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Living in Panama
A practical guide to the way of life in Panama
Do I need private health insurance while in Panama? What do I need to know about the social security system? What is accommodation like for expats in Panama? The InterNations GO! guide to living in Panama has the answer to all these questions and many more.
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Life in Panama
With this article, we hope to provide expats in Panama with all the information they need on the healthcare system, housing, and other essential aspects of life in Panama. If you are looking for information on visas, work permits, and doing business, please check out our articles on moving to Panama and working in Panama.
Meet the People
Over 3.6 million people live in the country, more than half of them in the Panama City-Colón metropolitan corridor. Although the culture and customs of people living in Panama are largely Spanish and Caribbean, the nation is something of an ethnic melting pot due to its long history in trade and commerce. According to the CIA World Factbook, the ethnic composition of the population is as follows: mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 65%, Native American 12%, black or African descent 9%, mulatto 7%, white 7%.
Among the various ethnic groups in Panama, those of Afro-Antillean and Chinese origin make up a significant part of the population. The latter are often descendants of the Chinese immigrants who first came in the 19th century to help build the Panama railway. Similarly, a lot of the people of West Indian descent can trace their origins back to the Afro-Caribbean workers who were recruited to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Up to 50% of people in Panama are estimated to have African ancestors of some kind or other.
The official and predominant language is Spanish, with 93% of people in Panama speaking it as their first language. However, many people are bilingual, i.e. they speak Spanish and English (8%), French (4%), Arabic (1%) or an indigenous language. Given the country’s Spanish colonial history, the fact that about 85% of those living in Panama are Roman Catholics is hardly surprising.
For a small country, Panama has a lot to offer in the way of leisure activities. Those interested in nightlife and shopping will feel right at home in Panama City, as it has plenty of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, shopping malls and boutiques. UNESCO world heritage buildings and interesting museums can also be found in the capital, along with a buzzing art scene and many annual music festivals.
Flanked on both sides by oceans, Panama presents a large variety of watersports to enjoy. Fans of surfing, windsurfing, body- and kiteboarding will find suitable breaks and weather conditions for their favorite hobbies along either of the coastlines. Panama´s indigenous name means “Abundance of fish”, and there are excellent opportunities for snorkeling, diving and fishing. In addition to beautiful beaches, you can explore Panama´s jungles and mountains, as well as many small islands in the San Blas archipelago. Hiking, rafting, and birdwatching are some activities expats living in Panama can enjoy on their days off.
Geography and Climate
Living in Panama, you will experience a tropical climate with little seasonal variations, high temperatures and high humidity. People in Panama’s coastal regions on the Caribbean side will experience much heavier rainfall than on the Pacific coast. The rainy season typically lasts from April to December, but it varies between seven and nine months. A typical dry season day on the Caribbean coast usually sees temperatures between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius. Panama’s south, on the Pacific coast, sees slightly cooler temperatures.
Due to its location on the isthmus between North and South America, Panama is a long, narrow piece of land. Although large areas are still covered in forest, deforestation is a continuing threat to people living in Panama. However, as the country lies outside of the hurricane belt, you are unlikely to be affected by many natural catastrophes.
Health Risks in Panama
As soon as you know where and for how long you will be living in Panama, you should visit your doctor to see whether you need any vaccinations. As in most tropical countries, mosquitoes and unclean water or food pose the two most common threats to your health.
Vector-borne diseases that could affect expatriates are, depending on the area, malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya. Malaria can be found in Bocas del Toro on the Atlantic coast, as well as areas bordering Costa Rica and Colombia, but also in some outlying parts of Panama City. Dengue fever is rather common among people living in Panama, and outbreaks happen annually. As there are no vaccinations against them, the only effective way to protect yourself from chikungunya, malaria and dengue fever is by warding off mosquitoes, so make sure to take all sensible precautions against mosquito bites. Malaria mosquitos are active during night, but the type that carries dengue and chikungunya bites during the day, so it is good to stay vigilant at all times.
If you are entering Panama from countries with incidence of yellow fever, a proof of vaccination is required by the authorities. Another vaccine that is highly recommended for anyone in Panama, especially those with small children, is a jab against rabies. Living in Panama can be a very outdoorsy experience, and rabies is a common disease in stray dogs and cats, but also in the many vampire bats. When walking through woodland or shrubs, please make sure to wear adequate shoes to protect yourself against snake bites.
Tap water is safe to drink in Panama City, but is to be avoided everywhere else in the country (also in form of ice cubes). Do take some anti-diarrheal medication with you as you might have troubles adapting to the local water and food during your first few weeks in Panama.
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Healthcare and Housing in Panama
Medical Facilities in Panama
Public healthcare in Panama is in the hands of two public entities: the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) and the Social Security System (Caja de Seguros Social). The latter runs the country’s public hospitals and clinics.
One of the main issues with the Panamanian healthcare system is accessibility. While people living in Panama’s big cities usually have a choice of several hospitals and doctors, rural areas suffer from a lack of good medical care. Often, only first-aid services are available.
Unfortunately this also applies to the private sector. While modern, state-of-the-art medical facilities are available in Panama City, none can be found in smaller towns or in even more rural areas. Recommended private hospitals in Panama City include the Hospital Nacional, the Clinica Hospital San Fernando, and the Hospital Punta Pacifica. Due to its affiliation with John Hopkins, the latter has a lot of US-trained, English-speaking staff.
Bills for medical treatment received in Panama are usually expected to be settled immediately, even in cases of emergency treatment. Please note that private healthcare is very expensive in Panama. A good and comprehensive private international health insurance is therefore highly recommended for expats moving to Panama.
Social Security in Panama
As mentioned above, social security is provided by the Social Insurance Fund (CSS). With some 26% of the population living below the poverty line, this is not an easy task. Most of the disadvantaged members of society live in rural areas and belong to the indigenous population. Narrowing that gap in eligibility and accessibility of healthcare is one of the great challenges Panama faces.
The social security system is based on a combination of social insurance and individual account systems. Every employee contributes 9.25% of their gross salary to social insurance.
Public and private-sector employees with gross monthly earnings exceeding 500 PAB contribute another 8.16% of their earnings above that limit to their individual account. For the self-employed, both rates are at 13.5%. The employer contributes 4.25% of every employee’s salary to social insurance, and another 4.25% to the individual account if applicable. Social insurance covers old age, disability and survivors’ pension.
Sickness and maternity benefits are also administered by the CSS, but not from the same pot of money, so to speak. They are financed through a contribution of 0.5% of gross earnings from every employee and 8.5% from self-employed persons. The employer contributes 8% of the gross payroll. The maximum period during which you can receive sickness benefits for any one illness is 52 weeks. Maternity benefits are granted for six weeks before and eight weeks after childbirth. There is no paid parental leave in Panama.
Expat Accommodation in Panama
Expats in Panama have several accommodation options; you can get anything from a fancy villa to a beach hut or a mountain cottage. It all depends on where you live and how much money you have at your disposal. Most expats, however, choose to live in gated communities offering apartments or condominiums with all modern comforts. Many of them come with shared luxury facilities such as tennis courts, gyms, a swimming pool, and even nurseries. Domestic staff is usually part of the deal when you are living in a gated expat community. However, even if you rent individual accommodation, it is very common for middle-class and upper-class families to employ a cleaner, a live-in maid, or a nanny.
Foreigners are allowed to buy property in Panama, and the real estate market is booming. So if you’re moving to Panama for the long term, you might look into that option. (Owning property also has implications on your residency status. For more information, please refer to our article on moving to Panama.) If you are going to rent accommodation while in Panama, please note the following.
Renting Accommodation in Panama
Apartments come either furnished or unfurnished – the latter excludes all appliances. The terms of contract are usually freely negotiable, both with regards to rent and length of contract period. You can, of course, use the Internet to explore your options before coming to Panama, but in general it isn’t a bad idea to look at the place in person and make sure that everything works before signing a lease. Short-term furnished accommodation is readily available for expats on the flat hunt. Once you have arrived in Panama, your easiest (though not cheapest) option is to enlist the help of a local estate agent. Luckily, most of them speak English.
Once you have signed your contract, it must be registered with the Directorate of Leases at Ministry of Housing in order to be legitimized. This gives you additional security and peace of mind with regard to your rights as a tenant. A security deposit of one month’s rent is also due to the Ministry of Housing. Once your rental contract has been terminated and you have vacated the property, the deposit will be refunded to you if no damage to the property has occurred during your occupation.
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