As we’ve highlighted over the past week, Panama is one of the best places in our world to think about living, retiring, investing, or starting over overseas.
The country’s two long coasts—one along the Pacific, the other on the Caribbean Sea—wildflower-covered mountains, and river-crossed rainforest serve up diverse options for living better and retiring well, sometimes on a very modest budget.
And Panama City—with its highway and metro systems and Johns Hopkins-affiliated Punta Pacifica—is without peer in the region.
Plus, this country is home to some of the world’s biggest communities of expats—in Panama City, the City Beaches area, and Boquete, for example—and uses the U.S. dollar, meaning no currency-exchange risk for retirees with U.S. dollar-denominated nest eggs.
Panama’s easy access to the United States and user-friendly residency programs are icing on the cake.
Today, as we wrap up our extended look at living and investing in the country where we’ve chosen to call home ourselves and to base our Live and Invest Overseas business, I’d like to take a step back and regroup.
If you were to decide (as we’ve done) that Panama should play a part in your new life overseas plans, what should you do next?
Here’s a getting-started guide to relocating to Panama…
Panama offers more than a dozen visa options for foreigners interested in taking up full-time residence, including the world’s gold-standard pensionado program, specifically designed for retirees, and its Friendly Nations visa, which is among the easiest residency options available from any country and allows you to work in the country.
Other residency options that could work for you, depending on your circumstances, include a reforestation visa, an investor visa, a small business visa, and an employment visa.
If you’d like to be able to come and go as you like from Panama indefinitely, speak with a licensed Panamanian lawyer to review all relevant residency visa options. Important considerations to put on the table at the start of the conversation include whether or not you want to start a business or be able to work while in the country and whether or not you’re interested in acquiring a Panamanian passport.
Finding Your New Home
One important thing to understand as you launch a search for a place to live is that rentals of less than 45 days are illegal in Panama City… though not in the rest of the country. Nearly all accommodation in the country’s “interior” (that is, everywhere in Panama outside the capital) is rented on a nightly or weekly basis.
Properties both to rent and to buy aren’t hard to come by, but the best way to find them is not online, where listings can be outdated and misleading. It’s better to search by word of mouth.
Setting Up Your Home
The first step to setting up your household is establishing a permanent address. You’ll need a lease agreement or property title to set up utilities.
Most apartments come with gas set up and included as part of the homeowners’ association fees and some include water. If you’ll be living in a private home, you can order gas tanks from a local gas company for US$5 to US$7 for a 10-pound tank.
You’ll need to take your lease agreement or property title to Naturgy to have electricity installed and to the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales for water.
You can buy a pay-as-you-go chip for your cellphone from any “mini-super” or corner store. These can be recharged with enough minutes and data to last a month for US$15. A typical plan with unlimited data costs about US$45 per month.
The top two providers of cable and internet are Cable Onda and Cable & Wireless. Do some research before choosing because service levels vary depending on where in the country you’re located.
Furnishing Your Home
In Panama City and City Beaches area, you’ll have no problem outfitting your home in whatever style and according to whatever budget you’d like. From Conway (think Target) and PriceSmart to high-end and boutique furniture shops, shopping for furniture and housewares in the capital is as easy as setting up a household in any major U.S. city.
Outside these areas, though, the challenge can be greater. Formal shopping options can be much more limited, and your best bet can be to find local craftsmen who can custom-make what you need (following photos torn from a Pottery Barn catalog, for example).
Getting Around Panama City
Panama City is one of the least walkable places in the world. In addition to the heat and rain, pedestrians must also contend with aggressive drivers, potholes, open manholes, lake-like puddles, and sidewalks that end without explanation, leaving you stranded on the side of a road.
Fortunately, you have good alternatives for getting around town, including taxis, Uber, Metro Bus, and the Metro rapid transit system.
Getting A Panamanian Driver’s License
The Pan-American Highway passes right through Panama and begs you to hit the road.
You can drive in Panama on your current U.S. driver’s license for three months. After that, you’ll need to apply for a Panamanian driver’s license. To do this, you’ll need to visit your country’s consulate or embassy and take vision and hearing tests.
Connecting With Other Expats
Connecting with people who have gone through the same process can make the relocation experience much easier. Panama’s biggest concentrations of expats are in Panama City, Coronado, Boquete, Santa Clara, El Valle, and Pedasí. In these communities you’ll find groups, communities, and forums set up specifically for socializing and networking. You’ll have no trouble finding English-speaking company and making friends.
Panama City’s Cinta Costera, the 11-kilmoter stretch of paved oceanfront along the Bay of Panama where you can walk, jog, or cycle, is a great option for exercise outdoors in the capital. This pedestrian zone is dotted with workout equipment, basketball courts, and soccer fields, as well as parks and gardens where you’ll see groups practicing yoga and tai-chi in the early mornings and evenings.
The popular franchise PowerCLUB, with gyms across the capital and beyond, is a great option for more focused training. Membership is about US$75 per month.
You can get by in Panama City, the City Beaches area, Boquete, and elsewhere in Panama without learning to speak Spanish, but we don’t recommend it. An effort to learn even a few words of the local language is appreciated and will go a long way toward helping you connect to your new life.
Arm yourself to start with the basics—buenos días, gracias, con permiso, hasta luego, por favor, and dónde está, for example—then, if you’re up for it, challenge yourself to become more conversant. The country boasts many good Spanish-language schools, including, EPA! Español en Panamá, in Panama City.
Learning To Go With The Flow
In your previous life, you may have taken certain levels of efficiency for granted in everyday interactions. Things work differently in Panama.
When a repairman stands you up for the third time, the electricity goes out for the second time in two days, and another Panamanian taxi driver cuts you off in traffic, it’s important to maintain your sense of humor.
You could let the day-to-day frustrations and struggles of life in the developing world send you screaming into your pillow… or you could laugh it off.
When life in paradise seems like anything but, reach out for support. Get in touch with an expat friend to share tales of challenge and woe.
You can remind each other what attracted you both to life in this sunny Shangri-La in the first place.
Founding Publisher, Overseas Opportunity Letter