If you’re moving to Panama (or anywhere), it makes sense to pare down. But if after the garage sale and the dump run and donating your clunker to your nephew, you’ve still got stuff to ship, here’s some firsthand advice from Our Man in Boquete, who relocated to Panama in late 2009. Scroll to the bottom for advice on shipping cars, though Our Man’s basic advice is: Don’t Do It!
“First, if you already have a pensionado visa granting you residency in Panama, you may import US$10,000 worth of used household goods duty-free. If you don’t have residency, you’ll have to pay customs duty on everything. Basically it’s 5% as far as I know. It depends, however, on the discretion of the customs guys to appraise the value of the goods, so it’s an open field (and subject to how much you’re willing to bribe). It doesn’t help to show receipts from where you bought the stuff; they are free to appraise whatever they want.”
Heading for Chiriqui? Arrange for customs clearance in David
“Try to avoid having customs clearance done in Balboa harbor (that’s the harbor at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal) or in Colon (at the Caribbean end of the canal). If you’re intending to live anywhere in the province of Chiriqui [like the expat haven of Boquete], ask the shipping agent to have the container dispatched to David [after it goes through the canal] for customs clearance. To achieve this it is very important to have the destination in the Bill of Loading read: “To____(the place where you’re going to live) via David” Insist on this with your U.S. shipping agent and/or the local agent contracted by the U.S. shipper.
“There’s a very small customs office near the David airport, and it’s much easier to get the stuff through customs here. There’s a lady named Juana who’s in charge of imports (Spanish speaking only), and a small “regalo” (gift) passed discretely via handshake helps smooth the procedure considerably.”
Don’t sit on your hands
“It is also very important and helpful to be present in person a couple of days before the shipment is due to arrive in port [Balboa or Colon], and to contact the local agent directly. Get involved — don’t leave it to the discretion of your agent! There may be many kinds of problems showing up anytime…and for every day the container stays in the harbor they’ll charge you an additional $125. Again, having the container shipped to David for customs clearance avoids this possible storage problem since the container will only stay in port for the minimum required time before going on to David. Also, David customs most likely won’t charge you exotic fees like “Quarantine exemption fee for wooden furniture” or “Fee for unusually extensive customs inspection” that might (and did, for people I know) occur at those other customs offices. It goes without saying that one should be also present at the customs office where clearance will take place.”
(Not) importing cars into Panama
Our Man in Boquete strongly advises not importing cars to Panama. “From everything I’ve heard,” he writes, “it’s a nerve-wracking and costly procedure. There’s the appraisal problem, where they don’t give a damn about what you paid for your car in the U.S. They will also keep your car(s) in custody for as long as all the necessary paperwork needs to be finished, and that can take months!
“And they’ll charge you storage costs for each and every day.
“If you’re willing to cough up a couple of grand it may speed up the procedure but why do this? Cars in Panama are reasonably priced and readily available, so unless you’ve hung your heart on a very special car it really doesn’t make sense to import a car here.
“One more note: Although by law you’re entitled to import a car duty-free every two years if you’ve got a pensionado visa, hardly anybody is doing it. Why not? Well, although you won’t have to pay customs duty, they’ll charge you a 5% “sales tax” based (again) on their free-ranging appraisal of the car’s value, plus storage fees and the whole shebang.”
“Basically, I’d advise to scale down the amount of stuff to be shipped. Moving to another country also is some kind of a new beginning, so why carry all that old baggage with you?”