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Panama

An Expat Guide To Banking In Panama

Monday January 08, 2018 (11:02:17)

 

A crucial meeting point between two oceans and two continents, Panama is located in Central America, between Costa Rica and Colombia. This small nation has a population of about 3.6 million inhabitants, and has recently seen a considerable influx of foreign nationals. Riding a wave of economic development, the country has become a magnet for professionals, business people, entrepreneurs and investors from all across the globe. People are drawn to this destination for several reasons, including its moderate climate, relaxed lifestyle and tropical surroundings. In spite of a significant increase in the cost of living, large numbers of senior citizens from the US, Europe and Asia are also choosing to retire or set up holiday homes on Panama’s offshore islands.

Settling down in a new country is always a challenge, and getting easy access to finance locally will be one of the top priorities for any expat. Soon after moving, you will probably want to open an account in a local bank or in a local branch of an international bank. This procedure is usually not as easy as it tends to be back home. On the one hand, Panama has a reputation for being an international banking center, but on the other, migrants often find that they face a number of challenges when they try to open accounts here. You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by familiarizing yourself with the process in advance. Speaking fluent Spanish will also make things easier for you.


Currency

The official currency of Panama is the Balboa (PAB), and its symbol is the same as the US dollar. In fact, Panama’s currency is linked to the American dollar and is structured in a similar manner.

People traveling to Panama are not really required to acquire the local currency, as American dollars are preferred by local people. In fact, Panamanian banknotes are rarely found in this country, as local people tend to only use US banknotes. American dollars are accepted at most places, as long as smaller denominations are used for payment; many of the local establishments do not accept the $50 and $100 bills. At times, you may be asked for identification when you use American dollars.


Banking In Panama

It is not mandatory for expats to have a bank account in the country for conducting local transactions; however, a local account does have a number of advantages, such as accessing funds quickly and eliminating international fees. Banking in Panama can be harder or easier, depending on which of these categories you fall into:

- Permanent resident with a Panama ID card (cedula)
- Expat (not an American) without a cedula
- American (with or without a cedula)

Being in the first group will make the process the least complicated. A cedula simplifies several bureaucratic tasks in this country, including the opening of a bank account, as officials will be used to dealing with people who have this ID card. Migrants who don’t have one are treated with more caution. However, being a member of the third category often causes the entire procedure to become very difficult. This is because a number of local banks in Panama do not readily open accounts for Americans; some will have special regulations in place for European customers too. US citizens can of course open accounts, but not in every bank. The following institutions make the procedure easier:

- BAC (only for official residents of the country)
- Banco Azteca
- Banco National
- Banistmo
- Banesco
- Citibank (only for those who have an account with this bank in the US)
- Scotia
- Multibank
- Unibank

Most local people prefer to deal with one of the two state-owned banks in the country, Caja de Ahorros or Banco Nacional de Panama, as the services these institutions offer are quite similar to what you can expect from an international bank.

A few local banks have also opened their doors to American customers. However, in Panama, these customers will often be asked to provide a reason for why they need a local bank account. While resorting to methods such as bribery is a strict no-no (and can land you in serious legal trouble), it will not hurt you to make use of any connections that you have. Bear in mind that getting the account up and running won’t happen quickly, regardless of who you know and what category you fall into. Be prepared to wait for a minimum period of three weeks before your account is fully activated.

All the banks in the country must have a license to operate, and this is regulated by the Banking Supervisory Authority or the Superintendencia de Bancos. There are two license categories for banks in Panama, which are:

Class A – general or full license: Most banks in the country fall under this category. These are institutions that are allowed to operate inside and outside of the country.
Class B – international license: Fewer banks in the country have this license. Banks in this category have a physical presence in Panama but only have permission to do business with expats and non-residents, essentially restricting them to overseas customers.

A third type of license also exists, but this category essentially involves representative offices rather than actual banks with banking services.

Make sure that you learn as much as you can about a bank and the services that they offer to their expat customers before you decide to open an account with them. Prior to taking any decision, speak with your colleagues and friends who have lived in the country and are familiar with the banking system.


Types Of Personal Account

As in many other countries, banks in Panama allow individuals to open both savings and checking (local and international) accounts. Each type of account offers different interest rates and accessibility options, so you may need to open more than one account, depending on your requirements and the frequency of your transactions. Do keep in mind that many local banking institutions charge a fee on current accounts, but not on savings or deposit accounts.

A checking or current account (cuenta de corriente) will be ideal for your everyday purchases. These are often easily accessed by a debit or credit card. The minimum amount you need to maintain in your account may vary from one bank to another, but in most cases, you will be required to keep at least US$250 in your account at all times. A local checking account is useful if you plan to conduct transactions in US dollars with individuals or local businesses. However, if you require an offshore bank account with globally accepted checking facilities (in US dollars), an international checking account may be more feasible. Of course, the minimum initial deposit as well as the balance requirement for this type of an account is likely to be much higher.

A savings account (cuenta de ahorro) is a better option for long-term savings, as it accrues a higher rate of interest and can earn you a fair amount of money over a period of time. However, you will not have easy access to your money and will be required to maintain a higher minimum amount, likely to be around US$1,000.

If you are looking for a bank to manage your business transactions or for investment purposes, you should consider opening a corporate or private investment account instead.


Paperwork

As it is in other countries around the world, a majority of the banks in Panama require their potential customers to visit one of their branches personally before they can open an account. This may not be the case if you are planning to opt for an offshore account. Application forms are therefore rarely available online; you will probably need to pick up the form in person.

The process to open a bank account in Panama includes far more documentation than you are likely to encounter in elsewhere in the world. Moreover, the entire procedure could take weeks, if not months, as all the paperwork is verified multiple times, to ensure that it is authentic. Fortunately, once all the checks are done, you can usually use the same paperwork to open another account of any type within the country.

While the documents required by a bank may vary to some extent, in all probability, you will be asked to submit these for opening an account:

- Completed application form
- Valid passport copies (first page and pages with recent arrival stamps)
- Secondary identification (a driver’s license or a cedula)
- Proof of income (a reference letter, an employment contract, a salary slip, or your tax returns)
- A reference letter from another banking institution which shows that you have had an account with them for three years or more
- A letter of reference, preferably from an employer (current or former), a colleague, a solicitor or a financial advisor
- Minimum opening and monthly average amounts

All documents must be submitted to the bank along with the account opening application form. Pay special attention to the reference letters, since those will be scrutinized carefully by the bank officials. Both your reference letters have to be printed on the legal letterhead of the firm and must be recent; they will only be accepted by the bank if they have been drafted in the last 60 days or so – 30 days for some banks. Customer applications are often rejected by the bank if any of the information provided is outdated. Some banking institutions also ask their customers to submit statements from other banks where they have had an account for at least three months. It is a good idea to have your utility bills handy, since you may be asked to furnish them. If you are living in Panama on a retired persons’ programs, you should also enclose a copy of your pension statement along with the application forms.

Unlike the US, bank customers in Panama are often asked about where their money comes from, and sometimes for additional information that would often be considered personal. In fact, it comes as a culture shock to many expats, especially Americans and Canadians, when their banks ask them to report what they plan to spend their money on each time they make a large withdrawal of US$5,000 or more. The authorities believe that these checks, while not foolproof, help to control money laundering and other more serious criminal activity.


Benefits And Facilities

While it is not necessary for an expat to open a bank account in Panama, many – especially salaried professionals and business people – do so since it offers a number of advantages. These include:

- Having easier access to funds
- Saving money on international currency exchange fees
- Making arrangements for a safety net, in case there is a banking crisis back home
- Being able to transfer money between accounts or withdraw cash more easily
- Collecting interest on savings

Many of the accounts come with checkbooks, debit or ATM cards, and online banking services. Some financial institutions also assist customers with paying bills. While these facilities are mostly free, a few banks may charge a small fee for them.

However, do not assume that your bank will offer you all these facilities by default. Speak with an advisor at the time of opening your account, and inform them of the services you want to utilize. Also keep in mind that credit cards are generally only offered to those customers who maintain a good balance in their accounts and have a strong credit rating.

As with any other country, account holders living in the bigger cities of Panama tend to get additional services as compared to those who reside in the rural areas. Banks are usually open from Monday to Friday, between 8.30am and 5pm, and on Saturdays between 8.30am and 1pm. However, these timings may vary to from one region to another and from one bank to the next.


Have you lived in Panama? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or answer the questions here to be featured in an interview!


 

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