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Moving to Panama – Avoiding Common Pitfalls

by Beth McGuyton on February 27, 2020
Moving to Panama – Avoiding Common Pitfalls

When considering a significant move to a new country, a lot of thought and planning is involved. Those not solidly set on destination may have an idea on a few spots and a list may be compiled to compare pros and cons, a few trips planned to check out locations as you begin thinking about dissolving your current home and lifestyle.

There is so much research involved many will give up before even starting. For many without limitless budgets, finding the best options for each step in the process is a challenge. Those seeking a lower cost of living can be overwhelmed as moving and immigration expenses mount.

This may seem a negative view. In our few years here, we have seen folks come and go, those who leave are often unsatisfied and return “home”.

But those who stay seem to have a common thread. Level setting or resetting your expectations is absolutely imperative to success.

There will be pitfalls in your journey.

The toughest one for us is learning a new language. Though Panamanians have their own distinct dialects, speak quickly and are often difficult to understand, they appreciate even the smallest efforts to communicate and are very helpful in a pinch. Most expats practice what we call PanaMime and it is often enough in daily interactions to get by.

In a warm climate, things move slowly. The frenetic pace of your previous life has led you to expect certain efficiencies in everything from government to service to medical. The immigration process is long and a good legal team will walk you through, ensure proper documentation is in place and hold your hand until the precious immigration card is in hand.

Purchasing a home along with immigration adds complexity and time. The most important detail is your preparation before arriving in Panama. The documents required need several steps to complete, criminal background checks have expiry dates and one missed item may require a return trip.

Panama allows visitors to stay for six months but external driver’s licenses are only valid for three months. Good information to know. Often the immigration process will be incomplete and will take multiple visits to the DMV to finalize as you work through the steps.

It is often suggested to rent before buying property and for those whose budget allows, this is a good idea. You will get a feel for the community and it’s infrastructure and amenities. One thing it will not do is provide a long term snapshot as people come and go, rental properties are everywhere and the transient nature makes for unpredictable neighbors.

Outside the city, in the beach area the weekdays are peaceful, birds and gardeners the only sounds but high season weekends can be raucous. Panamanians love music, the louder the better and often it plays all night.

Traffic in the city is often busy, construction impacts as everywhere else. The drivers seldom signal, motorbikes drive between cars and defensive driving is an absolute necessity.

Panama does not have a national postal service. Services are available, with and without monthly fees to accept your shipments but it is up to you to create your account.

There are a lot of stray dogs and significant efforts continue to spay and neuter the rounded up cats and dogs. An impressive volunteer group endlessly works to combat the issue.

These folks are part of the communities. Volunteers assist in the schools, tend the local libraries, sponsor charity events, hold community events.

The people who stay have experienced all the pitfalls yet they are still here. The difference is in their attitude. They researched, discussed, considered and then adjusted their expectations.

They understand and value the customs and traditions of their new home and accept the frailties with all the wonder and natural beauty. They appreciate the choices of lifestyle from city to mountains to beaches and want to explore and experience everything. They value the warmth, the breeze, the rain.  They enjoy the slower pace and adapt their expectations around the service industry. They sit back and enjoy the changing of seasons, each bringing new blossoms and riotous colors.

Surprisingly, there are a good number of these folks. Across communities with large expat populations, people have congregated who are like minded, open and adventurous and most of all, welcoming. The sense of community where we live is unexpected and valued. We have made fast friends, many who become second family in short order. Group events, potlucks, bonfires, live music, people love to get together and do on a regular basis.

For many, the slower pace opens up a whole new realm of creativity and expression. Yoga, art classes, meditation, so many folks have found passions never anticipated.

Overall, the first six months will likely be difficult, perhaps these insights can help as you search for your own personal version of paradise. The key is attitude and expectations.  Can you make the adjustments?

Let go of preconceived notions and accept a new way of thinking and doing.


The benefits can be overwhelming.


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