The Top Ten Questions about Living in Panama

By: Kris Cunningham

Answers to the Top Ten Questions everyone asks about living in Panama

1.    What is the Cost of living?
This topic gets the most traffic on my blog by far. For us, living here is about 1/3 of what it cost us in Florida. Rent / housing is a lot less, and we also save a lot on food and other basics.  Of course costs will vary depending on where you live and what choices you make. But, the more you live like the locals the more you are likely to save. Keep in mind that the average working Panamanian makes $500-700/month, and many live on much less. Our budget for basic living (rent, food, utilities, etc., not travel) is around $1100/month.

The short answer, YES, you can live on a lot less in Panama and still have a nice, comfortable life.

2.    Is the Health care any good?  
Yes. Many doctors are US trained (with the bonus that they also speak English). We have found the doctors to be very competent, kind, and caring, and willing to spend as much time as needed. We have heard accounts from friends who have had emergencies, surgeries, and other more serious encounters with this health care system with excellent results. An office visit is $25-50 (more for a specialist). Dentists are also excellent. There are very good hospitals, and state of the art hospitals in Panama City for something that can’t be managed elsewhere. Health care and dental care here is much more affordable and is not drowning in the paperwork and red tape of the US.

3.    What is the Housing like?
You can have anything you want (and can afford) There are US style houses here with all the amenities, very simple Panamanian homes, and everything in between. Panamanians are more interested in function over form so the attention to detail may not be the same. Construction is usually concrete block with concrete floors (often tiled) Roofs are usually tin with drop ceilings. There is minimal wood in most houses which makes sense when you consider the humidity in this climate. Hot water is not standard but on demand heaters or “suicide showers” are inexpensive and readily available. Most relaxing and socializing is done outside so you can expect an outside patio and/or carport, the perfect place for your hammock.

4.    Do you have to learn Spanish?  
Yes!  Well actually no, you don’t have to. You can get by without it, especially in Panama City or areas frequented by expats and tourists. But even in those places, it will be much easier if you know some Spanish. It’s very hard to get things done if you can’t communicate, and you will miss so much when you can’t get to know the people. Panama is teaching English to the school kids, and here in David we are finding more people who speak English, but you can’t count on this when you need someone. It is very difficult to learn another language and it takes a lot of time and commitment, but I think it is so worth it. Even if you only know a bit that helps a lot, and the locals really appreciate your effort.

5.    What is difficult about adjusting to life in Panama?
If you research information about moving to another country, you are likely to find information about culture shock. It is unsettling when many things are different and unfamiliar. For me, I experienced less of this than I expected. My main problem was language. When I need to ask about something I often had trouble expressing myself, and had even more trouble understanding the answer. But, it didn’t take too long to figure things out and to feel more comfortable. I think if you are flexible, expect some problems, and bring your patience and sense of humor, you should be OK. Panama is probably easier than many countries to adjust to since there is a strong American influence here.

6.    Weather – is it hot?
Hot is relative. We are happy at sea level in David. Many other expats think they are melting here and head for the cooler mountains. We think the mountains are too cold. You can find warm or cool here but not cold, and not dry. It rains a lot and the humidity is high everywhere, especially in the rainy months of the year. With the exception of the Azueros Peninsula which can be extremely dry from late December through May.

7.    What is a Push Button and how does it work?
This is a rent by the hour motel, and they seem to be everywhere. You drive behind the privacy wall, select a room, pull into the garage, push the button, and the door closes behind you. Put your money through the slot and then the attendant unlocks the door. When you leave you call the office, go to the garage, and when the room is checked they open the garage door so you can leave. You can buy food and drinks which are left in a compartment in the back door. You never have to see or be seen by anyone for your entire stay. We visited one and found it spotlessly clean and comfortable, not sleazy. Many households have extended family under one roof so it’s hard to find privacy and also, human nature being what it is, people sometimes need  a quiet spot. Occasionally travelers even use it as a hotel because they like having their vehicle secure in the garage.

8.    Shopping – can you find the things you need there?
Yes, you can. Of course, it depends on where you live. If you live in a rural area you will have to travel to a city for some things. Panama City is a very large, busy city with everything. David, Chitre, Santiago, and Coronado are some other big cities with supermarkets, shopping centers, DoIt Centers (like Home Depot or Lowe’s), and upscale department stores with the best in kitchen ware, clothes, or the latest electronic devices. You may want to get some speciality item in the US like that cool gadget for your bike or a particular spice mix you love. But generally you can find everything you need here. And, what you buy here may be better suited to the warm and humid climate than similar items from the US.

9.    Do you have mail, internet, and phones?
No, yes, and yes. There is mail here but it’s painfully slow. Most people use Mailboxes Etc or a similar service. This costs money but it is faster (maybe a couple weeks instead of a couple months). There is internet. Depending on where you live it may be slower or occasionally unreliable, but here in David we have had no problems at all. There is also free internet available in many public places like parks, bus terminals, hospitals, and government offices. It seems like everyone has a cell phone, usually a smart phone, and cell phone coverage is very good. There are many phone plans, and you will probably find a plan that meets your needs for much less than you spent in the US.

10.    Is crime a problem? 
No place in the world is crime free, but we feel that Panama is safer than most places, including our previous home in Sarasota FL. Of course you have to use common sense and there are some areas to avoid, especially at night. At first I was uneasy seeing the security guards in parking lots, two armed guards at the door of every bank, guards at the door of businesses, and armed police riding around town. I have come to appreciate this because it prevents things from happening. You can park your car and it will be safe until you return. Most houses have security door and window covers, and fences around the property. People don’t want their house to look like an easier opportunity than others in the neighborhood. We have come to appreciate our fence because it keeps out the neighborhood dogs and roosters, and visitors call you from the street rather than approach your front door.

Of course this doesn’t answer every question about life in Panama, and my knowledge is mainly of my area and our experiences. We are very happy with our decision to move here. An international move or a move to Panama specifically isn’t the right thing for everyone, but for us it has worked better than we expected.


Expat Blog ListingKris Cunningham is an American expat living in Panama. Blog description: Moving to Panama, The Story of Our Experiences



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  2. friv7 says:

    There is certainly a great deal to learn about this issue.

    I really like all of the points you made.

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