In much of the world, using cash is quickly becoming obsolete, as not only credit cards, but Paypal, Apple Pay, Bit Coin, and many other forms of payment are being accepted for more and more things. When I lived in the US, I rarely carried much cash with me, as I almost never had the need to use it. However, in Panama, while the economy is migrating more towards a credit card and digital transaction economy, you will still find plenty of instances where cash is king.
Here is a list of 10 items that you may find yourself needing to use cash. For some of these situations, some people may have found non-cash ways to pay, but many others will find themselves using cash for these needs, particularly if they do not have a Panamanian bank account.
One more quick note about cash before we start: When you use cash in Panama, unless absolutely necessary, try not to use any bill bigger than a $20. Most of the places you need to use cash for won’t take them, and if you use $50 or $100 bills other places, it’s a process. They will likely have to call over a manager to check the bill, and they will take down the bill’s serial number, your license or passport information, address, and contact information. It’s a process that will slow business behind you, so try to always use small bills.
Panama’s taxi services are strictly a cash only business. There is no pay by card method. In fact, more than just a cash business, Panama taxis usually operate close to an exact change business. Since fares are not metered but instead negotiated, exact change for your fare is always best. It will give you the most control over how much you pay (when you ask for change, it’s easier for them to raise the fare and just hope you accept the amount of change given). Drivers also sometimes won’t make change more than breaking a dollar (for instance making change for $3 on a $2.50 fare). I’ve found that most will make change to the next level of bill. So if your fare is $2.50, most will make change for a $5. If your fare is more than $5, they will make change for a $10, etc. But this is not always the case, so if you want change, it’s always best to ask before you get in the cab. If you try to ask for change for a $20 to pay a $2 fare, you will run into trouble.
If you want to avoid using cash, you can check out the new low-cost UberX service, which is metered and charges directly to your credit card. Depending on where you are going, it may be more or less expensive than a cab.
Fondas are smaller Panamanian restaurants that specialize in cheap and quick food. They can be food stands, or cafeteria style restaurants with indoor seating. They are rarely sit down service restaurants. They usually are targeted toward the lunch crowd, and only operate during lunchtime. At most of them, you can get a full meal, including sides and a drink, for $5 or less. Because the food at these restaurants is so cheap, they usually don’t accept credit cards. This may be expected for a food stand, but this is the case at many fondas with inside seating as well. Before you place your order, if you need to use card, always make sure to ask if they accept them. You don’t want to have placed your order and find you are in a situation where you cannot pay for it.
3. Corner Stores/Mini-Mart
There is another name for these places that Panamanians and expats are familiar with, but it’s kind of racist towards the Chinese community, so here I’ll just call them corner stores. These will usually be near places of employment, and big apartment complexes. Think of them as the stores that are usually attached to gas stations, just without the gas part. They are usually a bit more eclectic in their selection, and pride themselves on having a random assortment of stuff you may need, so that when you are in a hurry and only need a couple of things, you can be in and out quickly. Most of these stores will only take cash. The ones that are bigger and are called “mini-supers” will sometimes take cards, but your average convenience store will not.
4. Street vendors
This one may be self explanatory, but if you want to purchase anything from a street vendor, you are going to need to use cash. Panama has a fairly vibrant street vendor economy, and you will see a lot more of them than you are used to if you come from the US. So if you want to buy plantains chips and raspao (shaved ice) on the Cinta Costera, a soda from someone at a stoplight, fruit from a fruit stand by your office, or tourist crafts from the tourist markets in Casco Viejo or Panama Viejo, you are going to need to use cash. This is another example like taxis where smaller/exact change is better.
5. Home services
If you have a full time maid or worker who is considered an employee, you will usually not need to pay by cash. But if you have a maid who comes once a week, or to pay the air-conditioning repairman, or the gardener, etc, you will most likely need to use cash (even if they do accept check, cash would be much more appreciated).
6. Bus/Metro Card recharge
There is a process to recharge your bus/metro card online with a credit card, but even after paying online, the money does not get added to your card until you go to a recharge machine and put in your card. Because of this, it is usually just easier to recharge your card directly at a recharge machine (which can be found at many shops and supermarkets) with cash. The machines themselves will not take credit cards directly.
7. Electric bill
Many utility bills in Panama are either paid by your landlord as part of your rent (this is how our gas and water bills are taken care of), or can be set up to charge to credit card (we charge our cable and cell phone bills). However most places you rent (unless you are renting a room in an apartment share) will require you to pay your own electricity. You cannot pay the electric bill by credit card. If you have a Panamanian bank account and online banking, you can set up auto pay with some banks. If you do not, cash if your only way to pay. If you are on time with your bill, you can pay at e-pago location at certain stores and supermarkets. If you are late, you can only pay at an electric company office.
I polled an expat group regarding how they pay their rent, and found that approximately half pay their rent using a cash method, while the other half pay using bank transfer from a Panamanian bank account. We pay our rent directly in cash to our landlord (who happens to be my wife’s aunt, so we always feel safe with the process), and it seems that many others do as well. Others were given their landlord’s account number and they would take cash and deposit it directly into the landlords account.
The exact method you use will depend your individual landlord. Panama doesn’t have apartment complexes in the traditional sense, where all the units are owned by central management and rented out from one office. All of the buildings are condos, where individual owners buy units and then in turn rent them out.
9. Bag boys/girls
When you go to any major super market, you will have no problem using credit cards. However, it’s important to not go completely cashless, as you will need to have a little bit of change to tip your bag boy or bag girl. In addition to bagging up all of your groceries in the checkout line, they will take them and load them in your car, or help you flag down a taxi and load your bags in there. Some will even cross busy traffic with your bags to help you get to the side of the street that a taxi cab is more likely to take your fare. All bag boys and girls work for tips, and for some, it is the only income they earn, as they do not get paid by the stores. So always make sure to tip them. The exact amount that is appropriate will vary. We usually give a dollar, with a little more if the service goes above and beyond. Some people only give a couple of coins. Others may give more. It really depends. But you should always give something.
10. Public restrooms
Certain public restrooms, particularly in the malls, will charge a quarter to use them, so it’s never a bad idea to make sure you have quarters on you, as there are usually turn-style machines that you have to put the quarter in to get past. Some larger stores in the malls will have restrooms that you don’t have to pay for, but they are not always stocked with toilet paper or soap. For the most part, paid restrooms are clean and properly stocked.
Alright folks, where else do you find yourself usually spending cash in Panama that I didn’t mention? Any other workarounds for getting around using cash at these places? Let me know in the comments.