How Banking Works in Panama

Panamanian Piggy Bank
Panamanian Piggy Bank

Opening a bank account as an expat in Panama can take around three weeks

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

Welcome To Panama

“Welcome to Panama” is a common phrase used in Panama when faced with a situation that doesn’t seem to make any sense

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.


Part III Panama Expat Lifestyle interview with Chad Darroch

Panama expat interview Elizabeth Vance
Panama expat interview Elizabeth Vance

This is not a carving of Panama expat Chad, though he did take this photo….somewhere in Panama.

It’s not every day one gets to do a Panama expat lifestyle interview. But last month – in August – the Panama Gringo Guide was fortunate to have a lengthy conversation with expat Chad Darroch of El Valle.

Chad has lived in Panama now for almost ten years. Wow! He’s seen a lot of changes in the country during that time, no doubt. So, you’re hearing from another guy here who really has a feel for life in Panama, beyond the hype.

This post is actually the finale of Chad’s interview about his life in Panama. If you haven’t already seen parts one and two, you’ll probably want to read those first.

Panama Expat Lifestyle: An Interview with Chad Darroch (Part I)

Real Expat in Panama – Interview #2

Without further adieu, let’s wrap up this very interesting conversation with Chad!

Meet Expat Chad Darroch of El Valle – Part III

Elizabeth Vance Panama underwater photo

A great underwater shot by Chad here in Panama

Elizabeth: Chad, what are the best things about Panama from your viewpoint?

Chad: Panamanians, freedom, and nature. Here’s what I mean:

First, Panamanians are awesome: a people strong, proud, and courageous enough to stand up and fight to make things better, even if the methods and initiatives are sometimes not the most effective or organized. Panama is surging forward in many respects as a result. By contrast, my country-of-origin – a former world leader in many respects – is backsliding dramatically (a la USA) and its people generally either pridefully deny this or defer to the ‘wait and see’ approach, both of which I’ve always found excruciatingly frustrating.

Elizabeth: I agree with you that people of Panama are a very proud people.

Chad: They are, and as a result Panama is moving in the opposite direction of much of the world in many ways: forward. That’s pretty awesome. And worth standing up for. I am proud to call Panamanians my friends, family, and neighbors.

Yes, the self-centered consumer-culture is making inroads in Panama, and there’s a whole world of social problems to fix here; starting with systemic inequality, abysmal education, and corrupt cronyism. Problems that sound familiar; sure. But there’s a crucial difference: in Panama, fix them we shall. I love the powerful optimism for the future I’m able to feel here. And that comes straight from the people.

Elizabeth: This country certainly has enjoyed positive economic growth in the last few years, which is one reason why so many North Americans are now looking to move to Panama. But, carry on with your second Best Thing about Panama, please.

Panama provides a lot of Personal Freedom

Panama bird watching Elizabeth Vance

For any of you birdwatchers, El Valle – where Chad lives – should be your first stop in Panama.

Chad: Second, I love the freedom I feel living in Panama. Here you really can live as you like, provided you do no harm. I had never known that feeling before (in Canada) and I could never see giving it up now. Life is lush here – and it’s easy compared to the struggle of carving out a position in the rat race.

Elizabeth: I agree with you that the lifestyle in Panama can be less restrictive than in parts North. I would say it’s generally assumed that people will take more personal responsibility down here, and there’s less crazy litigation.

Chad: I agree – and that makes our society much more flexible, dynamic, innovative, and progressive in general (for better and for worse).

Third, I love Panama’s natural abundance. There are at least a dozen species of birds – probably two or three times that – nesting in our yard. Flowers and butterflies are everywhere. Everything’s so verdant; so colorful; so alive… and the climate is perfect [El Valle’s average daytime temperature is about 75˚F]. I see new wildlife on at least a weekly basis; realistically much more frequently. Fruits, roots, and veggies grow nearly everywhere, all year round.

Elizabeth: The tropical landscape does hold its own beauty, there’s no doubt. I’m personally quite fond of Panama’s toucans. I did a post on them a few weeks ago, which you can refer to here.

Chad: You know, before this year I’d never seen a wild toucan! They’re everywhere this season though. Panama’s natural diversity is truly spectacular, and I am strongly concerned about the carelessly unsustainable Western-style development I’ve seen happening here. Many regions have experienced severe ecological damage/stress and some may never fully recover.

All politics aside, I am personally thrilled that the new government [under Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela who took office on July 1, 2014] cites reversing this trend as a top priority. Panama deserves to stay clean and green.

How Sustainable is Panama right now?

El Valle Panama Elizabeth Vance

El Valle is a small country town in the mouth of an extinct volcano crater in Panama.

Elizabeth: Certainly, Chad, it’s true that Panama is a long way behind the U.S. in terms of sustainable practices – whether in development or something as simple as recycling or even taking care of its trash properly.

Chad: The trash sure is an issue. Recycling here in El Valle is all done on a volunteer basis – to their credit the “Green Team”, as they’re called, saved over 67,000 lbs of stuff from hitting the landfill last year alone. That’s something I’d really like to see instituted on a large scale, whether private or state-subsidized (along with a stronger focus on renewable energy that’s not hydroelectric).

These, along with fixing education, inequality, infrastructure, and cronyism, are absolute imperatives in the immediate future. On that note I’d like to mention two hand-cut-and-painted signs here in El Valle that I truly admire:

The first one reads “La cultura de un pueblo se mide en su amor por los arboles.”
Translation: The culture of a people/ place is measured in how it takes care of its trees.

The second sign reads “Por favor, cuida nuestros rios. Nuestros ninos tambien los merecen disfrutar, y los van a necesitar para sobrevivir.”
Translation: “Please take care of our rivers. Our children also deserve to enjoy them, and they will need them in order to survive.”

Oh – and for the record, Panamanians participating in the local recycling program reportedly outnumber us expats by almost 50 to 1. Like I said, I am deeply optimistic for Panama’s future.

Elizabeth: I’ve seen both those signs, too, Chad, and it’s great that you see these values reflected in the part of Panama where you live (in El Valle). We can both hope that with Varela‘s well-known commitment to eco-friendly practices before he came to be Panama’s new president, that we can see more of that kind of thing in more places in Panama in the years to come.

Chad: I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed! You know how ‘flexible’ politicians can be, though, whatever their country of origin. All of us, Panamanian and expat alike, must take responsibility and “be the change”. Money talks. But it can’t walk.

Chad’s Top Three Recommendations for Someone Moving to Panama

Panama underwater photos Elizabeth Vance

Chad takes some amazing underwater photos in Panama, as you can see!

Elizabeth: Chad, what are the Top Three Recommendations you would make to someone considering moving to Panama, or retiring in Panama?

Chad: I actually have four – can I do four? I’ll list them out for you:

* Visit first. The vibe, the people, the environment, and the lifestyle vary widely even within small geographical regions. There are places here you will love and there are places you won’t. That’s totally subjective (one man’s trash and all that). Clearly define what you want versus what you’ll sacrifice – odds are you’ll find a match, and maybe not in the first place you consider.

* Sell your things. Don’t lug them down here or keep them in storage once you’re sure you want to stay. They will either get ruined from humidity and/or salt, or will just keep costing you money. I kept a whole house’s worth of stuff in storage for years, bringing bits down a suitcase at a time and always thinking I’d want the bulk of it ‘someday’. What a waste. The stuff I brought is 90% gone now, and I don’t even remember most of the things I used to own or why they seemed so valuable/important at the time.

* Take off your glasses. You will go through a honeymoon period where everything’s just flawless. But when that’s over your whole world will come crashing down – you’ll hate this place because it’s not what you’re used to and cannot possibly meet your ingrained cultural expectations. You’ll find negatives everywhere and start to compare the Panama you’re experiencing now with whatever world you left behind. Of course with your rose-colored glasses on, most of these comparisons won’t be favorable. Remember why you’re here – keeping things in perspective can be challenging at times.

* Run toward something. That’s always better than running away. But many expats seem to fall into the latter mindset; always seeking out the next best thing; the next cheaper place; the next undiscovered paradise. It never ends: perfection is a false ideal and “leaving” is a pretty weak justification for “arriving”. Once you’re here, take a few minutes every day to enjoy the things you ran toward… but don’t forget to reflect on what you’re not doing right now, too!

Elizabeth: Wow, Chad, you have been so forthright, and so open about what you’ve learned here in Panama. I’m really excited to share this with the Gringo Guide to Panama readership! Thank you so much!

I also appreciate your candor since I’m known to be pretty straightforward myself (and sometimes get dinged for it). Plus, I have no doubt that your insight will come in handy for a lot of future expats who are considering if Panama is right for them.

Chad: Thanks again for the opportunity, Elizabeth. I definitely enjoyed it. And I hope our readers did, too!

* * *

Pretty cool, huh? A very special thanks to Chad for sharing his story – or what turned into three posts, because of length! I’ve already heard some very positive comments back from readers who have enjoyed the first two parts.

By the way, Chad is an accomplished writer, who works remotely from Panama for a number of clients across the globe. You can check out his work and his Google+ profile here.

Chad, thanks for sharing your personal photos with us!

Is Panama on your horizon?

If so, be sure to read as much as you can about Panama – my two books are a start – and definitely set up a trip to come and stay for a number of weeks. That way, you can be sure that Panama is right for you before you come, lock, stock and barrel. It’s a wise approach.

My very best to you wherever your journey may ultimately lead you!