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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Real Deal on Paying Your Bills In Panama

When you first move to Panama, you'll no doubt feel a little lost. Things are going to be a bit different here. Setting up your utilities and cable TV and Internet...all that stuff might be somewhat of a challenge, especially when dealing with the language barrier. Then, once you have everything set up, there's still that pesky task of  paying your bills. That is, unless you're one of those rich expats who move here and pay an assistant to take care of everything for you. Now that would be nice, but for most of us, it's not reality. Paying bills sucks no matter where you're located, so let's talk about how it differs here in Panama from what you may be used to.

I've been here so long now that when I started out writing this, I realized that I'd forgotten how strange life was when I first moved to Panama. Most differences are no big deal, but even the smallest oddities can make you feel so out of place. First, you have to realize there's no normal mail service here. You won't see a mailman in his short blue shorts and high socks marching from door to door. It's so different here in that aspect. In Panama, the companies send out their own errand boys/people to drop off your bill. You might be sitting in your living room and hear someone yell out, "Agua!" That actually happened yesterday at my house. I was sitting on the couch, working on my next book, when someone walked by and shouted "water" through my open window.

I guess I'm not usually home when the water bill is dropped off because it kind of took me by surprise. What do you yell back when someone shouts water? At least if it had been, "Marco!" I could have replied with, "Polo!." But agua? I felt all my cool points dissipate as I struggled to produce a witty comeback. The guy outside, unlike the ones who ride by and sell fresh produce, pick up appliances, fix your shoes, shout out political taunts, and provide all other sorts of door-to-door services, wasn't simply selling water like one might think. Turns out, he was just warning us that he was dropping off the bill. 

This is how your bills will show up

I looked outside and there it was, tucked safely in the door handle (sometimes you'll find your bill stuffed into the metal bars on your window). Most people in Panama don't have a mailbox.

So, once you get your hands on a bill, what now? You don't just rip off the bottom portion, sign a check, lick an envelope, toss it back into the box, and raise the red flag. Those days are long gone my friends. I've been out of the U.S. for over five years now, so that may not even be the way it's handled there now. I know I used to pay all my bills online. 

I got the idea for this short article (short because it's pretty easy and doesn't need a lot of detail, but you know me, I'm always long winded and will probably stretch this out with a story or two) when a reader sent me an email asking about paying bills in Panama. Apparently, he'd spent some time chatting with an elderly Panamanian man who'd explained to him that paying bills in Panama always requires that you actually visit the company you need to pay.

You can go directly to the source in Chitre and pay your water bill here

Hearing that didn't surprise me. It seems to be that Panamanians over the age of maybe 50, either don't trust the other systems in place, don't have the technical know how, or just have no idea other avenues exist. When I first moved to Panama and was a lot less knowledgeable than I am now, I listened to my father-in-law when it came time to pay the electric bill. Remember, Mar left Panama when she was 18 and married me shortly after, so she didn't know the ways of the bill-paying-Panamanian world either. With our feet planted firmly on foreign soil, we were both learning the ways of our new world, and unfortunately under the direction of someone with this old school train of thought.  

Dad-in-law insisted that I needed to go to the actual electric company to pay the bill. So I did. I wasn't gonna argue. I didn't know there were alternatives, so what was there to argue. So there I stood, in line, without about 20 other people lined up along the sidewalk, waiting to get into the office to pay the bill. Every time someone exited the building, someone else would be allowed entry. Finally, I made it to the front of the line, where the security guard allowed me to enter, just to find that the line kept going, snaking back and forth all the way to the counter. At least the inside was air conditioned. When I finally paid, the girl behind the counter stamped the bill with the date, the amount paid, and all that other good stuff, and I was on my way.

It wasn't a complicated process, but man, it was a lengthy and tedious one. It turned out to be an embarrassing one too as I was still struggling with the difference between "hale" and "empuje," or in English, the dreaded "pull" and "push" stickers you see on glass doors. I've never had luck with the push/pull conundrum. Even in English, there's a 99% chance I'll make the 50% choice wrong and end up running into the door. Well, that's exactly what happened at the electric company, packed with Panamanians waiting in line, when I went to exit and I empujed (think I just created a word) rather than haled and smacked right into the glass door. A buddy of mine who was behind me in line came out a minute later to rub in how hard everyone was laughing after I'd left. Good times. I love being a gringo rodeo clown.
Looks something like this

So, after this ridiculous, time-wasting experience, I kept thinking, "Man, there has got to be an easier way to pay bills." Turns out there was. And there still is. Here are the ways you can pay your bills here in Panama. Of course, if I miss any, I invite readers to write in the comments section to keep us all in the loop.

Go Directly to the Source: 

As I just mentioned, this is the only way many older Panamanians will pay their bills. Even after I'd discovered other ways to do it, my father-in-law insisted I go directly to Ensa (the electric company) or Idaan (the water company), etc.

"But why?" I asked.

"Because you have to. You have to make sure it goes through immediately," Dad-in-law explained.

And that was that. It's kind of like insisting that you have to go to Blockbuster to rent a video because you don't trust Redbox or Netflix. 

There's no doubt that handing over cash and getting a stamped "paid in full" receipt in return is the safest route, but it's definitely not the most convenient. So what other ways are there to pay bills? 

Multi Pagos (and the other small pay stations)

It wasn't until I'd been here awhile that I noticed all the people standing in line at these little pay boxes in the Super 99 grocery stores. Then I noticed something similar in the Rey supermarkets. I realized I didn't have to go straight to the source to pay the bills. I could just take care of it at the supermarket. That wasn't as easy as paying online, but it was a heck of a lot easier than going to three to four different buildings to pay the bills.

Pay your bills, use Western Union, and other stuff at these Multi Pagos
These multi pay stations have a database with most companies you'd need to pay. The easiest way to pay is to bring your actual bill with you. And trust me, it's best to bring the most recent bill. Some of them won't let you pay with an old bill even though it has your account number on it. I found this out one time when I was a little bit behind on my electric bill. I hadn't received the newest bill, but I was late on the old one, so I took it in and tried to pay. They wouldn't take it. I had to wait until my next bill came out, then take it in and pay with the updated bill.

The funny thing is, even if you don't have your bill on you, you can usually fill out a form like the one you see in the following picture. If you don't have your bill with you, make sure you know what the NIC # is, pronounced like NICK, as you won't be able to pay your bill without this valuable piece of info:  

Just a simple form, requesting loads of info

If you take a look at the photo, you'll see that quite a bit of info is requested on this form. You may also recognize this info, as I've used it before in one of my supermarket tips articles. It goes great with this article too, so I'm sharing it again. Here's what all those questions on the form mean in English: 

Cia a pagar = Company you are paying (like Ensa for electric, Cable Onda for cable, etc.)

Fecha = Today's date.

No. De Cuenta a Pagar = The NIC or customer number.

Nombre del Cliente = Your name (or whoever's name the account is under).

No. Cedula = The cedula is like the social security number in the United States. It's a Panamanian's ID number. If you don't have a cedula you'll use the number on your immigration card or your passport number. 

Cheque/Efectivo = Put the amount down that you're paying either with a check (cheque) or cash (efectivo). 

Escriba en letras Total del Pago = Here you write out the total amount. I don't speak/write Spanish yet (not very well anyways) so I usually leave this part blank and they fill it out for me. ;)

Banco/No. Cheque = If you're using a check to pay, write the bank name and check number here. 

No. Telefono = Your telephone number.

See, if you have your bill with you you won't have to worry about all that. They'll just stamp the bill and give it back to you as a receipt that you paid.

My only complaint about using these multi pago stations, and it's going to be the same with any form of payment where your physical presence is required, is the amount of people you'll find in line, especially at rush hour. Early mornings, lunch breaks, and right after work (especially on or around the quincena, or payday, you'll find a lot of people lined up to pay bills, send/receive money through Western Union, or to engage in one of the other many services these multi pagos provide. Your best bet is to go in sometime around 10am or maybe 2pm.   


Similar to these multi pay stations you find around town, are the Epagos, like you see in the photo below.  

This is the ePago in Penonome

These Epago buildings can be found in just about every town in Panama. I even saw one in Las Tablas, which is what I'd consider one of the smallest, most third-world towns in Panama. These are run pretty much the same way as the multi pay stations. You can go into this one building and pay just about anything you'd need to pay.

The Western Union at Los Pueblos

In addition to these, you can also go into some other places like Western Union and pay your bills. The photo above is the Western Union at the Los Pueblos shopping center in Panama City (technically the Juan Diaz area I guess).

This pay station was inside of a small supermarket off of Via Brasil in Panama City

Western Union isn't the same as ePago, so these smaller substations aren't necessarily part of ePago, but they're other convenient places to pay your bills. You just have to find the place closest to you. If you want to see what services can be paid at the actual ePago locations, check out this list:

Bank Online

Perhaps the easiest way to pay your bills, and the method I definitely prefer, is to pay your bills through your bank's online system. Not all banks will have this available, but when they do, it makes life so much easier. We bank with Banco General and pay all of our bills online through their system. 

I prefer the bank's online pay system

You just look up the company you want to pay, put in your account number to register, then remember to go back each month and pay your bills. Once you've set it up once, the account numbers and companies you need to pay should remain in the system, making it easier the next month as you'll only need to put in the amount you'd like to pay.

And if you need a quick refresher on what it takes to open a bank account in Panama, check out the video I put together, The Real Deal Report on Banking in Panama by clicking HERE.  

Now, while my father-in-law loves to have that sheet of paper in hand with the stamped "paid and received" notice right there on the slip, I'm fine with having it recorded in my bank's system. I think it's easier that way. I can lose a sheet of paper. It's much easier for me to check my account history online.

***UPDATE on 8/28/14*** After publishing this article, readers and friends, Todd B. and Emma V. both wrote to tell me about a service I hadn't heard about. It's called Multientrega. Apparently, these people will come to your house, take your cash and bill, give you correct change, then go pay your bill and bring the receipt back to you. And the cost is not bad at all. Todd says he pays less than $10 (which when you consider the cost of gas or taxi and the time it takes to stand in line to pay your bills is not bad at all). I haven't personally used the service, but Todd and Emma are serious people, so it sounds like a good alternative to the madness that can come with paying your bills in Panama. Here's the Facebook page for Multientrega:

I know this post was shorter than usual, but it's fairly simple and I just wanted to clear it up a little for anyone thinking it was difficult to pay bills in Panama. 

Hope this helps guys.

Thanks for reading, 


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