(The Panama Gringo) If you’re an expat deciding which bank to go with in Panama can be difficult. First off, it is important to remember that virtually every business in Panama runs at a Panamanian pace and from a Panamanian point of view. Even with the big name banks, don’t expect American style service – you are, after all, in Panama. The sooner you get used to this fact, the happier you will be in Panama.
The best bank in Panama for expats really depends on what you want your bank to do for you. If all you are looking for is a way to get your money in Panama, consider opening a Charles Schwab account in the US and using the ATM card in Panama to access your money. You can use direct deposit in the US to put the money in the account, and then manage it online. The same can be done with a Bank of America account that you then access at Scotiabank in Panama. Scotiabank and Bank of America have an agreement where there are no additional fees charged when you use the other’s ATM.
Using an American account and accessing it online and via ATM seems to be a growing trend among expats and may be getting even more popular come January 1st. At the start of the New Year a new law will be going into effect regarding transferring funds into Panama from the US. Banks will be required to process a lot of extra paperwork for these accounts, there will be a significant hold time on direct deposit funds and the US will be holding 30% of the fund’s total until an IRS audit is complete. The US government is trying to crack down on expats hoping to evade income taxes. We have been told that banks in Panama are starting to turn down American customers to avoid the headache that will surely fall upon them thanks to the IRS.
For those still intent on opening a bank account in Panama, my personal experience has been with Scotiabank and Banvivienda. Overall, between the two I recommend Scotiabank over Banvivienda as the best bank in panama for expats. There are several reasons why I feel this way, but the main one is that Scotiabank is easy to interact with online. Their online banking is more comprehensive than Banvivienda’s, and much easier to navigate. It also works on multiple browsers, whereas I have only had success seeing all of Banvivienda’s page on Internet Explorer, not my browser of choice. The Banvivienda site itself is a pain to understand, whether it is in Spanish or English.
Scotiabank also takes the cake when it comes to being accessible. Take this comment with a grain of Panamanian salt – the customer service is good. I travel a lot and need to communicate with the bank fairly regularly and get this – they actually respond to emails. With consistent help. They contact me via email when they need something. This is great for two reasons. First, it makes it easy when I am on the road and second, it is so much easier to understand what they want when it is in writing. I speak decent Spanish and still struggle to understand things over the phone. When I see it in print though, I can usually understand everything, and if I don’t know a word or two (bank terminology) well, that; why they invented Google Translate.
Banvivienda, on the other hand, has no way (that I have found) to email them. Getting through to them on the phone is extremely difficult, and I have spent many long minutes on hold abroad, racking up ridiculous fees. When I needed statements from the past year they told me that was something they didn’t do. They don’t have a way to access information online from more than 6 months ago, and they have no nice way to print information from the site. (When you print the month’s statement, it is either in Notepad or Excel and just doesn’t look right.)
When trying to access certain records immediately with Banvivienda, I got the run around for a good week. I finally was connected with someone who was extremely helpful, but it was too little too late. It seems that while there are some excellent employees there in customer service, the majority I dealt with were unable to help with what I needed.
Scotiabank, on the other hand, tends to take a few days to answer or process things, but it is always a day or two, so I know what to expect. Consistency means I can plan my affairs accordingly, and that is something I greatly appreciate about them.
For that reason I feel the best bank in Panama is Scotiabank. What do you think? What is the best bank in Panama for expats? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.