Panama has become a top destination for expats. There are good reasons for this. The cost of living here is very reasonable. Healthcare is excellent and affordable. Gaining a visa or residency permit (not the same thing as a citizenship) is not very difficult. And, there are tons of special benefits for expats and retirees. Why would a country want to do this, you ask? In my opinion, it is a very smart move. It attracts desirables. Many people moving permanently to Panama are from the USA, Canada or Europe. Retiree expats are genuinely self-sufficient and add to an economy rather than take from it. They buy or rent homes driving growth in the building industry. They pay for healthcare adding to the systems. Retirees have a source of income usually from outside of Panama. They spend money at local businesses adding to the economy and creating jobs. And in some cases, expats can work.
If you can tolerate the heat and wish to live in a big city, Panama City might be the place for you. A few years ago, I read an interesting article about a couple from Miami who moved permanently to Panama City. The heat was not even a consideration for them after living in Florida. The key points of the article mentioned how they paid the same amount of money for rent as they did in Miami but in Panama City, the rent yielded trice the apartment. They could easily afford a nice unit in a city-center high-rise with incredible amenities. If they opted to have the same size apartment, it would have cost them less than half of the Miami rent. This is true when comparing Panama City to most USA or European cities. The cost of in-city living is beyond most people’s budgets. They also mentioned not needing a car in Panama adding about $500 of disposable income into their monthly budget. Uber is everywhere in Panama City as are taxis and public transportation including a state of the art metro-rail system. When the need for a car arises, rentals can be had at very low prices.
Panama City boasts three flagship hospitals in addition to their other medical facilities: Clinica Hospital San Fernando, Centro Medico Paitilla and Hospital Punta Pacifica. These three consistently rank as top care providers of the world. They pride themselves on bilingual staff and doctors trained at medical schools not just in Panama but from renowned facilities all over the world. The medical tourism business in Panama is flourishing. Health care services are available for a fraction of USA prices. For expats living in Panama, health insurance can run as low as $35 per month for 70% coverage. Or, expats can opt to “join” a hospital group and received 100% coverage at a nominal monthly fee. The dental business in Panama is on the same par as the medical system. Many dentists are trained in the USA and return to Panama to practice. Local cruisers have told us how the dental facilities are more modern than those they once patronized in the USA. We have learned recently how many people in need of dental work living in USA fly to Panama and pay about 30% of the cost for similar treatment in the USA. On-line companies brokering treatments and arranging for medical travel to Panama are thriving. Even after adding in airfare and hotel expenses, the savings for dental care in Panama are significantly lower than in the USA.
Cindy went to the doctor yesterday (nothing serious). We do have international world-wide health insurance but it has a large deductible and is designed as a catastrophic policy. We do not use our health insurance for regular doctor visits. With no insurance, a walk-in clinic, an English speaking physician with a nice bedside manner and ample face-time about 10 minutes to discuss two issues. Total cost: $15.00. Cindy had to ask three times for the correct amount because at first, she thought they said $50. Needing to have prescription filled, Cindy was directed to the pharmacy next door. The branded drug made by Merck was $10.00 with no insurance. The exact same drug in the USA (we looked it up) is $145 without insurance. It is no wonder people are moving here in droves.
For expats living in Panama with earnings and income outside of Panama, this income is tax-free in Panama. This is very much unlike the USA where income earned outside of the USA is taxable even if the USA resident or citizen no longer resides in the USA. The only way to escape USA taxes is to renounce the citizenship (which ironically is illegal to do for tax purposes). The USA is the only country in the civilized world who still taxes citizens not residing there. Income taxes in Panama are reasonable: between $11,000 USD and $50,000 USD only pay a low 15% tax rate. Those making $50,000 or higher pay a flat 25% tax rate. Did you catch the words “flat tax”? Panama must be doing something right as its economy has grown at about a rate of 8% each year and was mostly unaffected by the last global economic downturn. We notice the construction of roads, commercial buildings and homes everywhere we have visited. Business is booming here!
I mentioned earlier about the list of benefits a retiree has in Panama. This was taken from a site catering to people wishing to move here. This list is not just for expats. It is benefits for all retirees – both foreign residents and Panamanian:
- 50% off closing costs for home loans.
- 25% off both international and domestic airline tickets.
- 10% off prescription medicines (which are inexpensive to begin with)
- 15% off dentistry.
- 30% off bus, boat and train fares.
- 25% Restaurants
- 15% Fast Food Restaurants
- 20% Doctor visits and Surgery
- 25% Monthly energy, phone and water bill
- 15% Optometry services
- 50% Hotel from Monday thru Thursday and 30% on weekends
- 50% off entertainment including movies, concerts, sporting events and theater. ( This means for example, a movie ticket will cost you $2. And Panamanian cinemas receive American movies about the same time they come out in the States.)
- In Panama, all banks (mandated by law) have special express lines for Retirees.
And don’t forget, you can hire a full-time live-in maid for less than $200 a month. That is probably the most helpful “retiree benefit”. For an aging person, having someone about to keep an eye on things is a huge benefit. Many of the homes built in expat communities include live-in quarters for staff. With money saved, many retiree expats can afford to visit their family and country three times a year.
I see assisted living communities now gaining traction in the USA. However once again, the cost of these communities is beyond the resources of most. For the most part, the construction of these facilities is shoddy and overpriced. In Panama, the same amount of money generates a very comfortable lifestyle.
I have always been of the mindset retirement in the USA is probably not a good idea. Cindy and I often wonder where we might settle down when we grow up. The USA doesn’t threat the elderly kindly and the healthcare is outrageously expensive. It is also touted as the best healthcare in the world. I would argue this. Perhaps it is if you are not using health insurance that tends to limit treatment options and if you have unlimited funds. Very few countries in the world still completely bankrupt entire families for a family member needing a medical procedure. Hospitals in the USA are now demanding payment in advance for lifesaving treatments. This is wrong on so many levels. I don’t have a solution. I just see a massive problem.
Quite a few people who moved to Panama opted not the go through the residency process. And because of this, we now find ourselves caught in a change of immigration law. We arrived in Panama in March. Standard visitor visas are good for 180 days. This is better than the normal 90 days in most countries. In the past, all a person needed to do to renew their 180-day visa was to leave Panama for a couple of days and then they could return. The passport was then stamped allowing another 180-day visa. People moving here decided not to do the simple paperwork or pay the minimal cost of gaining a permanent residence card allowing them to stay indefinitely. Instead, they would fly to go visit family or catch a bus to a border town, leave Panama and return sometimes on the same day. This has created a problem and the government has no idea how many full-time residents are actually here on tourist visas.
The government decided to change the rules. The new law says if you stay for 180 days in Panama on a tourist visa, you must leave for 30 days before being allowed back in. This is aimed directly at expats not doing the paperwork. There is a helpful caveat to the new law that says if we leave before the 5th month, we only need to be out for 72 hours and then we are allowed to return. September is our 180 days. We already know we will want to stay longer than September. So, we have to leave and come back. If we do this sooner than later in our stay, it is easier.
Google Flights is our new best friend. One of the great features not available on any other travel site is the ability to look at the entire world and see where you can fly for the least amount of money. Loose dates can even be inputted making the process that much easier. So, we put in Panama City and looked at flights anywhere in the world for under $200 round trip over the next few weeks. It is pretty amazing to see the options available. I wonder where we’ll go.