Because day-to-day banking norms are so different in Panama, I thought it would be helpful to share a few stories of how banking works in Panama for those of you are that are new to Panama, thinking of moving to Panama or retiring to Panama.
Opening a Bank Account in Panama
In the last post I did on Banking in Panama a few days ago – and here’s the link on that one – you may recall that I said the average run-of-the-mill new savings or checking account takes about three weeks to get open, start to finish. Keep in mind that that timeline is generally from the point at which you submit all the required paperwork – with nothing missing – to the bank you’re applying to, until the point they email you or call you and tell you the account is ready to use.
What are some other things that most of us from other countries might not expect to find when opening a bank account in Panama that would be ideal to know about in advance?
Well, since you asked…here’s a few things.
If you are opening a Joint Account with someone – for example, a husband and a wife are joint signers on the new account – it’s important to know that the primary contact on the account is considered the true owner of the account (by the bank).
Yes, yes, I know – I can hear you saying, but isn’t that the point of establishing a “Joint” account – that both parties have equal access to the money and can make changes and so forth?
Things don’t always make sense in Panama banking
Yes, it is. At least, as we Gringos define the meaning of a “Joint” account.
However, whatever name is listed first on the new account is considered by the bank to be the primary person in charge of the account. Now, of course this doesn’t make sense, but let me give you a couple of examples of the hazards this can cause.
Panama Banking example number one
My husband’s name is listed above mine on our checking account. Therefore, he is the primary account holder on our joint account. We both get the notification emails from the bank (at least, we do when they actually send them, which is another story). We both have access to the funds in the account at any point in time.
I write However as a sentence until itself, because it seems appropriate to what I am about to tell you.
However, on the same day we opened the joint account – this is now seven years ago – the bank official helping us with all the signature documents asked me if we wanted to have debit cards for both of us on the account.
I replied that we did.
The official then handed a form to my husband to sign. My husband signed it, then passed it my way.
Oh, no, the official said. She doesn’t need to sign that.
But, if it’s for new debit cards, right? I said. We both need debit cards.
Well, yes, he said. But the primary person on the account is the only one that needs to sign this form, in order for the second person on the account can get a debit card to be able to have a debit card.
I’m sure the look on my face – after being in the bank official’s office for close to two hours at this point – was probably beyond description at this reply.
“Whaaaat?” I stuttered, mouth agape with disbelief.
“We’re setting this account up as a Joint account,” my husband calmly reminded the bank official.
“Yes, sir, I know that,” the soft-spoken bank official replied. “But this is just the way it works here in Panama.”
And that was it. He continued on with the rest of the paperwork.
Is it Machismo or just bad bank policy?
For those of you that don’t know what Machismo is, it is the Latin tendency to favor the male gender above the female gender. And, it’s prevalent in Panama, in a million ways. This is just one example, in my opinion.
The second example of this seemingly absurd policy occurred last week in the same bank, on the same account.
The bank had supposedly sent my husband and I emails announcing the fact that new debit cards were being ordered for all customers.
However, we never got the emails.
When I went in to the bank to inquire as to why my debit card was not working, I was informed that in fact the bank was changing debit card systems. And, of course, that a mass email had been sent to all customers.
I asked the bank official to verify our email addresses. They had them noted correctly, and they were correct.
However, the email the bank had for me was an older one, one I rarely use anymore.
“I’d like to update that email address – for me only – please,” I told the official.
“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” he replied.
Why not? I asked.
And, the answer was the same as it was seven years ago – this thing about the ‘primary account holder’.
“Well, your husband is the primary account holder on the account. So he will have to come in – in person – and sign a paper that says that you – the secondary account holder, who has equal benefits and access to the funds – can change your own email address.”
This is evidently the case even though my email address is not the primary one on the account – it’s only the secondary one.
I pointed this out to the bank official. It didn’t change anything.
Now, if I weren’t quite so polite, I probably would have thrown a royal fit at how this primary account holder thing simply does NOT MAKE SENSE!
I have lived in Panama now for seven years. And, things here – quite often – simply don’t make sense.
So, instead of screaming, I laughed. And then I said, “Okay. Thanks so much. I’ll ask my husband to come by at his convenience and change my email address.”
And, I left.
Meanwhile, where’s my new debit card? The saga continues…
Ummm, right. It still hasn’t arrived. I’ll keep you posted.