Panama: A Great Option for First-Time Expats

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After four years of 70-plus hour weeks in the cruise ship industry, I was ready for peace and playa. And of all the countries that could offer me that, I chose Panama.

Why? For a lot of the same reasons so many first-time expats have chosen to move here.

If you’re an expat virgin—that is, if you’ve never lived or worked outside the U.S. or Canada—you may find yourself reluctant to choose a country that’s very far from home…or difficult to fly to…or tough to find English speakers in.

Sure, some people thrive on adventure…the farther from home, both physically and metaphorically, the better. But most expats prefer a balance between adventure and comfort. When it comes to long-term living, adjusting is much easier when there are at least a few familiar or convenient elements to balance out all the new.

And though there are many countries that offer great amenities…or excellent infrastructure…or sizeable expat populations…Panama is one of the few that hits all the major bases.

First of all, there’s the excellent infrastructure. In my years here, we’ve always had excellent roads, reliable power, and quality drinking water. We have the region’s best Internet coverage. And in 2014, we’ll have Central America’s first underground metro—a $1.8-billion light-rail line that’s already under construction.

Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport is the Hub of the Americas, with direct flights to and from cities all over the U.S., as well as Central and South America, Europe and more. Already the busiest airport in the region, Tocumen continues to add to its direct flights, recently adding cities like Chicago and Las Vegas to the lineup (new direct flights to Boston start this July).

Add to this the fact that there are a lot of English-speaking locals here. In banks and offices in Panama City, you’ll find many of the white-collar set grew up speaking English. With a fast-growing tourism sector and new hotels popping up almost daily, Panama’s universities and trade schools are focusing on English as a second language to try to keep up with the demand for bilingual workers (unemployment is at a low 4 percent.)

Given Panama’s modern, international flavor, the cost of living here is still very low. I pay only $20 a month for my bundled water and trash pickup service, and $25 a month for 4 MB wireless Internet. Movie tickets are still only $5 and my last taxi ride—about a half-hour crossing the metropolitan area—was $3.

Best of all, the rich nightlife and cultural activities keep me busy on weekends and holidays—often for free. Just a few weeks ago I went to the Panama jazz festival. The final day of the event is a big blowout with concerts running all day and evening…and the only thing you have to pay for are the $2 Heinekens.

The result of all this—the infrastructure, the English speaking locals, and the reasonable costs—is an ease of living that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the region. I find it easy to make English-speaking friends. It’s easy for me to fly back to the States—or anywhere else I want—whenever I want. Overall, my life here is easy.

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