Navigating Government Offices in Panama

Are you ready to live or work in Panama? utilities service
If you are, be prepared to maneuver through bureaucracy, especially government bureaucracy. Sounds boring I know, but like must everything else in Panama for the foreign resident it can be quite an adventure.

Here are a few rules to live by when making your way through the bureaucratic machine that will inevitably cross your path once you start trying to get things done here in Panama.

Put your pants on. Government offices in Panama all require men to wear long pants. There are some exceptions to this rule in the interior regions of the country where things are more laid back but for the most part you will be required to cover those legs. The rule applies to women as well but girls are more likely to be allowed to slide by. Speaking of women, wear a blouse that covers your shoulders. Cleavage…it’s allowed, it’s everywhere in latin america, but exposed shoulders are almost always a no-no in government buildings.

Know the spanish language or pay someone that does. There are issues that can be handled with out a mastery of the native tongue. But, if you are working on an item of great importance, speak the language or bring some one who can. Believe me money will be well spent if you have to pay a Panamanian interpreter. The process will be less stressful and move a lot faster. I call these business men “expediters.”

There are many responsible Panamanian “expediters” that will supply transport and interpreting skills for a small fee. These professionals are invaluable at times. Both Panamanians and foreigners have reliable contacts that will help navigate through bureaucratic processes. I have many a Panamanian expediter on speed dial. Need to get your car across the border, purchase or sell a automobile, run some errands, have someone make a pick up or delivery in Panama City? I know many of these expediters and they can be an invaluable asset in times of need. Panama is a small country and these service men are probably friends with some of the employees in the office so they are likely to take good care of their buddy and you.

Avoid the line. Don’t skip the line, but before lining up in a government office in Panama make sure it’s the right one. I have wasted plenty of time waiting in a line just because every one else was. Only to later find out I needed a certain document before I needed to be in line. Upon entering any government or utility office immediately find someone of official capacity and ask them where you need to be to handle your business, even if this means walking to the front of the only line in the room and interrupting. Often where one needs to be first may be hidden in the back, down the hall, one building over, around the block, or upstairs. Ask first, don’t just steer towards the end of the line and wait to ask. Panamanians know this technique very well and are not scared to interrupt anyone. Follow their lead, be assure of yourself, smile and politely ask first. It will save lots of time.

Bring copies and identification. Must government offices will not make a copy for you, but right next door there is almost always a business owner with a copy machine taking advantage of this business opportunity. Copies are only a few cents here. Bring a copy of just about any document that you think you may need and most likely you will have forgotten a copy of something. Panamanian bureaucracy loves paperwork and copies. Arrive prepared.

Sign documents exactly like the signature on your identification. Many Panamanian government personal, especially bank employees, are like signature scientists. They absolutely love to study and compare your signature as if their job depends on it, insisting that your signature is exactly like your passport. I can not tell you how many friends I know that have had their personal checks later denied at their banks for the tiniest deviance in their signature. My signature is almost never exactly the same so I am always having to re-sign documents. It gets frustrating at times. I could never have a checking account here.

Never forget the stamps or your copy! If you are in need of any document from a government or utility office always make sure that it has an official stamp or seal from the associated entity. More than once I have walked out of an office with an important letter I needed for a process and the employee forgot to stamp it and I did not notice. If there is no stamp, it’s not valid. Also, make sure you have a copy of anything you sign and hold onto it for years. The office may not be able to find there copy in the future and it will be invaluable to have yours as proof. This goes for paid receipt of speeding tickets. Hang on to them.

Be prepared to wait. Few processes here are resolved in the same day. Must work dealt with in the bureaucratic apparatus is going to take a few steps over a few days. So be ready to start a process on one day and have  to return a few times to finish. Many times you can get everything started then write a note authorizing the “expediter” to finish up the process. Pay them a small fee rather than spending time and money for the return visit.

Last but not least, have a sense of humor. Dealing with government bureaucracy is part of the price to live any where in a modern society. Real estate transactions, car purchases, utility hook-ups, construction permits, work permits, residency visas, medical care, insurance, banking. You know the drill, successful living requires dealing with the system. Like anywhere in the world be prepared to deal with it in Panama. Be patient have a sense of humor and smile. It makes the process a whole lot easier.

Have fun!






  1. LOL “signature scientists”….you are not kidding there!