How To Arrange For Utilities

Settling In

Day by day, in these dispatches, I introduce you to your best options worldwide for living better and retiring well, hoping to help you make a choice.

But what happens when you do? Decide to retire to Las Tablas, Panama…Mendoza, Argentina…Languedoc, France…County Kerry, Ireland…or Penang, Malaysia…and then what?

The truth? In some ways, having done the hard work of determining where you’d like to launch your new life, the real work has only just begun. Because the getting-settled administration wherever you decide to build your new life overseas won’t be insignificant…and it won’t come without challenges and frustrations.

Boiled down, what you’re doing is creating a new life in a matter of weeks. You created your old life over…well, a lifetime. And with a lot of help.

If you grew up in the United States, for example, you received your Social Security number at birth (without much personal effort).

You probably got your driver’s license at 16 with the help of your parents. You likely opened a bank account (or had one opened for you, again, with the help of your parents), again, sometime during high school.

You bought your first car and insured it…you got your first passport (or your parents got it for you)…eventually you moved into a place of your own…where you had to arrange for electricity, cable, Internet, and telephone…and furniture…

You did all these things over two or more decades.

Now, in your new overseas home, you’re going to try to recreate your administrative life…while also establishing legal residency…within, as I said, a few weeks or months. You’re going to attempt to do this perhaps in a language you don’t fully comprehend. And without the support infrastructure of family and friends you’ve just left behind.

Further, like everything else in your new home, arranging for electricity, telephone, cable, Internet, and other services you may need to support your day-to-day life may not be as straightforward an exercise as you might hope. Representatives scheduled to appear Tuesday may show up Thursday…or not at all. Services scheduled to be installed next week probably won’t be.

A friend currently setting up house in Panama City has lost day after day sitting in his new apartment waiting for the cable guy, the refrigerator guy, and the air conditioning repair guy. As of this writing, neither the refrigerator nor the air conditioning function. He continues his repairmen vigils…

I make these points not to overwhelm you, but to try to put things into perspective. This is a big agenda item. Set your expectations about accomplishing it accordingly.

And approach it in steps…

Begin with your new place of residence. You’ll need to arrange for utilities–electricity, gas (used for cooking in most of the world), cable (if you want it), Internet, and a land-line phone (again, if you want one…many people around the world go without them and rely entirely on their cell phones).

Electricity and gas, though, aren’t optional, so start here. Unless you’re moving into a just-built apartment or house, the electricity will be hooked up already and perhaps already turned on. Often, if you’re renting, the account with the local electric company (and, therefore, the electric bill) will remain in the name of the landlord. It’s simpler and safer for them.

As I said, you may not need or want cable or a land line for a telephone. Investing (or not) in cable is your call. Maybe you want to be able to watch international sporting events or CNN and BBC news broadcasts. If you decide you want to invest in cable service…well, you’re familiar with cable guys back home. They’re worse overseas.

I recommend that you buy a local cell phone as soon as possible in your chosen country, before, even, you make it your country of residence. During a scouting trip, invest in a pay-as-you-go phone. These are super-cheap in most of the world these days and can be all you need, not only initially but long term. I’m still using the US$5 pay-as-you-go cell phone I bought in Panama three-and-a-half years ago when we moved here. The cost of minutes is so affordable that I don’t spend more than US$5 a month.

You’ll use Skype or another VOIP system for international calls. Which means you need Internet.

In many places around the world, as in the United States, the cable company is the telephone company is the Internet company, meaning you can opt for a package that provides all three services for less cost (usually) and less hassle than installing one or two of the three services individually. In most of the places we recommend to you as potential retirement havens, you’ll also have a choice of package service providers, meaning you can shop features and costs.

The other utility you’ll likely need to arrange for is gas. If your new home is serviced by mains natural gas, you’ll need to sign up for gas as well as electricity with the local provider. There’s no mains gas service in Panama and other Central American countries. Most people use bottled gas (propane) for cooking and hot water. If this is the case where you relocate, you’ll need to ask around to find out who to call to have new propane tanks delivered. You may be asked to leave a deposit for the first delivery. You’ll want two tanks on hand at all times, the one you’re using and an extra to switch to when the first one runs out. When one runs out, you call the service for them to come to exchange it.

In Ireland, our house, like most in the country, was heated with oil. Common practice was to wait for the oil tank to be nearly empty and then call for a refill. We decided (as we used enough gas on a regular basis) that we’d prefer for the heating oil company to come for scheduled refills every other month. This way we wouldn’t have to remember to call or worry about running out. However, persuading the oil company to schedule the regular visits to our home was a challenge. No one else seemed to operate this way.

In much of the world, your rental or real estate agent should be able to help you set up these services. Most agencies that cater to foreigners have people whose job it is to get utilities installed or transferred into your name. If the agent you’re working with doesn’t offer, ask. Sometimes, he or she will do it for a small fee, which can be well worth it, given the time and hassle it can save you.

Once your utilities are set up, you’ll eventually have to pay the associated bills. In places where the local mail system functions, this can be as simple as receiving your bill in the mail, writing a check, and mailing back the payment.

In most of Europe, it’s simpler still. In this part of the world, you can set up most utility payments on direct debit, and the amounts due will be automatically deducted from your local bank account on a specified day each month. As long as you’re diligent about balancing your local checkbook and making sure you have enough funds in your local account to cover all planned direct debits, this is a great system.

In Central America, on the other hand, where there’s typically no local mail service and where most locals don’t have bank accounts (meaning direct debit is unheard-of), the utility companies deliver bills by hand each month. If you’re not home, their representative will leave the bill under the door, on the front porch, in the front bushes, under your car tire, stuck in a palm tree, or wherever they think you might notice it and it won’t get blown away by the wind or destroyed by the rain.

You need to pay attention, as this “system” often breaks down. The wind blows harder or the rains fall more violently than expected, and your bill disappears. If you don’t realize this in time, you can easily get behind in your payments. Missing payment dates can result in fines and even, as happened to us recently in Panama City, your service being disconnected without warning.

The lack of mail service in Central America means not only that your utility bills must be delivered by hand, but also that you must go in person to pay them. In many places, you (or your representative…many people send their maids) must make a monthly trip to the local gas and electric company. This was the case for us in Nicaragua, where, unfortunately, the gas and electric office was located in a town 45 minutes via a dirt road from the place where we had our office. In other words, we couldn’t just run out any time to pay the electric bill. We planned the payments to coincide with weekly shopping and errand runs.

In some countries, payment stations are available in several locations–kiosks in grocery stores or malls, for example. In Panama, you can pay either at the electric company or at a payment kiosk. The payment kiosks are convenient because they generally take payments for all utility companies and services, including telephone, electricity, cable, Internet, etc., so you can make all your payments at once.

The point is that these day-to-day services work differently everywhere in the world, sometimes even region-to-region within a country. It’ll take you a little while to cop on to the nuances of managing them effectively and efficiently.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help…from the real estate agent you work with, the insurance agent, members of the local expat group, your new neighbors… You could even consider hiring someone to manage all this for you. This is what the friend I mentioned who is in the process of establishing himself in Panama City has done. He hired a young Panamanian guy to organize the set-up of local utilities and services, the delivery of furniture, the various repairmen he needed, a painter, etc. The approach wasn’t 100% turn-key, as my friend still had to spend days sitting in his new apartment waiting for deliveries and the perpetual promise of the arrival of repairmen, but the move overall was much more efficiently handled than it would have been if my friend had tried to manage it all on his own.

Kathleen Peddicord

Your New Life In Panama

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