Moving to Panama: The Complete Expat’s Guide

Last updated on May 3rd, 2024 at 10:51 am

Moving to Panama

An estimated 20,000–30,000 Americans and 8,000 Canadians live in Panama. Some relocate to the country to conduct research, work remotely, make investments, or enjoy a comfortable retirement with a low cost of living. Whatever your reasons for moving to Panama, this guide outlines the steps for moving there and gives you insight into life in Central America’s southernmost nation.

A brief overview of Panama

Panama is located in Central America on the isthmus of Panama between the Gulf of Darién in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Panama in the Pacific Ocean. Costa Rica borders it to the north, and Colombia shares its southern border.

Panama is a land of contrasts: its land bridge to South America is one of the most remote regions in the world, while the Panama Canal zone is a busy, industrial area. Bocas del Toro offers picturesque Caribbean beaches, while the expat community flocks to small mountain towns like Santa Fe and Boquete.

  • Size: 29,081 sq. mi. (75,320 sq. km.)
  • Capital: Panama City
  • Major cities: San Miguelito, Juan Diaz, David, Chiriqui
  • Population: roughly 4.4 million people
  • Foreign-born population: roughly 4.39%
  • Official language: Spanish
  • Demographics: 70% mestizo, 20% indigenous, 10% white

The indigenous peoples of Panama speak traditional languages like Ngabe, Kuna, or Embera. In some areas, a hybrid of Ngabe, Spanish, and English called Panamanian-English Creole is the dominant language. Other Panamanians also speak English, dialects of Chinese, Arabic, and French-Creole. It is not uncommon for Panamanians to know two or more languages.

Panama is a major port and transit area thanks to the Panama Canal. The country’s location in the most biodiverse region of the world also makes it a popular destination for scientific research and for birding, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

Can a U.S. or Canadian citizen move to Panama?

USA and Canadian citizens can move to the Central American country if they meet the requirements for immigration and take the steps needed to obtain a visa.

What are the requirements to move to Panama?

U.S. and Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter the country as a tourist.

To qualify for entry, you need:

  • A passport issued from your home country, valid for at least three months
  • Proof of having at least $500 USD available to you, which may include:
    • three months of bank statements
    • three months of credit card statements
    • last year’s tax returns
    • a certified bank check
    • traveler’s checks

As a tourist, you can stay in Panama for 30 days. In some cases, Panama will grant an extension of up to 90 days. Under Panamanian law, you can leave at the end of a tourist stay, spend 72 hours out of the country, and then return for another 30–90 days as a tourist. Work permits are usually good for 12 months and renewable as long as you remain employed.

Since entering Panama as a tourist is simple, most expats follow this method to move to the country. However, tourists are unable to work for Panamanian employers. If you need to work in Panama, you’ll have to find employment with a company that is authorized to hire immigrants and apply for a work permit through a Panamanian immigration lawyer.

How do you get a visa to move to Panama?

To get a work permit or a permanent residence visa in Panama, you need to go through an approved immigration lawyer, according to Panama’s immigration laws. The Panamanian embassies and consulate offices in the U.S. and Canada can help you find an attorney to handle the move.

In addition, officials at the offices can answer specific questions regarding the immigration process. Legal fees for obtaining a visa or work permit range from around $1,000–$5,000, depending on the attorney you choose and the number of hours it takes to complete your paperwork.

Does Panama offer digital nomad visas?

A digital nomad visa makes it possible for foreigners to enter a country and continue to work for their employers remotely. Panama does offer a digital nomad visa for short-term stays.

The initial visa is good for 9 months and can be renewed once, allowing for a total stay of up to 18 months. To apply for one, you will need to contact an immigration lawyer in Panama.

Can you live in Panama permanently?

U.S. and Canadian citizens can obtain permanent residence visas in Panama if they fall into one of the following categories:

  • Pensioner: Retirees who earn at least $500 per month can qualify for permanent residence status. If you’re moving with your spouse, you must earn at least $600 per month between the two of you. You will be asked to provide bank statements and proof of continued payments from the government agency or company that pays your pension, such as a notarized letter.
  • Reforestation investors: Individuals who invest at least $40,000 in an approved Panamanian reforestation program can gain permanent residence status for themselves, their spouses, and their children. Under this program, you receive a visa for five years and can become a citizen at the end of that period. Those who invest at least $80,000 can qualify for citizenship in one year.
  • Private income retirees: Retirees who obtain a certificate of deposit (CD) from a Panamanian bank with a large enough deposit to yield at least $750 in interest can qualify for a renewable five-year residency visa. Normally, the face value of the CD must be at least $170,000 in order for enough interest to accrue.
  • Business owners: If you invest money to establish a business in Panama and hire at least three Panamanian citizens, you may qualify for a renewable one-year residency visa. After five years, those who immigrate with this type of visa can become Panamanian citizens. There are two categories for this type of visa: small business and business. The small business requires a $40,000 investment, while the regular business carries a $150,000 minimum. Those with the small business visa must renew their visas three times before they become permanent, while large business owners are given a permanent visa after the first renewal.

The Pensionado visa

Panama’s government actively encourages foreigners to retire there, particularly those from Europe and North America. To get the full requirements for what’s known as the “pensionado visa,” you’ll find a helpful guide from the Embassy of Panama.

Once you obtain the visa, Panama’s Pensionado program is one of the most robust of its kind in Latin America. It offers an impressive range of incentives. These include discounts on utility bills, medical care, airline tickets, cultural events, and much more. Retirees in Panama on this visa are also exempt from importation taxes. This is popular for those seeking to import a new car, for instance.

Thanks to this program, retirees from the United States, Canada, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere have flocked to Panama in recent years.

Moving to Panama

How much money do you need to move to Panama?

The cost of flying or driving to Panama depends on where your trip begins. If you’re planning to fly, avoid the peak tourist season from January to March to get the best deals on airfare. If you’re driving, factor in the cost of gasoline, food, and overnight accommodations during your trip. Plan for fees at the various borders.

International moving companies charge for the cost of shipping by container, which includes inspection and customs’ fees. As a result, the cost can run into the thousands of dollars.

Expat forums like ExpatExchange will have up-to-date information from others about the cost of moving, as well as recommendations for providers. In general, the amount you’ll pay will depend on the distance you travel and the total weight and size of what needs to be moved.

Once you arrive in the country, factor in the cost of initial accommodation in a hotel or hostel as you search for a residence. You’ll want to additional starting costs like updating your cell phone plan and setting up high-speed internet if you work remotely.

How much monthly income do you need to live in Panama?

A comfortable monthly income in Panama depends on where you reside. In the capital, Panama City, the average monthly cost of living for a family of four is around $3686 plus roughly $1,800 for renting a three-bedroom apartment in the city center or $1,000 outside of it.

The average expenses for a single person in Panama are around $1035 per month without rent. Average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is around $925 in the city center and $525 in the surrounding areas.

What type of government does Panama have?

Panama is a presidential republic, a form of government with an elected head of state. The president of Panama serves this role and is elected by a simple majority vote to a five-year term. Laws are drafted and passed by the National Assembly. Forty-five of its members are elected through an open-list proportional system, and 26 are elected by a plurality vote. Everyone in the legislature serves a five-year term.

The Supreme Court heads the judicial branch and is made up of justices appointed by the president. In Panama, the suggested term for a Supreme Court justice is 10 years, but some serve for longer or shorter periods.

Moving to Panama

Is there a U.S. embassy in Panama?

Canada and the U.S. enjoy friendly diplomatic relations with Panama. There are both U.S. and Canadian embassies in Panama City.

Is Panama a good place for North American expats?

U.S. News and World Report ranks Panama as the 51st best country in the world to reside in. The country is business-friendly and offers plenty of recreational opportunities.

Can I collect Social Security if I live in Panama?

As a US citizen, you may be able to get Social Security benefits while living in Panama. Visit for more information.

How safe is it to live in Panama?

How safe it is to live in Panama varies by region. The U.S. State Department recommends that tourists and expats avoid the Mosquito Gulf region along the northern Caribbean coast and the Darién Region along the southern border due to and active drug trade and human trafficking in these areas.

In Panama City, the level of crime is roughly equal to that in New York City overall, but there is a greater risk of mugging.

What is the cost of living in Panama?

Overall, the cost of living in Panama is lower than in the U.S. and Canada. Panama City is about half as expensive as New York City, and average rents are around 63% lower.

Compared to Vancouver, consumer prices in Panama City are around 32% lower, and rent is roughly 42% less expensive.

What is the education system like in Panama?

Panama’s education system faces many challenges due to poverty and low investments in education. Overall, public school children in Panama score lower than average among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. Students who are socioeconomically advantaged perform much better than children from poorer backgrounds.

Roughly 750,000 children are enrolled in public school in Panama. Primary education is mandatory and offered for free through 9th grade. Students then have the option to attend three years of public high school. In some areas, there may be nominal entrance and book fees, but in many parts of Panama, secondary school is also free.

About 145,000 children in Panama attend private schools, and many expats choose private schools for their children. International schools that offer instruction in English and Spanish are one option for North American expats. Most of these schools are located in Panama City. You can use the International Schools Database to search for international schools by level. These levels range from preschool to A-level to the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

For postsecondary school, students can choose from the government-subsidized University of Panama or 11 other private universities.

Some of the most well-known private universities include:

What is the healthcare system like in Panama?

Panama has increased its investment in healthcare over the last 20 years, but the country still faces challenges with providing high-quality medical care to its people. CEOWORLD magazine’s Health Care Index ranked Panama 56th out of 89 countries. While Panama scored the second best in Central America after Costa Rica, it was well below the U.S. and Canada, ranked 23rd and 30th, respectively.

Most Panamanians receive healthcare through the Caja de Seguro Social. Anyone who works for a private employer or a government agency in Panama must register for the system. All other Panamanians receive care through the Ministerio de Salud (MINSA).

Expats can receive care at public hospitals and clinics. There is usually a fee for care, but overall, healthcare costs are inexpensive at public facilities. Wait times are often long at public hospitals, and overcrowding means most patients share rooms with at least one other person. Standards of care at public facilities are often below what Canadians and Americans are accustomed to.

Due to conditions in public facilities, private hospitals are the preferred alternative for many expats and wealthy Panamanians. These institutions are usually located in urban areas, with the best ones in Panama City. Fees are higher at private institutions, but retirees often receive discounts. Private health insurance can lower the cost of care at private hospitals and clinics.

What are the climate and weather like in Panama?

Panama has a tropical climate year-round with two seasons. The rainy season starts in May and lasts through December, and the dry season is from January to May.

During the rainy season, Panama receives 10–30” (250–700 mm) of rain. Average temperatures vary between 88–94°F (31.1–34.5°C) across the country. Severe storms are possible and most frequently affect the Darién region of the country.

What is the quality of life in Panama?

The 2022 World Happiness Report ranked Panama 37th out of 146 countries. The country scored the second highest in Central America after Costa Rica but ranked lower than Canada and the U.S. at 15th and 16th, respectively.

Poverty and the quality of social support and services contributed to its position in the rankings. Because they are likely more economically secure, North American expats often enjoy an overall better quality of life than many Panamanians.

Can I get a driver’s license in Panama?

Public transportation is limited in Panama; the most common forms are buses and taxis. In Panama City, you can take the Metro and the Metrobus by obtaining a card at any station. Buses travel between cities, and the Panama Canal Railway provides transportation through popular tourist areas.

Many expats in Panama find driving to be a more convenient way to get around, especially outside major cities. You can drive in Panama with a U.S. or Canadian license for 90 days. After that time, you will need to schedule an appointment to have your license converted to a Panamanian license. The cost for this service is $100 plus $1 for each page of documentation that needs to be copied as a part of the process.

If you’re over the age of 70, you will have to undergo a physical examination conducted by a Panamanian physician before you convert your license.

Is it easy for Americans and Canadians to find a job in Panama?

Panama’s unemployment rate has been around 12% since 2019. Economic conditions mean that jobs are scarce, and it may be difficult for Americans and Canadians to even obtain a work permit to be legally employed by Panamanian companies. However, the lower cost of living and business-friendly policies make the country a great place for budding entrepreneurs. Also, most expats tend to find work with an international company rather than a domestic company, as this just makes things easier.

What are some things to do in Panama? Exploring your new home

Panama is a nature lover’s paradise. Gamboa and Soberania National Parks near Panama City are popular with birdwatchers. The islands of Coiba, Parida, and Iguana are well-known among snorkelers and scuba divers.

Other points of interest in Panama include:

Panamanian cuisine

Rice, seafood, plantains, yuca (cassava), beef, and corn are staples of the Panamanian diet.

Some well-known national dishes are arroz con pollo, or rice and chicken, sancocho, a type of chicken stew, and carimañolas, which are like empanadas made from yuca and filled with beef.

Fried plantains are a popular side dish served with many meals, along with fried yuca. Often, a fruity, sweet non-alcoholic beverage called chichi is enjoyed with meals.

Festivals and holidays

Carnival is held every year during the four days that precede Ash Wednesday. Celebrations with music and dancing are held in most cities and towns.

Easter is the most important religious holiday in the country, and it is common for cities to hold processions and reenact the Stations of the Cross.

Many regions host festivals throughout the year. One of the most well-known is the Azuero International Fair, held in late April through early May in the town of La Villa de los Santos.

What are the best places to live in Panama?

The best places to live in Panama for expats depend on your age, employment status, income, whether you’re married and have kids, and your personal preferences and lifestyle.

For retirees

Retirees who want easy access to good private hospitals and recreational activities may enjoy life in David, Panama’s second-largest city. There is an international airport in the area (Enrique Malek International Airport) as well as many shopping malls, car dealerships, and restaurants. The cost of living in David is lower than in Panama City.

Outdoorsy seniors may prefer to move to Volcán, an area in the Chiriquí Province surrounded by rainforests. Hiking is a popular pastime here, but the location doesn’t cut off from the convenience of city life. Because the city is a hotspot for tourists, there are many grocery stores, restaurants, and service businesses.

For families

Panama City is one of the most popular places for expat families to live due to the large number of job opportunities, high quality hospitals, and international schools. Tocumen International Airport is also there and is the largest and busiest airport in Central America. The neighborhoods of Albrook, Clayton, El Dorado, and San Francisco are favorites due to the presence of English-speaking communities, stores, public parks, and restaurants.

Panama expats who want to be close to the sea often settle in the beach town of Coronado on the Pacific Coast. Many families live in gated condominium complexes in this area, and there are numerous stores and restaurants as well as a few private schools. With Panama City about an hour’s drive away, families can also enjoy the cultural opportunities and healthcare facilities of the capital.

For young singles

The San Francisco neighborhood in Panama City is a top place for young singles. There are many types of housing available to suit young adults’ budgets, and there are cafes, restaurants, and shops. At night, expats can visit clubs and bars in the neighborhood and surrounding areas.

Young adults who are fluent in Spanish may enjoy living in Chitré. Although it is a small town, the area has plenty of restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs. The region hosts elaborate holiday celebrations that provide additional entertainment. Compared to Panama City, the cost of living is much lower, meaning young singles may even be able to afford to live along the beachfront.

How to find a place to live in Panama

If you plan to live in Panama as a tourist initially, you may wish to rent an AirBnB while you get settled in the country and apply for a permanent resident visa.

Panamanian real estate agents can help you find apartments and houses to rent or condos and homes to buy in the country. Many Panamanian immigration lawyers can refer you to an experienced agent. If you prefer to hunt for rentals on your own, check out International’s current listings. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, and other expatriate forums can be a rich source of information for finding housing.

How to set up a bank account in Panama

To make purchases and deposits in Panama, you’ll need an account at a Panamanian bank. Having a CD is also required to immigrate as a person of independent financial means. While you can get cash from an ATM with your home country’s debit card, you’ll need the convenience of local banking for your permanent residency. The balboa is the national currency of Panama. However, Panama also accepts the U.S. dollar at a 1:1 ratio. You’ll need U.S. dollars or balboas to purchase items in the country.

You can open both types of accounts at one of the following large banks in Panama:

Remitly is a trusted app for transferring money between accounts in your home country and your Panamanian bank. With international money transfers, your U.S. dollars will automatically be available to use electronically or withdraw from an ATM.

Additional Moving Guides