1. Are there any local customs that a newcomer to Panama should be aware of?
The most obvious local custom in Panama that will affect your daily life consists of arriving roughly 30 minutes to an hour fashionably late to any event. If an event is called for a certain time you can be sure it will not start “happening” until about 45-90 minutes later. Other local customs are very much related to personal family cultures or religion. For example, many families from the city who have second homes in the interior spend Sundays at the beach. Sunday is a big family day. Another is that Christmas is not celebrated on December 25th, but rather on Christmas Eve. On the 24th, young people stay out all night, after their family meals. The 25th is saved for nursing your hangover or your full stomach.
2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet people in Panama?
Meeting people in Panama is easy if you like to go to the beach and/or are serious about nightlife activity (especially what happens after 11pm and beyond). People are very extroverted and like to go out in large groups to many of the same places. If you decide you like one “joint” most, you will meet people who also frequent it repeatedly. Also, many new expats attend embassy events, such as the American society or the Canadian Embassy. The Spanish and French embassies also sponsor many cultural events that are open to all. This is a wonderful way to meet other internationals who are here for reasons similar to yours. In Panama City, there are many art openings which are not exclusive, and you can usually find out about them in the cultural calendars of the daily newspapers. These art openings are big “mixers” in the Panamanian cultural world. Look to infoartepanama.com to download the digital arts magazine and find out about weekly events.
3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to Panama? Are there any items you just can’t find there?
If you are very attached to specific bed linens or towels (perhaps Egyptian cotton or very high thread count bed linens), I suggest you bring them from home. At times you might find a special deal on them in Panamanian department stores, but generally speaking, they are harder to find. I also suggest the same for undergarments. Almost everything else that you would need specifically for Panama can be found here. This is especially true for camping materials such as mosquito nets, tents, or even light-weight sleeping bags. I came to Panama with “high-end” camping gear, believing I would be well prepared, but found that my sleeping bag was too heavy for the tropical weather, and in fact, all I needed was a light hammock and mosquito net for sleeping outdoors. Anything needed for sun or surf can be found here. I’ve never had a hard time finding food items or clothing. Boots, heavy clothing, and winter jackets are sold at some outlet stores in Panama.
4. Should someone planning a move to Panama find housing before they leave home or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?
If you are renting upon arrival, it might be helpful to look before you arrive by sending out emails to your host employers or any other contacts you might have here. This is one of the best options as the institution with which you are affiliated (work contract, study abroad, or real estate broker) will have an idea of the area that will best serve your needs (city or suburban, single or for family). It is not rare to receive a chain email asking if anyone knows of housing for a “newcomer” who will be arriving in “said” month. I arrived here to work in an independent international school, and the administration overseeing international hires had a list of brokers to contact once I arrived. I also received a list of international hires—about to depart—to contact about their housing in case there was interest in taking over one of their leases. Many “hand-me-down” residences come about this way. There are websites such as Craigslist Panama, Encuentra24.com and even La Prensa Panama (the daily newspaper), which has many available listings.
5. What’s the best way to manage your money in Panama? Any tips on opening a bank account?
Opening a bank account as an expat without a Panamanian ID can be frustrating. The process can take weeks. Come with two reference letters from your banking institution(s) back home and (just in case) have a personal reference that can speak to your financial responsibilities and ability to manage them. You will also need a reference in Panama, and 2-3 copies of your personal ID (passport). In addition, you’ll need a letter of employment. Ask around about the best banking institutions in Panama at the time of your move. The best local bank is Banco General, a Panamanian institution.
6. How much money would you recommend a person set aside in order to make the move?
For the first 3 months in Panama, you will want to take with you, your rent money per month, plus a deposit. Rents vary per area. Based on a two bedroom, two bath apartment, the most economical option you might find is $400-500 per month shared, or $800 upwards if you are living alone. You will also want to budget about $1500-$3000 per person in furnishing costs, depending on your budget and tastes. Unless you are living very close to where you work and you’re in the center of town, you will need to buy a car upon arrival. Used cars run about $6000-$8000 if you want them to last a few years. A new car will cost $14,000 upwards depending on what you are interested in. There is no leasing system for cars in Panama, only financing from the bank. Day-to-day costs such as food and transportation are about $10-25 a day, depending on your level of dining.
7. In which fields is it easiest for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?
The best fields for employment for foreigners are sustainable development, call centers (telecommunications), and education. These are institutions in which foreign mastery is highly-esteemed and speaking two or three languages is a valuable asset to the position. Panama is a very new country and many of the engineering and development practices being implemented are in need of “consultation.”
8. What’s the one thing you wished you had known about living abroad before you left?
Nothing. Everyone has an opinion to tell you about living abroad or about the special characteristics of the country you are moving to, but nothing can prepare you for the personal adventure and whirlwind of emotions you’ll take on when making the move. Perhaps the only thing you really need to know before living abroad is that you’ll need an open mind, a willingness to accept what is not your “norm”, and to accept yourself completely, both your strengths and your weaknesses.