My husband and I semi-retired to Panama a couple of years ago and it has been by far the most rewarding experience of our lives. We love it here and do not regret it for a minute. However the transition itself was not without its pitfalls. Therefore it occurred to me that I should share a few of our learning experiences to hopefully save some of you future headaches and/or frustrations.
For those of you who have already made the decision to relocate to this wonderful country—welcome. For those who are as yet undecided, maybe this will speed up your decision.
Here are a few suggestions to give you the benefit of our experience, which hopefully will aid you in a positive and hassle-free transition.
- If location, location, location is the catch phrase for realtors, the one for moving to Panama, or to any Central American country, should be Spanish, Spanish, Spanish. I cannot stress enough how much easier it is to accomplish things here if you at least have learned the rudimentary Spanish phrases. The ideal scenario would be to take a Spanish course while still residing in your home country. There are countless online courses, DVD learning sets, community college sessions, and more, to choose from.However, if that is not feasible, be sure to start your lessons as soon as possible after your arrival here. There are numerous excellent Spanish schools throughout every area of Panama, if a hands-on approach is your preference. Everything from living accommodation negotiations, to local customs, to ordering food, to getting your vehicle registered and insured are accomplished so much more efficiently if you speak at least some Spanish. Even obtaining a cell phone or having TV and internet connected are made easier. More and more Panamanians are learning English, but we must keep in mind that this is their country and it is up to us to adapt if we wish to settle in here comfortably.
- Panama has one of the best pencionado (retirement) programs in the world, but it is so important to have all your paperwork in order and to their specifications. Otherwise your application can be time consuming, frustrating, and expensive. Be sure to do your homework (all necessary documents are listed online through the Panamanian Consulate website). For example, criminal record checks and proof of pension documents are time sensitive and only valid for six months after issue. If using both spouses combined income in order to reach the required minimum a full form marriage certificate is necessary, not just a certificate. Then everything must be notarized and authenticated through the Panamanian Consulate or Embassy nearest you. Once your paperwork is ready and you have arrived at your new destination, do not attempt to obtain your pencionado/residency on your own. Hire a reliable, efficient lawyer and they will assist you through the entire process. It saddens me to say this but there are unfortunately some lawyers here who are less efficient and trustworthy than others, so it is advisable to do your research and hire a good one.
- Once you obtain your pencionado, and if you are like my husband and I who at this point, due to commitments in Canada, can only reside in Panama for part of each year, be sure to get the special stamp on your passport which allows you to move in and out of the country freely. Without that you need special permission to leave the country. If you attempt to leave without that special permission you can be fined $2000.00.
- Until you obtain your pencionado/residency you are in Panama under a tourist visa and may only stay for six months at a time. However, many people do not realize that you are only allowed to drive your vehicle without a Panamanian drivers’ license (which you cannot get without at least your temporary pencionado), for three months. Consequently if you plan to reside here for the full six months and drive while here, it is necessary to leave the country for seventy-two hours prior to the three month time limit. Many people take a bus to Costa Rica. Recently a small cruise company has started a service whereby you can embark in Panama City and take a short cruise to Columbia to fulfill your seventy-two hour absence. Upon your return from either place your passport has a new date stamp and you are legal to drive for your remaining three months.
These are just a few hints to ease your transition. There are countless others. I suggest speaking with other ex-pats who have already relocated in order for you to benefit from their experiences. Also consult with experienced, knowledgeable experts in this field such as immigration lawyers, tax experts, and more. There are also several magazines, blogs, and internet information sites that are excellent sources and either have the answers you need or can refer you to someone who has.
My final advice: Be patient, do your homework, take one step at a time, and it will be smooth sailing. Welcome Aboard!
Photo Source: SaavedraVS via Creative Commons