a US-minted quarter. Simple!

6. Paypal USD-Balboa

The commercial Panamanian currency may be the USD, but officially, it’s still the Balboa. Paypal is profiting from the “foreign exchange” and charges a conversion fee if you send money from a USD account to a Panama-tied Paypal account. Expect to receive up to 10% less in ‘Balboas’ than the USD amount you sent using Paypal. There is also no direct option to transfer money from Paypal to your local Panamanian bank account. Recently, a financial service called Nequi emerged, which allows transferring money from Paypal to your Panama debit card. But that’s only efficient for money paid from Panama because of the exchange rate, so it is not a workable option for me. I maintain a non-Panama Paypal account and use it to pay merchants that accept Paypal. It’s also great for charity donations.

7. Strict Banking Regulations in Panama

Panama has a poor banking reputation, and many nations accuse this country of being a money-laundering haven for dubious businesses. Not so fast! Things have changed. Opening a business in Panama now requires proof of residency, as does opening a bank account. It is difficult to get a bank account in Panama. Endless documentation and proof of income sources make it more difficult than anywhere I have been to obtain a bank account.  Even switching from one bank to another is onerous. Make sure you have income source documentation, and ideally, a CEDULA, the Latin-American version of a national ID card.

No matter how diligently you scan public blogs and articles, it’s hard to get the full scoop of what’s going on in the host country. Not so here at the TCI-Alliance. We have expert expats in-country who have been there, done it, and are sharing their knowledge, so you won’t experience these inconvenient hurdles. Ask your questions in the comments below, and we will be at hand to give you insider information.


Editor’s Note:  TCI is a full-service provider of expat education and transition services. Our private platform allows our global expat community and our Expat Alliance of in-country expats and experts to interact so that all can successfully embrace the expat experience. Learn More…

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