What It’s Really Like To Live In Panama

A Glimpse Of Panama Behind The Curtain (As Only Lief Simon Could Provide)

At first, launching a new life in a new country is a big, exciting, romantic dream.

Then, once you’ve arrived in your new country of choice, that big, exciting, romantic dream can devolve into a frustrating, challenging, hassle-filled nightmare…unless you’re properly prepped.

That was the objective behind the “How To Navigate Your New Life In Panama” presentation that Lief Simon gave on the closing day of last week’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference. For this session, Lief pulled back the curtain and gave attendees a glimpse at what it’s really like to live in Panama, as only Lief could do.

Here are insights and pointers he shared…

On buying a car

“We’re in the process of buying a truck for Los Islotes,” Lief explained. “The truck we’re buying is in Chame. We want to use it out in Veraguas, meaning the title must be reassigned to Santiago. Accomplishing this is a complicated, convoluted process that makes no sense and requires loads of paperwork. It’s a typical experience here. You’ll encounter something every day that makes no sense and requires loads of paperwork. The lesson is not to try to make it, whatever it is, make sense. It is what it is. Follow the instructions, do what you’re told, don’t ask why.”

On vehicle inspections

“If you own a car, you must have it inspected each year. I think that, primarily, what they’re inspecting for is to make sure that you have a US$20 bill (to pay for the inspection). They also check that the brake lights work.”

On opening a bank account

“I’m asked every day by someone which banks I recommend in Panama. My recommendations change all the time. I used to recommend Unibank; when this bank opened in 2011, it made a big push to attract foreign clients. Then, about 18 months later, they changed their minds and said no foreign clients. Then a month later, they decided they’d accept foreign clients who had been resident in Panama for at least two years. Now they consider new foreign clients with a US$350 non-refundable deposit. Go to Unibank to open an account. They’ll ask for US$350 to consider the idea. If they decide not to open an account for you, you don’t get the US$350 back.

“Right now I’m recommending Balboa Bank and Trust, Banvivienda, and Banesco. Banistmo is also said to be a good bank right now. An attendee at this week’s event reports opening an account with Banistmo in an hour at the Boquete branch. That’s impressive (and not typical).

“Three or four years ago, Multibank was unilaterally closing foreigner accounts, kicking the clients and their cash to the curb. (This is why I make the point that you need more than one account in every jurisdiction where you’re active.) Right now, I’d put Multibank on my recommended list, which, again, makes the point that this list is a moving target.

“My most important recommendation to do with opening an offshore bank account, in Panama or anywhere, is this: If you can get one, hold on to it. Don’t close it, even if you don’t have an immediate need for it, unless you have to. In the current global banking climate, you can’t count on being able to open another account when you need it.

“To open a bank account anywhere in the world, you’re going to need a reference letter from your current bank, and it can help a lot to have an introduction. We’re providing introductions here at the event; otherwise, your attorney may be able to help with that.”

On paying local bills

“You used to have to go stand in line at the electric company, the phone company, etc., to pay your bills…along with everyone else with a bill to pay. People would send their maids or their drivers to stand in the lines. It could be a half-day event.

“Now there are centralized pay stations in grocery stores and malls. Lines can still be long but nothing like they used to be. You should know that one of the centralized pay agencies doesn’t make transfers immediately; they make them in two or three days. Before we realized this, we used this agency and our electricity was turned off. Use Epago; they make the payment for you on the same day you pay them.

“You can also now pay online through some banks and on some utility companies’ websites. This is big and recent progress.

“You’ll have to pay attention to know when your bills are due. You likely won’t ever receive your physical bills. They are single pieces of paper stuffed in railings and under front gates. You see them floating down the street all the time. I figure we receive one out of three physical bills.

“Non-receipt of a bill (because the wind or the rain interfered) is not an acceptable reason for not paying that bill. The utility company doesn’t care. You just need to know when payment is due and make it, even if you haven’t received an actual bill.”

On credit cards

Living in Panama (or anywhere overseas), you need at least two credit cards and at least two debit cards in your wallet. Living outside your home country, especially as an American, your credit and debit cards will be cut off all the time. You can call and tell the credit card company that you live in Panama. You can have them flag your file. You can confirm and reconfirm, call and call again. It doesn’t matter. Your card will be cut off all the time, probably monthly. All in the interest of ‘protecting’ you.

“Which credit cards should you carry? I recommend Capital One because they do not charge an international transaction fee. American Airlines and United both offer cards that charge no international transaction fees; however, these both do charge yearly card-holder fees.”

On taking taxis in Panama City

“Unless or until you invest in a car of your own as a resident of Panama City, taxis will be the bane of your existence here. Here’s what you need to know to survive the Panama City taxi scene…

  • All taxis must be painted yellow (as of about two years ago); however, all cars painted taxi yellow are not taxis. Don’t be fooled. Some guys just paint their cars yellow and occasionally pick up a fare when it suits them. Legitimate taxi drivers are licensed and regulated. They’re difficult enough to deal with. Don’t mess with the unlicensed and unregulated variety. Look for a company name and cab number before climbing in.
  • Licensed cabbies are supposed to charge you according to the formalized and published fare schedule; they’re not supposed to pick up additional passengers if they already have a fare; and they can’t tell you they don’t want to take you where you want to go. However, they do all three of those things all the time.

“A taxi driver who won’t take you where you want to go? Yes. Traffic is so bad in this city that drivers often won’t venture into gridlock areas at certain times of day and sometimes won’t take you in one direction if they’re headed in another for some reason.

“And a gringo fare is fair game for over-charging. Know what you should pay for a taxi ride, according to the published schedule, before getting in or you could end up paying two or three or four or more times the legal rate.”

Kat Kalashian
Reporting live from the scene of last week’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference


Continue reading: New International Airport Opens At Rio Hato, Panama

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