Running A Business In Panama

Business Opportunities In Panama

“I left Panama 35 years ago and went to live with my sister in the States,” explained the repairman that our property management company sent to fix our washing machine this afternoon.

“I worked hard. I took advantage of the opportunities there. I raised a family. The house I bought for them is worth a half-million dollars today.

“I moved back here to Panama three months ago to retire. But when I got here, I didn’t recognize the place. When I left, there was a single high-rise on Punta Paitilla.

“I tried to retire, but I couldn’t. How can you sit still all day long in this place? There’s too much going on. So I’m working again. There’s more demand for my services than I can keep up with. I have a crew, but they’re all out on jobs today. That’s why I took this call myself.

“This is where the opportunity is right now. Panama is the place for a young man who wants to work hard and make a good life for his family. I’m glad I’m able to be part of it.”

Starting An Internet Business In Panama

“Kathleen, love the e-mails, truly. A lot more than I thought I would. I think that, when you started talking about Medellin, where I am going to be living by this time next month, it all started to become so much more real for me.

“I have been researching lately into setting up an offshore business and bank account and am looking closely at Panama and Belize.

“I prefer Panama, as it is closer to Colombia and flights are very cheap. However, in my research, I came across a law firm that has informed me that Panama does not allow Internet-based businesses to be set up there. Is this true? If that’s the case, do you know any ways to work around this?”

— Nate B., United States

Well, if it’s true, I’m an outlaw.

That is, no, this isn’t true. Panama is attracting some of the world’s biggest Internet business operators…and many smaller Internet outfits (like Live and Invest Overseas!).

I believe there could be restrictions on Internet gaming operations. Otherwise, Panama qualifies right now as one of the best jurisdictions in the world for anyone looking to set up this kind of business.



“Kathleen, thanks for keeping guys like me interested with constant updates about retiring (or semi-retiring) to Panama.

“My one concern, if I wanted to start a business in IT services in Panama, is the language barrier. I believe that in several of your missives you have mentioned that English is fairly widely spoken by the locals. So I decided to join a members group on LinkedIn for all things Panama, and during my conversations with the group I was told that English used to be spoken in the good ol’ days when the U.S. was managing the Panama canal but not so much after the management was passed to Panamanians. And that also happens to be the case on LinkedIn where members of this group only communicate in Spanish. Can you please shed some light on this?”

–Nosh M., United States

My experience differs. I’ve been spending time and doing business in Panama for coming up on 20 years. That is, when I began investing time and money in this country, the Canal was still U.S.-controlled. I have been active on the ground since.

I’d say it’s easier to live and do business in Panama today than it was when I first focused on the country, for many reasons, including the level of English spoken, especially in Panama City. We have an office staffed entirely with fluent English speakers. We wouldn’t be able to replicate our operation in any other country in Central America, and we’d struggle to build the kind of English-speaking, -reading, and -writing team we’ve built in Panama City anywhere else in Latin America. This is an important part of why we’re in Panama in the first place.

And we’re not the only businesspeople attracted to Panama for its English-speaking labor pool. The many call centers in Panama City are filled with English-speaking Panamanians.

Panama City has at least 10 quality bilingual schools offering education in English and Spanish…and a French school that teaches both Spanish and English as second languages.

I stand by my assertion that English is fairly widely spoken in Panama City. Elsewhere in the country, this is less true. Still, the level of English spoken across Panama is higher than in any other country in the region.


“Kathleen, it seems everything I read about Panama is for retirees. What about people who are not ready to retire? What about people who want to go to Panama to open a business, provide a service, employ the locals, and make some money?

“I have yet to see information about this subject. I’m looking for business opportunities that will allow me to give something back to the country that is willing to give me a chance.”

— Scottish G., United States

We’re on it. Check out our Panama hub for more information on starting a business in Panama.


Lief and I were invited to attend this morning’s Panama-American Chamber of Commerce meeting as guests. I was impressed, as I continue to be, by how focused this country is on business growth and economic development. The group around the table with the Vice Minister of Commerce this morning, including attorneys, business leaders, and business starters, shared one clear agenda: How to make Panama even more attractive as a business and investment haven.

Martinelli’s government already has committed big money to big infrastructure projects (the Panama City metro…a new city around the Tocumen International Airport…the improvement of the highway to the Colon Free Trade Zone) and investor incentives (Law 41 to motivate mega-multinational firms to set up regional or global headquarters in this country…Panama Pacifico…the City of Knowledge).

Yet all anyone wanted to talk about this morning was, What else can we do? How can we create more jobs? How can we interest more international businesses in choosing Panama as their base? How can we streamline immigration procedures to make it easier for foreign businesses to bring in their foreign executives? What further business support can we offer?

Latin Business Chronicle has named Panama as the top doing-business choice in Latin America this year.

“Well, of course, that’s true,” remarked the Vice Minister of Commerce this morning. “But we’re just getting started.”

The Frustrations Of Living And Doing Business In Panama

“Kathleen, I have read with interest your article on current opportunities in Panama, and I agree with most that you have written. Panama has a lot to offer. However, after experiencing firsthand the frustrations of buying and doing business in Panama, I have to say that this country is truly a disaster. I have lived all over the globe and own properties around the world. In Panama, I have gone through all the procedures myself, and, I have to say, Panama has been one of the most frustrating countries in the world in my experience. The problem is lack of communication. They are not international at all and have a long way to go. I love Panama and the people, but to do business with them…ah!

“I have a bank account with HSBC and a mortgage, but to achieve this? Wow! HSBC is the most inefficient bank I have ever dealt with anywhere. Fortunately, I have an excellent team of women lawyers who are very efficient.

“I am an Englishwoman, currently living in London. Like you, I have lived in Paris and speak fluent French, but, alas, I speak very little Spanish, and this has been a huge problem for me in Panama. Whether the world likes it or not, English is the international language of business, and I have been astonished to find that the international banks, including HSBC, have very few staff members who speak English fluently.

“I think that your Panama Circle service is excellent for those who have no knowledge of the country or the buying procedures. I have friends who have bought into the development called Destiny, which is wonderful, but the problems they’ve had trying to get the developer to get things right! It has been a nightmare for them. I know others who have lost their properties due to the developer cancelling their contracts, again due to bad communication.

“This, Kathleen, is what you need to emphasize when talking about foreigners investing or buying a second home in Panama. Your adverts are good but please write down the pitfalls, too. Then your publicity will be more credible.

“Keep up the good work.”

Lynn B., United Kingdom (Jul 27, 2009)

You are completely correct, dear reader. Life here in the developing world is frustrating at best. Some days, it’s maddening. This is why we’ve created our Panama Circle.

I write you today for the first time from our new Live and Invest Overseas offices. We moved over the weekend into new space in the Banesco bank building. We arrived this morning to work to find no Internet, though it had been promised…

Meantime, we had a phone call a little while ago from the shop of the nice lady where we recently bought some antique furniture. Her assistant was calling to tell us our check had bounced. How could that be, we wondered. We checked our account online. Yes, the money to cover the check is in there…

That’s today. Tomorrow will bring new surprises.

I’m not worried, though. In fact, I know that resolving these issues won’t take a minute of my time. I know that all I’ve got to do is turn to Marion.

Marion de Mena, my personal assistant, sits two desks down from me in the office here in Panama City. Marion is German, but she’s been living in Panama for more than 30 years. Marion is an experienced executive assistant who knows who to call and how to get things done in this country.

You can go it on your own in a new country–opening a bank account yourself, organizing residency, shopping for an apartment to rent, shipping your belongings, buying appliances, having Internet and telephone installed, sourcing health insurance… But, as you explain, dear reader, going it on your own in a new country is tough, even if you’ve been around the global block several times already.

I’ve lived, worked, done business, and bought real estate in more than two-dozen countries. I wouldn’t say Panama is the most frustrating. That’d be maybe Ecuador or Nicaragua, where the infrastructure is truly Third World…or Brazil, where the movement of currency in and out of the country is difficult…or even France, where the paperwork and red tape involved with any process with legal implications can intimidate even the most persistent and resourceful businessman.

On the other hand, no question, living in Panama is more complicated and challenging than living in the United States or the United Kingdom. Managing your life here, dealing with the curve balls of getting through the day in the developing world…it’s far more easily accomplished with reliable support. You need someone who speaks the local language fluently, who has longstanding local connections, who is resourceful and persistent, and who, as they put it here in Panama, has palanca. This is how you get things done in this country. With palanca.

Palanca is pull. And Marion has it.

We’ve been putting Marion and her palanca to the test over the past few months, since we launched Panama Circle Membership. And, I’m proud to report, Marion has risen to the occasion. She’s proven herself invaluable, not only to us, but to every Charter Member of our Panama Circle, as well.

I’ve shared some of the Members’ e-mails of praise with you recently, including this endorsement from Charter Member Elmore, who wrote to say:

“Most valuable aspect of my Panama Circle Membership? Without a doubt, it’s been the very personal assistance from Marion de Mena, the Members Liaison. Marion has provided wonderful support. She has come up with an answer to every single question I’ve put to her. She is an invaluable resource, so well-connected in this country.”

Panama offers enormous opportunity right now for the would-be retiree, investor, and global entrepreneur. That’s not to say that realizing those opportunities is easy. It’s not.

But life in Panama with the help of Marion de Mena and the rest of the in-country team we’ve put together over the past year we’ve been living here? The challenges and frustrations are still there…but you don’t have to deal with them.

Where do you go to buy new appliances in Panama City? How can you get your passport renewed in a hurry? Who can take you on a property-viewing tour of beach houses outside the capital? Where’s the best source of handicrafts for export? Who can you trust to open an offshore trust or corporation for you? How much should it cost to have your residency visa processed?

Marion knows. And, when you’re a Panama Circle Member, Marion is only an e-mail or a phone call (to her private line) away.



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