How to receive mail in Panama is one of the most frequent questions I see asked on expat forums, and one of the hardest concepts for many US expats (and our stateside relatives) to grasp. Panama does not have traditional street addresses (very few places have a street number, and there are no postal codes), so Panama does not have door to door mail delivery. My mother is still shocked by this concept, but it is true. However, just because there is no door to door service does not mean that there aren’t ways to send or receive mail and packages in Panama. It is just not like people are used to in countries with strong door to door mail systems.
National Mail Service
The national mail service, Correos y Telegraphos, provides a post office box to post office box mail service in Panama. Just like in the US, you can go to your local post office and register for a PO Box by paying a small yearly fee, and you can receive mail there, either sent from the US or within Panama. You can also send mail to the US from these offices.
However mail to and from the US often takes several weeks and a high percentage of it gets lost, so it’s not recommended for anything that needs to be sent quickly or that absolutely cannot be lost. But for sending and receiving postcards/personal letters (although seriously people, there’s this thing called email), it’s probably not a bad option. As far as mail service within Panama, I have heard mixed reviews from expats about how well it works. Most important items like bills are not sent through the mail in Panama, or are expensive packages. But for some folks, they will find value in using the national mail service.
UPDATE: From the comments, some personal experience from Henry Smith on using the mail system.
The Panama Post is better than some think, at least for sending packages. I have sent dozens of small packages to the US, Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, and England and all have been delivered within 3 weeks. Never lost anything.
Receiving mail can be a problem. Until this year I have had to file taxes without one or more 1099s, some of which arrive in May. My FEHB open season forms have never arrived before the deadline.
Getting Items Delivered From Local Stores
While online shopping is not widely available in Panama, some stores do offer it. Also, if you go in person to a store and purchase a large item like a bed or a couch, you will need a way to get it home. Many of the bigger stores offer their own private delivery services where they deliver your item by truck to your house. Sometimes there is an extra fee for this, sometimes it’s included. They will usually also offer you the ability to have someone come in and set up or build your purchase for you for a small extra fee. For stores that don’t have their own delivery services, you can also use pick-up delivery services, either through your own contacts or there may be one recommended by the store. This is essentially just some guy with a pick up truck who will come pick up your stuff from the store and strap it down to their truck and deliver it to your house. This is how we got our bed delivered, and it worked just fine.
International and Door to Door Couriers
If you need something sent to your door from overseas, or need to send something overseas quickly, companies like FedEx and DHL will do it for you. Be warned, that even for small items like documents, this can be extremely expensive. For most people, except for the most time sensitive and important documents, this is not a feasible option. Within Panama, you can also get things delivered door to door by private courier services, like bike messengers. I do not know the prices on these, but I imagine they are cheaper than FedEx or DHL.
Mail Scanning Services
I have not used one of these, and don’t really know many people who have, but there are certain companies who will set up a mailbox for you in the United States, and open and scan your mail for you. This way you could still receive your letters (although seriously people, email), bills, etc. I have no experience with this company so I can’t recommend their quality, but there is a company called Earth Class Mail that does this. It seems somewhat expensive, particularly if you receive a lot of mail. I prefer the much cheaper but just as effective method of having my US mail sent to my father’s PO Box and have him open it and send me anything that’s worth receiving. If you have a family member/close friend who will do this for you in the US, it is probably your best option.
But What About Amazon.com????
It’s amazing how many of us have become reliant on sites like Amazon to do our shopping. Fear not, because there is still a way to receive packages in Panama. There are many private companies that offer mail forwarding services. These companies will set up a mailing address for you in Miami where you can get your packages mailed to. From there, the company will ship it to a box you have at their offices in Panama where you can get the packages. You pay by the weight of the package, usually between $3-$5 per pound. Some companies also charge a monthly fee to maintain your box, while others only charge per weight. We personally use PTY Cargo Express and have had good experiences with them. We usually receive our packages about 3 business days after they arrive at our Miami box. Mail Boxes Etc. is another popular company with several locations in Panama.
Of course, with the added shipping costs of ordering items online from the US (import taxes can also be charged, although we have never gotten them on anything yet, including camera equipment), you have to pick and choose what you want to order online. We only use this service to get a few items, and they’re usually expensive items that don’t weigh a lot, so the extra cost of shipping doesn’t make the item that much more expensive that it would normally be. We usually pay about $20-$30 a package, so we’ve only maybe shipped a half dozen packages over the last year.
Since we are usually not in a rush for things (if you’re constantly in a rush for things in Panama, you’ll often be frustrated), we mostly use our friends and family who come to visit us as couriers for us for things we order online in the US, especially if they’re flying Copa or American and get two bags free. If its close to when I’m going back to the US for a visit, I’ll also ship things there and just take them back with me in an extra suitcase when I come back to Panama.
The supermarket chain Riba Smith also sends a shipping contain weekly from the US, and reserve some space for people to ship items from the US. They charge by size and not weight, so if you are sending something that is small but heavy, this may be a more cost effective way to do so.
So… how do I pay my bills?
In the beginning I mentioned that most bills are not handled through the mail service. This will no doubt be an adjustment for people who normally receive and pay their bills by mail. In Panama, bills are handled two ways, online or in person. Our monthly bills in Panama are our cable/internet, cell phone, electric, gas, and water. We receive our cable/internet and cell phone bills on-line, and they auto-charge to a credit card. This makes them super easy. For electric, gas, and water, they are delivered under our door. I don’t know if all of the bills for our building are delivered in bulk to the management, who deliver them under our door, or if that’s done by employees of the utility company. Our gas and water bill is included in our rent and handled by our landlord, but we are responsible for paying the electric bill.
If you have a Panamanian bank account and online banking set up with certain banks, you can pay your electric bill directly through your bank account. For the rest of us, we have to pay it in person. You can pay bills at the electric company offices, at some supermarkets, and at E-Pago machines. Most places only take cash. If you are late with paying you bill, there are only a few offices you will be allowed to pay at, and you won’t be allowed to pay by machine or at supermarkets. For a detailed look at paying your bills in Panama, check out this article from Chris at Panama for Real.
While there is no door to door mail service in Panama, there are many different ways to send and receive mail. However, because most methods suffer from some form of cost/time/reliability issues, you will find yourself sending and receiving a lot less mail than you did if you lived in a country with a robust mail system. This is one of the adjustments that expats should expect to make when living in Panama.