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We get plenty of questions about our journey to becoming ex-pats. What made us choose Panama is one of the most common ones. The answers involved makes this one of our longer articles.
The positive things...
The cost of living was one of the main reasons we are becoming ex-pats. Even before deciding on Panama, we knew that we couldn't afford the type of life we wanted if we stayed in the United States. We are right in the middle of what is considered "Middle Class" in America and that simply isn't going to get us beach front property any place in the states. Panama has a lower cost of living in general and the fact we want to live out on an island away from town means we can have a nicer home. As a bonus, Panama uses the US Dollar as their main currency.
Sefety was another very important consideration for us. There are plenty of countries where the cost of living is low. But not all of them are safe, especially for Americans. Panama is a very safe country on several levels. The crime rate is reasonably low. The country itself is very friendly to ex-pats and the people we have encountered are all very pleasant and welcoming. The government of Panama appears to be quite stable and they lookout for their people. We also took into account that high value of the Panama canal to other countries would make it more likely that the nation would stay stable.
No matter where we moved, we knew that we would want to return home sometimes and family may want to come visit us so we didn't want to be too far away. Other than some US taritories like Puerto Rico or the US Vergin Islands, Panama is one of the easiest places to get to. Flights are reasonably priced and travel time isn't too bad. In contrast, Fiji and Thailand are quite far and expensive to fly to. Bocas del Toro only has a small airport, but it is a quick 45 minute flight into Panama City where we can catch a flight to any other country.
Visiting and becoming an ex-pat is very easy in Panama. There are no visa requirements to visit Panama as long as you are staying for 90 days or less. When staying longer, there are several visa options. For those that will working in the country, the Friendly Nations visa is the best, but because we are not going to be working and we will be living on a guaranteed pension, we qualify for the Pensionado visa which gives us many discounts to products, services and medical care. There are several other options including becoming a full citizen. In general, Panama is very friendly to ex-pats.
Of course, we had to consider the quality, cost and accessibility of medical care. In the United States, the quality of medical care is pretty good (but not the best) but the cost is so high that most people can't afford it, even with decent insurance. In Panama, the cost of medical care is quite low and the quality is decent. Our only concern is the access but this has less to do with Panama itself and more to do whith where we chose to live. Bocas Town has a small hospital where they can deal with most issues at least enough to get you transported. We spoke to a couple people that had accidents and needed emergency medical care. They told us the costs and for their entire treatment it was less than a single emergency room visit in the states. They both reported very good care and clearly they recovered well. So in our view, we won't have any medical concerns beyond getting to the hospital from our island.
The primary language in Panama is Spanish which is the second most common language in the world. English is a close third. If you are wondering what the most comon language is, it's Chinese according to Babble.com. We are slowly learning Spanish, although we could study harder. It seems that we learn more in a couple weeks during a visit than we do while studying at home. Probably because it is harder to use the language here without sounding like a fool. People in Panama seem to appreciate the fact we are trying and they are very patient with us.
The people that we have encountered are very friendly and helpful. Everyone seems rather happy and they all make us feel welcome. We have interacted with all kinds of people including the military and police. Any time we needed assistance, everyone did what they could to help us and they were all very patient with us when we had trouble communicating.
The negitive things...
Getting a bank account is quite a bit of work. Banks in Panama really don't want to deal with Americans in general. This really isn't their fault though. You see, wealty Americans were hiding money in Panama banks for many years, but now America uses sanctions to force Panama banks to report holdings for any American with a balance over $5,000 and that is a lot of work for the banks. So to make sure you are not going to cause them any trouble, they make Americans (maybe others as well) jump through some pretty serious hoops. Some of the requirements include getting references from two banks where you have accounts as well as two personal references. They also require you to visit a bank branch in person to show identification and fill out all the paperwork.
Buying property is a strange and complex process. This may be true in any country when compared to what we are use to here in the United States. There are two basic types of property in Panama. First there is titled property which is similar to what we know of here in the states but there is also right of posission property which is not registered with the government but is tracked through maintenance records and sales records. In either case, you must maintain the property or it could be taken back without compensation. Even thoughg that sounds scary, it isn't a problem as long as you don't try to buy property to sit on without actually using (like an investment). There are no title companies in Panama so instead you hire an attorney to perform the same job. A good lawyer will educate you about the process and help you understand every step before you dedicate your money to the sale.
These are the largest factors that we liked and disliked about Panama. There are sure to be many other aspects of the country that were not covered here. No matter what country you are interested in, the best advice we can offer is to go visit and get out of the tourist areas. Meet the local people beyond the business operators. Walk the streets, sit in the parks, watch the families. Experience as much as you can and do your own research. Leaving your home country is a scary thing but is quite an amazing experience.
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