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Why You Shouldn’t Ship A Car Overseas

Kathleen, I am a faithful reader of your LIO newsletter, and I value your advice immeasurably. However, I noticed in one of your recent letters that you don’t recommend shipping a car to Panama. My wife and I are moving to our condo in Panama City next month, and we have been planning to take a 20-foot container with our car and some personal belongings. Why would you suggest we don’t take a car? They allow us to bring a new car every two years or so, correct?”

–Jim & Carmen T., United States

Right, depending on your residency status, you are permitted to bring a car into Panama duty-free every so many years. We don’t recommend it.

Aside from the cost of shipping and the cost of import duty (when you have to pay it), there’s the question of compatibility. Will the car you import be compatible with the place where you’re importing it?

That is, will you be able to find mechanics who’ll know how to repair it? And who will be able to source repair parts? We’ve known people in different countries who’ve waited weeks or even months for parts to be shipped from the States to their new home. Meantime, their imported-from-the-U.S. vehicles were sidelined.

Further, will the car you import be compatible with the new environment? You’re planning to move to Panama City. Here you want to be prepared for Panama City drivers and their unorthodox approach to getting from one place to another. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Lefthand turns from far righthand lanes, last-minute turns that require crossing three lanes of heavy traffic without warning, an aversion to using things like turn signals…all of which result in an extraordinary number of accidents each day. I don’t know anyone who drives regularly in Panama City who hasn’t had at least one accident within the past year. You can’t avoid them. Import a fancy new car to this city, and it won’t be new very long.

If you’re planning to live in the interior (that is, anywhere else in Panama), remember that roads flood and wash out in the rainy season and that potholes can be bigger than an average-sized four-door sedan. I’ve seen small cars swallowed up almost whole.

This would be true throughout Central America. Years ago, friends imported a van from Canada to Nicaragua when they retired to Granada. Six months later, they were selling the van and buying a secondhand four-wheel-drive truck locally. Their custom van was no match for Nicaraguan roads.

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