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Why I Don’t Recommend Any Of The 78 Banks In Panama

13 Feb
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Which Panama Bank Do I Recommend?

“What bank do you recommend in Panama?”

That’s one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. I get it at least a couple of times a week…

The honest answer?

None.

Panama currently has 78 banks. Of those, 29 have international licenses; 49, including the 2 government banks, have general licenses.

I’ve dealt personally with at least two-dozen of these banks over the years and currently hold accounts at six of them.

So why can’t I make even a single recommendation?

Two reasons.

Reason #1: Banks Won’t Open An Account

First, many of these banks won’t open an account for you. Which ones will and under which circumstances they’ll accept you as a new client change in real time.

Many, many times, I’ve recommended a bank where I know foreign nonresidents are able to open an account only to be scolded a few days or weeks later by a reader who tried to open an account at that bank and was shown the door.

So, for this reason, I’ve become reluctant to suggest that any reader try any bank… because I can’t guarantee that by the time you approach said bank about opening an account you’ll even be granted the courtesy of a meeting.

Reason #2: Customer Service

The second reason I can’t and don’t recommend any Panama bank is customer service.

Those 29 banks with international licenses in Panama aren’t consumer banks. They aren’t places to open a local checking account.

Those are investment or private banking operations. The minimum account balances for these banks can start as low as US$250,000, but it’s not uncommon for these banks to require minimum balances of US$1 million.

If that’s the kind of banking you’re in the market for, then you’ll be able to find a bank here in Panama that will open an account for you… and you’ll likely enjoy good customer service from an English-speaking banker.

However, if what you’re looking for is a local bank account out of which to pay your bills, into which to deposit rental income, and maybe an account with which to hold less than a quarter-million dollars outside of your home country, then you need to speak with 1 of the 49 general license banks.

Good luck.

Many of those banks state simply that they don’t open accounts for nonresidents. Many others want to see some connection to Panama before they will open an account for you as a nonresident.

Scotiabank, for example, ostensibly doesn’t open accounts for nonresidents.

That said, when I mentioned Scotiabank in this context at a recent conference, one attendee spoke up to tell me I was mistaken… because he had been able to open an account at Scotiabank in Panama City last year even though he has no residency status. He had to visit the branch every day for four days, returning with additional documentation and remaining persistent, but he came away on day four with a bank account.

Every rule has an exception… and much of this comes down to who is on the other end of the conversation.

I have struggled to open new accounts (for a new corporation, for example) with banks where I already have a relationship… even, in cases, where I’ve had multiple accounts for years.

The banking industry in Panama is impossible to predict right now.

Bank policies change from one day to the next, but that’s not the worst of it.

Much harder for the poor would-be account-holder to navigate is how inconsistently bank policies are applied… from one branch to another but even within the same branch depending, again, on who is on the other side of the conversation.

One guy may be able to open an account at a bank while a next guy with the same profile can’t. The only way to know for sure if you’d be able to open an account at any particular bank is to try yourself.

And then, again, if you’re among the lucky who manage to open an account… good luck operating out of it.

Some banks that cater to foreigners have plenty of English-speaking staff. This is the case for Scotiabank, for example, which could help explain how that conference attendee was able to open an account despite not being a resident of Panama. He found an English-speaking staff person willing to work with him… and he kept at it, showing up with more paperwork and documentation day after day for four days.

At many banks, though, you’ll need to speak some Spanish even to have the conversation to ask if you might be able to open an account and then to use the account should you get one.

However, the frustrations of dealing with bankers in Panama go beyond language.

I’ve been trying to reactivate the internet access for one of my accounts for six months. After three trips to the bank to update information and walk through the process for being able to bank online, I still don’t have internet access.

The bankers I’ve dealt with have been pleasant, and they have tried to help.

But three in-person meetings later, I’m still locked out of my account online and have no idea why.

One other thing to understand about many banks in Panama is that they are small with limited offices and few ATMs. Many are young, as well.

Being small and young can be a benefit. If the bank is looking for quick growth, it can be more open-minded about opening accounts and more interested in providing good customer service. However, in my experience, when the growth mandate disappears, so does the customer service.

Now you understand why I can’t answer the question: Which bank do you recommend in Panama?

It’s impossible to recommend any bank in this country. I could tell you the names of the banks I work with, but I wouldn’t recommend any of them.

You can find a list of all banks in Panama on the country’s banking superintendent website here.

Click on the PDF link for any bank to see when it was formed, how many employees it has, the number of locations and ATMs, and its capitalization.

If you want or need a bank account in Panama, those are your choices.

I’ll say it again: Good luck.

Lief Simon