Panama City - relocation questions

Panama – Casco Antiguo

Common Relocation Questions: Panama

We often hear relocation questions from clients who are moving to Panama for the first time and getting settled in to their new homes.  I share a couple of them here to help you get an idea of what is easy and what is hard when you are relocating.

Bank account – Driver’s License – Utilities

Relocation Questions: Opening a bank account

I went to a local Panamanian Bank the other day, having just arrived in Panama. They would not allow me to open anything because I didn’t have a banking reference letter or a letter from an employer here in Panama.  Can I open a bank account without a banking reference?

Panamanian banks, even before the Panama Papers, made it difficult for foreigners to open bank accounts here. Ideally, you want to be introduced to the bank by someone (your lawyer, your employer, a business associate). If you are applying for residency, let the bank know: this will make it easier to open the account. If you already have residency, make sure you take your immigration card or cédula with you.

Know Your Client: KYC

Banks here are required to complete their “Know Your Client” procedures, and all banks have a compliance officer that reviews and approves accounts. This is not the customer service representative that you meet. You will not meet the compliance person (that would hinder the purpose of having compliance). So, you need to have all the papers that they need to tick the boxes. Those papers include:

  1. Your passport
  2. 2nd ID of some kind
  3. Utility bill – that shows you have a place in Panama
  4. Professional reference – preferrably two – from lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, realtors. No more than 3 months old.
  5. Banking references – no more than 3 months old; a relationship longer than 2 years (ideally)

And then you need patience: sit down and complete all the bank forms. Follow up on the account opening. Patience.

Can you open an account without a banking reference? Yes, if

  • You are 18 years old or just recently became an adult
  • Your employer refers you to the bank to open your payroll account
  • A business associate or family member introduces you to the bank as a first time account holder. This one will only work in a couple of banks and in limited cases.

Relocation Questions: Driver’s License

I heard that my driver’s license is only valid for 90 days after I arrive in Panama, but my tourist visa is valid for 180 days? What can I do?

That is right: your foreign driver’s license is only valid for 90 days, but your tourist visa for 180 days. If you are living here on the tourist visa, and driving, then you either leave every 90 days or apply for residency.  Panama does not offer a driver’s license to non-residents.

I am applying for my residency and would like to get my Panamanian driver’s license, what do I need to do?

Once you have your residency approved, you may apply for your driver’s license.  You will need to have your foreign license (copy) certified by your Consulate. The Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs then needs to stamp this copy, to make it valid for use here in Panama. The documents you need to take to Sertracen are:

  • Your driver’s license + photocopy
  • The copy stamped by the Consulate and Foreign Affairs
  • Immigration Card – original + copy
  • Passport – original + copy
  • Blood test – blood type – laboratory approved by ATTT (if this is already printed on your driver’s license, not required)
  • Do sight and hearing tests at Sertracen (wear your glasses and/or hearing aids, if applicable)
  • Pay $40.00 at Sertracen – includes sight and hearing test

Be in good standing with ATTT –  i.e. not have any tickets.

Utilities

Another one of the relocation questions that we get is regarding utilities:

How hard is it to get your home connected to utilities: water, electricity, phone & internet?

This depends on where you are going to live in Panama:

Water:

Most water in Panama is provided by IDAAN, the national water institute. This applies to most small towns and urban areas.  However, you need to check with people who live in the area how often the water gets cut off. You might want to buy a water tank to have a back-up system for your home. It is quite common in the rural areas, during the dry season, to only have water a couple of hours each day. Water is rationed, and you will want to have your personal tank for water storage.

In some remote areas, you will need to have your own well and filter system.

Electricity:

Most of the country of Panama is on an electrical grid and has electricity available, without having to go to solar power or diesel generators.  However, I know of a couple of areas (Bocas del Toro, for example) that do not have electricity and where hotels or hostals rely on their own generators or solor power systems for their electricity.

You definitely need UPS batteries on all electronic equipment in Panama becuase of the electricity spikes.  While theoretically the electric company is meant to replace electronics that get blown because of these spikes, the reality is that we don’t see this happening. Get prevention!

Phone & Internet:

There is phone and internet coverage in most of the country, although quality may be dodgy. I had clients in Bocas that struggled with phone coverage, because a hill blocked the cellphone tower.  I have also been in parts of Chiriqui where you need to walk to the top of “that” hill in order to be able to make a phone call. But both of these locations where quite “off the grid”. You have a choice in Panama of Cable & Wireless (MasMóvil), Claro, Movistar and Digicel.  Depending on which part of Panama (country) you are in, one provider may have better coverage than another.

For internet connection, there is limited fiber optics in some parts of Panama City. If you require high speed internet, you definitely want to check out availability. Speak with other expats regarding their experiences before deciding on a location.  But if you are only looking for internet for personal use or limited office use, coverage is reliable in most areas.  Please note: when there is a thunder storm we often have to restart our modem.

Panama City:

If you live in Panama City, and you are moving into an apartment, it should already have water connected.  If it is a rental, it may already have the electricity connected, you need to check with the realtor. In Panama City you have numerous options for internet and phone, but you should check regarding the quality in your area. As I mentioned above, in some parts of Panama City, you will have fiber optics available.

Coronado & Beaches:

In Coronado, most of the apartment buildings have emergency water tanks, but you should check before you rent or buy. The electricity in Coronado has a wide coverage, but you may want a generator if you want 24-hour air-conditioning.

Pedasi & Las Tablas

You will want to make sure you have water storage tanks, as this area of Panama is known as the “dry belt”. There is water, but it will get rationed in the dry season.  Internet: I am not sure of the quality, so you should ask expats that live in the area.

Boquete

Boquete has a great supply of water, so this never seems to be a problem. You may suffer power outages due to rain storms, so if having electricity 24-hours a day is important to you, you will want to have a backup system.  You should ask neighbours which internet provider is the best.

Please contact Joan Villanueva for more information regarding relocating to Panama.