Understanding Panama’s Maze Of Mail Services
Panama is one of the most developed countries in the region—fully appointed in nearly every aspect… except postal service, which barely exists.
Utility companies sending out bills each month deliver them by courier. Most businesses rely on messenger services or hire a driver to deliver anything that needs to be sent and received within the city. Courier services even exist to shuttle things across the country. The post here is used exclusively, it seems, for family members to send cards to one another.
What are expats to do? How do you get things from back home or to friends across the country?
If you want to send or receive anything within the country, you could try the local post, but a messenger service is likely more convenient unless you’re expecting lots of domestic mail in Panama. Nevertheless, if you’d like to try the local post, here’s what you’d do…
For Local Post
Correos y Telégrafos de Panamá (or COTEL) is Panama’s public postal service. COTEL doesn’t deliver to homes (because how can you in a country with no formal address system?), instead, all mail is delivered in Panama through a P.O. Box.
To get a box, all you have to do is head to the nearest post office and ask for one (and pay a small annual fee—US$20, or US$15 a year for seniors). Unfortunately, many post offices don’t have enough empty boxes available… that can be your biggest hurdle. If you are among the lucky and do manage to get one, domestic mail can take two to three days depending upon the destination.
COTEL does deliver overseas, and airmail letters to the United States and Europe are said to arrive anywhere between 5 and 10 days. Receiving overseas mail can take weeks or months, or not arrive at all, so this service isn’t advised.
Address formats in Panama should be laid out as follows:
- Name, Building Name, Apartment Number (if applicable)
- Street Name, House Number
- Locality (barrio)
- P.O. Box Number
- Post Office Name and Town
In reality, most addresses will not contain the house/apartment number and street name, instead they will only have the P.O. Box information.
A general rule of thumb is that mail addressed to a home address will likely never arrive. Any Panamanian will warn you off of this service—it’s good for almost nothing, they say.
COTEL is currently trying to compete with the U.S. mail forwarding services by offering a “Correobox,” to which you can deliver goods bought online. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this initiative is wary, saying they wouldn’t trust it.
Which is why expats use alternative methods for their overseas mail… Enter: the forwarding services.
For International Post
There are several mail forwarding services in the United States that service Panama. Mail Boxes, Etc., Airbox Express, and Miami Express are the most popular.
These companies work by renting you a P.O. Box in the States (mostly in Florida, though there are also some that work through Texas). Through this address, you can receive your monthly magazines, cards from your family, postcards from your friends, and bills (though we recommend strongly against this; safer to go paperless).
However, as you likely know, a P.O. Box is only good for letters. To receive packages, you need a real address. This is where the true value of these forwarding services comes in…
Mail Boxes, Etc. is the gold standard (if you’re in or near the city), offering not just a P.O. Box but also a physical address.
They use warehouses in Florida to give you a true address to use, as well as an associated phone number. (This also provides you with a U.S. address that can be used for banks, credit cards, etc.)
To this address you can have your birthday presents and online buys sent. They usually take three to seven days to make it from Florida to Panama, and you can track your order through their easy-to-use online tracking system. You’ll be sent an email to notify you of the arrival, then you go in and pick up your item.
The downside for these services is that most of their offices are in or near Panama City.
Plans start at US$27 a month for 4.4 pounds worth of incoming packages, or you can use a pay-as-you-go plan, through which you just pay for each individual package. For those who want fast delivery, this service has a 48-hour turnaround from when it arrives in Florida to when it arrives in your Panama P.O. Box.
Airbox Express also provides a Florida P.O. Box address, much in the same way as Mail Boxes, Etc., but they do not offer a physical address. You can both ship and receive standard mail and larger items with their service, and they also offer an online tracking service.
Delivery time for packages is two to four business days once the shipment is received in their warehouse in Miami, and they even offer free delivery to your home or office within the Panama City limits.
The Platinum Plan runs US$75 per month and would only be a deal for those who are receiving large amounts of mail. The Platinum Plan does offer a nice feature of junk mail being returned free of charge, whereas with the basic plan, you pay for junk mail.
Another big advantage is that Airbox Express has offices just about everywhere, from Colón to Panama City to Boquete. So, in many cases, this might be an expat’s best and only viable option. The one area they don’t cover is eastern Panama.
Setting up an account with either Mail Boxes, Etc. or Airbox Express is free. With Mail Boxes, Etc. you can simply go to one of their stores and they’ll sign you up, or you can fill out the forms on their website. Airbox Express offers an online signup, but doesn’t expressly offer in-visit signups. Likely because in many cases they don’t have their own offices, but work out of another chain (like an El Rey grocery store).
During my two years in Panama, I have only used Airbox Express, and up until this point, I have had little to complain about. Once I didn’t receive an email notification about the arrival of mail… and, as said earlier, you have to pay for the mail before you can see what it is, so junk mail has come at a cost. But this option has served me well… and, because I live in the interior, there was little other option.
And colleagues and friends who use Mail Boxes, Etc. speak very highly of the service. You can even connect your account with them to your Copa frequent flyer account to earn extra miles if you’re a PreferMember.
FedEx, DHL, and Worldwide Express all operate in Panama the same way they do back up north. Just go to one of their locations to either send or receive a shipment. They offer expediency, security, and near worldwide coverage.
The only downsides to these modes are price and convenience. If you are only receiving standard mail, the price tag of these couriers could amount to a small fortune.
And all three have only a few locations in Panama. If you live in Panama City, or the city of Colón… no problem. But, if not, however long it takes you to travel to either of these cities is the amount of extra time you’ll have to invest into your mailing process. FedEx offers the most coverage with 10 stores throughout both cities. DHL has three locations and Worldwide Express but a single store—all only in the city.
Helpful Reminders About Shipping To Panama
- Merchandise valued under US$100.00 is free of custom duties.
- Average customs duty is 12%, but specific tariff costs vary.
- Always check list of prohibited items before shipping.
- The size of item can factor in as much as weight.
- Certain items like pharmaceuticals take longer to arrive and have unique procedural requirements.
- Certain items need special permits.
- To avoid guesswork and issues, use your shipper’s customer service.
While Panama struggles with its public international courier service, there are private companies that offer quality solutions to that problem. So in most circumstances, the maze of Panamanian mail services is easily navigated.