We have entered the dry season in Panama and marked the beginning of the high tourism time. Many visitors from around the world will be embarking on Panama, ready to visit the beaches, mountains, and beautiful hotels. If you are will be among them, take note of a recent situation in Panama.
Several people using international debit cards in bank Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) in Panama have been unable to receive their requested money. A message will come on the screen saying that the requested service is not available and that you should contact your bank. No receipt is given and the screen just returns to the welcome message. People who have been affected have checked their balance (usually online) to find that the amount they attempted to withdraw had been deducted from their account despite receiving no cash.
The good news is that in all cases that I have heard of the money has been returned to the account within ten days. However, the person was unable to receive cash, especially if they had requested their daily limit. This can put a tourist in a real bind and perhaps delay much anticipated plans if they are without ample funds.
It seems that the problem has arisen following a change to the system in September 2013. At this time machines were switched so that only the whole number value of the requested amount was entered (for example, if you were requesting two hundred and fifty dollars you now entered 250 instead of 250.00 as before). Currently all ATMs in Panama are managed by one company, although there is no proof that it is the company attempting to cause problems with international debit cards.
Here are a few suggestions to help you avoid this problem as you enjoy your vacation or business trip. First, while in Panama City or other large communities, use your credit card to pay for hotels and restaurants. This saves you from having a large amount of cash with you. Be sure to bring a Mastercard or Visa as they are most widely accepted. Also, contact your credit card company (either online or via telephone) prior to your visit to let them know you will be using your card outside of your normal location. For the cash that you will bring with you, bring smaller bills ($20 or less) as breaking fifties and hundreds can be a hassle in many parts of the country. Divide the money so it is not all in the same place in case you lose your wallet or are unfortunately robbed.
If you must withdraw cash while in Panama, do it during banking hours so you can go inside and alert them of the situation if you cannot withdraw money from the ATM. Alternatively, you could have someone send you money via Western Union. The money is available almost immediately and offices where you can pick up the money can be found even in fairly small towns throughout the country.
As a traveler in a country where you may not know the language you always have some apprehension. It is unfortunate that ATMs have this glitch affecting visitors, but by following the above suggestions, you can avoid the problem and have a wonderful visit to beautiful, tropical Panama.