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Here's What Black Expats Wish They Knew Before Relocating To Panama
Many of us have seen the posts on our feeds and the vlogs and had similar thoughts of relocating to Panama. It is truly the hottest spot for Black expats at the moment. Perhaps the only thing stopping you from making the move is some sound advice and motivation to get you on that one-way flight. Cue, a bunch of knowledgeable Black expats ready to share it all.
In this Travel Noire series, we will share what Black expats wish they knew before bravely relocating to Panama. Be ready to take notes on everything from mailing services, cost of living right down to the complexities of blending in.
My name is Biola. Many people call me by my middle name, Bianca. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, went to college in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I lived for many years before moving to Panama City, Panama. I currently have a blog called AllThingsBiola where I talk about my living abroad experience in Panama. I have now lived here for a little over a year.
I wish I knew how easy it would be. Life here is so simple and so easy to be comfortable coming from a western society. Making expat friends is easy. Panama has so many FB groups you can be a part of. Panama uses U.S. money so there is no currency exchange. I can still have my groceries, water, and medicine delivered to my apartment if I wish (I live in the city). The stores, restaurants, movies, clubs, gyms, clubs, hair, nails, etc are all within 10 to 15 minutes from each other. The weather is beautiful almost every day. Just make sure to have your umbrella with you at all times.
How hard learning a new language would be. I moved here to learn Spanish. I had never taken a Spanish class a day in my life. Learning a new language is an ongoing process. Use a translator app when needed but also try to speak the local language. They appreciate it, and many people are always happy to try and help you.
How important Instagram and WhatsApp are. Here in Panama if you have or want a business in 2022 you need Instagram and WhatsApp. These platforms are the main ways of communicating in Panama. Normal websites are not a thing for all places or may not be updated, but on Instagram you can stay up-to-date with various places and events around the city.
How importing products to Panama is easy but exporting is a different story. You can get things shipped to Panama, even your favorite things from Amazon, without paying the overseas tax. It gets here quickly and mostly safe and sound. However, shipping things out of Panama! Well, you need friends! Shipping out of Panama is expensive so for all your family and friends who want gifts and postcards from Panama. It’s better to have it with you on your next trip home.
Expat and YouTuber William, “Big Will”, and his wife, Sonja, made their Blaxit to Panama from Washington DC in July of 2021, just months after witnessing the January 6th insurrection. This was their first international move and they absolutely love life in Panamá City, Bella Vista. They do not see themselves ever going back to live in the US. Here are a few things Will wishes he had known:
There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Managing your fears will be the biggest part of making a move like this. It seems like a huge leap leaving everything you’ve known to achieve peace and freedom but it just seems that way. The truth is life goes on much in the same way as you are used to. We now wish we had made the move much sooner and realize we allowed fear to hold us back. Be warned, your family and friends will speak fear into your plans. Move forward confidently as you have done the work and research & simply know more than them. The same people who questioned us going to a “third world” country now stay in my DMs asking me how they can do it too. Also, fear made us put a ton of stuff in storage “just in case” we needed to come back. Now we spend $250/month on stuff we don’t need as most places in Panama come fully furnished. We have to make a trip back just to dispose of stuff we should have gotten rid of at first.
Have a plan for accessing your money. Panama uses USD so your money works here. The issue is getting to your money. You can withdraw cash at ATMs but the service charges start to add up. You are only allowed to withdraw $250 at a time from the vast majority of Panamanian ATMs with a fee of $5.25 for the transaction. You can still get your daily $500 limit but must do it in two separate transactions with two separate fees. We have a Panamanian bank account as required with the immigration process and now write checks to ourselves to move money for free between our American and Panamanian banks. Be aware that it takes 14 days for American checks to clear banks here and plan ahead. Also, look for bank cards that will refund your fees.
Having a car in Panama... buckle up. If you plan on driving here you will most likely end up buying a car here as there is a ton of red tape and expense in shipping your car here from the States. I stressed the car decision and now realize that we should have just bought a simple Kia or Hyundai as these are the most popular brands here and mechanics know them well. Most importantly, parts are easily accessible. We bought a Honda Pilot and spent a lot of time driving to Panama City for service as that is the only place dealerships are located. We also learned after buying it that this model is one of the hardest to get parts for. We have had to order parts from Japan a couple times already.
Men wear pants in Panama. It’s a cultural thing but the Panamanian men normally wear jeans or slacks during the day. If you live in the beach area of Coronado this is not really a big deal but living in the city is a different matter altogether. It’s hot and humid & I am much more comfortable in some khaki shorts but to take care of business I seek to fit in with my surroundings and have started wearing jeans to the bank or other appointments.
Ty Dawkins, Digital Nomad & Founder of Get Lost VIP relocated to Panama City (Costa del Este), Panama in April 2022 from Fort Lauderdale, FL. Ty & husband Quincy Dawkins decided to both take a respite from their corporate careers and American lifestyle due to the exhaustion from their busy professional and personal lives. They are both avid travelers and owners of a Travel & Lifestyle brand Get Lost VIP and had always discussed living overseas, but envisioned doing so while continuing to work their corporate jobs. After losing multiple close family members (both young and old) over the course of the last 5 years it became more urgent that the “time to go was NOW!”
They immediately put a plan into action (before they could change their minds) that included leaving their corporate roles which were not flexible to global working and becoming full time entrepreneurs/digital nomads. This is what they wish they knew before moving to Panama:
True Cost of Living: Our search began in winter of 2021, so we had a short 5 months to prepare for the move. Before moving we had 2 trips that were focused around finding a place to stay, and from these visits we learned a lot about housing prices. The prices are more reasonable in Old Panama vs New, but that comes with some sacrifices as well in modern amenities. The big unknown for us was mostly around the prices of utilities, food, and necessities. Our overall cost of living has decreased, because housing prices in the U.S. specifically S. Florida had gone through the roof. That said, our cost of utilities has gone up and food has remained the same. Knowing the true cost of living would have helped us plan and maybe choose our location (housing) to be more aligned with our monthly budget.
Mailing: Where we are, there are no home mailboxes so we had to get a mailbox through a mail company which was straightforward. What we didn’t know is that we would have to pay to receive each piece of mail. Typically, you pay a percentage of the value of whatever it is you are receiving. It’s almost like you are double paying for shipping+ on each item shipped.
There’s no OFF switch: I think mentally we feel like once we get a new job, new home, etc the stress or unhappiness will leave. For me personally I discovered that you can’t outrun unhappiness or stress. If you are dealing with any deep trauma in your life no relocation (no matter how long you have dreamed of making it a reality) will change your state of mind. You still have to do the work. I had to deprogram myself from the robot I had become by working in corporate America for 20+ years. It took a couple months of good rest and time to rediscover who I was outside of a job to develop new routines/hobbies.
My name is Roxanne Munson and I am a documentary and travel photographer living in Panama City. Me and my family are corporate expats, and we relocated to Panama City after living 6 years in Mexico City.
Here are a few things I wish I knew before relocating to Panama:
I wish I had known the diversity of people who call Panama home. Daily I meet people from all around the world who moved to Panama for a better quality of life. People who retire in Panama can join the Panama Pensionado program to receive discounts. To be eligible, a person must have an income or pension of at least $1,000 a month, and there is no minimum age requirement for this program.
I wish I knew the weather was so hot and humid, with unpredictable rain. At least 8-9 months out of the year, it rains daily, for a few minutes to a few hours. However, unlike my experience in Mexico City, I never know around what time it will start raining here. As a result, it makes planning activities outdoors, a bit more challenging if you don’t want to deal with the rain. Another issue regarding the constant rain is the high prevalence of mosquitos and other biting bugs.
I wish I knew the complexity of being Black and blending in prior to moving to Panama as a corporate expat. Black affluence isn’t something commonly seen here, and people with more melanin in their skin tone tend to work as service/domestic helpers. So it is often assumed by locals both melanated and non-melanated that I am a domestic worker. I will enter my luxe high-rise apartment and be told where the service elevator is located by both residents and domestic workers. I will leave my building to walk my dogs and be offered a job as a domestic worker by a non-melanated person also outside walking. And when they realize I am not a domestic worker but a resident, there is a level of disbelief in their facial expression and continued conversations. This is a conversation people do not have here or try to avoid, so I address it frequently during conversations I have with people about my life as a Black expat.
My name is Kade Feraria. I am a Jamaican International ESL (English as a Second Language) Practitioner and Communications Consultant. I have taught English as a Second Language in Japan and South Korea and currently in Latin America. I moved to Panama after my stint in Asia because I wanted to experience a culture similar to that of mine, but experience new things as well while meeting other expats from different backgrounds. I think you can definitely find your place in Panama as long as you research well and have some patience, you will need it.
Panama is pricey!: Life in Panama City can rack up a huge bill if you are not careful. When I just moved here I wanted to take advantage of the nightlife and gastronomic experience, I knew they used U.S currency but I was not expecting U.S prices at almost every establishment. I found that even having a few coffees a day at cafes while working remotely had my wallet taking a huge hit.
Think Miami Beach prices and definitely check menus and prices beforehand on social media pages to avoid mini heart attacks.
The banking system is complex: Again, this has to do with money but yes, it is true. All the major banks have presence here. In fact, many of the prominent buildings that dominate the city’s skyline are owned by banks. However, prepare to jump through hoops if you choose to open a bank account. One bank even had me questioning who I really was because multiple documents and pieces of identification were just not enough for me to open my account. In addition to that the ATM fees for international cards are insane. Definitely look into ways to avoid these fees with banks in your home country before you arrive and get your local account. If you are coming here to work with a company you should be OK, they will open an account for you. If you are an independent contractor, pull out your comfortable shoes and cancel all other plans you have for the day.
Get out of the city: Panama is not Panama City. When you leave the city for a while, you may discover you didn’t even like it that much. That was definitely the case for me when I ventured to Bocas del Toro. Being around people that looked and sounded like me was a breath of fresh air for sure. Explore the country and find your comfort zone. Panama is diverse enough and has so much to offer for you not to settle for just anything.