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Moving to Panama: 7 Things to Know Before You Move to Panama

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Do you have to buy a round trip ticket when moving to Panama? How difficult is it to bring my dog? Should I buy a home in Panama? Can I find health insurance that covers me in Panama and my home country when I travel back to visit relatives?

Moving to Panama - 7 Things to Know Before You Move to Panama

Expats in Panama have a lot of advice for people moving to Panama. If you're moving to Panama, read these tips from expats:

1. Don't Buy a One Way Ticket when Moving to Panama

"Just joined and looking for info on our arrival in two weeks. We bought a one way ticket as we are moving lock stock and backpack but are now concerned that we will have trouble at Customs in Panama City (which could effect our connection to David) since we don't have an exit plan. Should we buy a ticket stateside from Panama to another Central American country? Can we get around the ticket out of country by showing our paperwork and intent on obtaining a pensianado visa? Thanks for any and all info," asked one woman moving to Panama in 2 weeks.

One member replied, "It is the airline in your home country that won't allow you to board without a return. So... you either buy a cheap r/t ticket (which often costs less than a one-way), and eat the return portion, or buy a refundable ticket that you can modify once arrived in Panama. Customs controls goods you are bringing into the country; Immigration are the officials who control your status. Consensus is it best not to mention your plans to obtain the pensionado visa upon arrival, as it only complicates things. In summary, come in as a tourist, and have a return ticket. Good luck!"

Another added, "Twice I have come to Panama on a one way ticket. (2013 and 2016) Both times, I was told I could not board the plane without a return ticket to country of origin."

The original poster responded, "Have called the airlines (Copa) and been told it is not the airlines who care, it is Immigration. They said get it handled at the Consulate. We called the Consulate, they said they knew of needing an onward ticket and said a bus ticket out would work 'Well, it is a ticket, isn't it?' So far no real answers but lots of questions! Such a Catch-22."

"You definitely need a ticket out of Panama (and it has to be within 90 days). It can be a bus or plane ticket anywhere else but it has to be out of Panama. if you're planning on buying and then cancelling, make sure you purchase and cancel within 24 hours of your flight since most airlines give you only 24 hours to cancel with a full refund," cautioned another expat.

"There is no way around it. If someone lets you board a plane you will be stopped at Panama immigration. Just get a ticket out before you go to the airport to fly to Panama. One you can cancel or one that is refundable should work fine. Knowing this far ahead you have time to choose the least expensive/best one," urged another expat in Panama.

2. Considering Buying Health Insurance that Covers Travel to the US

Many residents of Panama spend part of their year back in their home countries. A person moving to Panama asked, "If I get health insurance in Panama can I use that health insurance policy in the U.S. if need be in case of emergency?"

One expat replied, "No, most plans here are 'Hospital' plans. If you get an 'International' plan it is costly and most International plans don't cover the U.S. That is why I always tell anyone who will listen to make sure you get your medicare entitlement when you qualify from the U.S. My husband and I have Medicare A, B, C, D. Example: 2013 we went back to the U.S. and my husband was in the hospital and had cancer treatments, our total out of pocket in the U.S. was approx. $1,100. his bill was around $90K. You will need a U.S. Address. We used our daughters address because that is where ALL our mail comes to and where we stay when we go up to the U.S. (Our second home)."

Another expat added, "If you are a Panama resident, Cigna Global has a plan that will give you international coverage, including coverage in the U.S. for up to 90 days a year. The rates are very affordable compared to the U.S."

3. Take Your Time Deciding Where to Live in Panama

Where to Live in Panama

In our article, 5 Great Places to Live in Panama we cover Panama City, Bocas del Toro, Boquete, Volcan and El Valle. Other towns and cities that are typically recommended to expats include Coronado, Las Tablas, Altos Del Maria, David and Pedasi.

Take your time when deciding where to live. If you're retired, you can live for a few months in each location that you are considering.

If you are interested in a relocation tour of Panama, consider our partner, Panama Relocation Tours.

4. Don't Bring a Car into Panama

"Don't bring a car into Panama. American types of Toyota vehicles as an example, are different than the Argentina ones we use here in Panama. Parts are different for most North American cars than what we have here. It's a huge cost to ship, and duty and storage. I have seen them sit on the docks at $100 a day storage for months while they try and register them and they are in no hurry. Unless you have a 57 Chevy that you can't part with, don't bring a car. There are plenty here, and the parts are easily accessible. The majority of Panamanians use public transit or walk. A car is a huge expense. If you are by yourself $1700 a month is luxury living. Panamanians are lucky to get $700 a month," advised an expat in Panama.

5. Rent for a Few Months Before You Decide to Move to Panama Full Time

Renting in Panama

When a single, 63 year old woman asked about moving to Panama as a single woman, one expat replied, "Before you make any decision you should come and visit and rent a place near the beach for at least 6 months. Make sure it is a gated community or a building with a security guard. Beach Areas in the Pacific side Coronado, Gorgona, Punta Barco, Santa Clara, Farallon. etc. It all depends whats your lifestyle. Coronado is full of expats other places are more quiet and some very very quiet. Do not buy only rent until you are completely sure this is the place you want to stay more than 5 years at least. Also, if you speak Spanish, it might be easier if not you should start practicing it does make a difference."

If you eventually decide to buy real estate in Panama, another expat warned that it's easy to buy a home, but can take a long time to sell your property. So, be sure you are planning to stay in Panama.

6. Avoid Shipping Everything to Panama

"I would have left everything that wasn't a necessity or too expensive to replace at home. You can find EVERYTHING in any brand in Panama and at prices comparable to the US. If shipping weight is an issue, just leave it and replace it. Perhaps the only exception is personal care items which by definition are very personal and it's hard to switch brands if by some reason, it can't be found at reasonable prices," recommended one person who moved to Panama City, Panama.

7. Get Advice and Help if You're Moving to Panama with Pets

Renting in Panama

If you are bringing a pet with you to Panama, read the Embassy of Panama's page about Traveling with Pets and get additional advice from expats on our forum. There's a lot involved, but many people have successfully relocated to Panama with pets.

"On an USDA International health certificate that is checked by the Panamanian airport authorities there are three different dates. First, the US licensed vet, then the USDA vet and then the Panama Consulate (Remember that the apostille is also valid instead of the Consulate). For the Panama Tocumen airport authorities the date that they take as reference is the date from their counterpart, in other words, the USDA office. Also as a general information, for the Panama Tocumen airport authorities the USDA HC is valid for 30 days and not only 10, but most airlines do ask for 10 days regardless that Panama accepts 30 days so you will have to follow the airline regulations in order to board your pet in their aircraft," advised one person who runs a pet relocation company.

"We just brought our dog down from California to Panama about 9 months ago. We flew on Copa. Our dog, Jordy, was too large (30lbs) to bring in the cabin, so he flew cargo. He did very well in cargo. I actually called the cargo folks in Copa. They guided me through every step. The trick is getting the documents you need on time. 10 days before you fly, you must get a vet to sign a form (the vet should know which form for Panama). This forms says the dog is healthy. Then you take that form to the USDA. We were fortunate enough to have one in San Francisco, so I could actually take the form in. Depending on where you live, you might have to Fed-ex the form. Then, you must get it to a Panamanian consulate. In our case we did have to fed-ex the form. You must pay with a money gram and provide a paid fed-ex (or maybe a USPS envelope). Check with the consulate. It is a nail biting experience but in our case it worked well. Be sure you are not flying in on a holiday because once you arrive in Panama, your dog will have to get through customs which involves a lot of paperwork and a quick vet check. The vet is on-site at the airport but you need to check the hours. And they are NOT there on weekends and holidays. I do not know the procedure for having your pet as a service dog...but the forms to get him/her through Panama customs will be the same no matter how he/ she flies in," recalled one expat.

If you're moving to Panama, health insurance is an important consideration. Take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

Join our Panama Expat Forum

Visit our Panama Forum and talk with other expats who can offer you insight and tips about living in Panama.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

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First Published: Mar 06, 2017

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