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Monday, November 18, 2013

The new Q&A Monday! Reader emails answered starting today.

Hey everybody,

Wow, the support I've received since launching The Stay at Home Gringo blog and Panama For Real has just been amazing and lately emails have been pouring in. I try my best to help people out. Sometimes it might take me a little while to reply to your emails, especially if I'm in the middle of working on a location report or video, but I try to get to each email and respond in a timely manner. 

I'm getting more emails than comments on the blog or website and I still plan to answer emails directly, but my concern is that so many great questions are being asked and readers are missing out on those questions and the answers. So, my new plan is to spend each Monday, writing the Q&A. I'll only post readers first names and the question, and then I'll post my answer. Keep in mind, I'm not an immigration expert or a tax expert or a real estate expert. I'm just an average Joe living in Panama. So I'll do my best to answer questions and will oftentimes refer you to a lawyer or a real estate expert. So...let's get this started. Here are some of the questions I've received over the last week and a half. 

Patti wrote (about her family's upcoming move to Panama)

One of my girls (the 16 year old) is ALL IN. She's in grade 11 and since we homeschool here, we are just going to carry on with homeschooling year left by the time we settle down there.  My 18 year old was a little concerned about the whole thing when we first brought it up in August...she finally figured out what she wants to do with her life and now she feels like it won't happen if we move.  She wants to be a medical lab technician or a the language barrier is a huge concern for her.  And I think it is for all of us.  My youngest wants to be a Vet, so that requires post secondary schooling too. So we are processing every bit of information that we get, and praying for wisdom in everything.  I also think that my oldest is concerned that there won't be any guys to date/marry when she's ready to date/marry, or that there are men there who would be willing to marry her she just won't be able to understand them! hahahah!  Any thoughts on the dating scene??  

Chris replied (it's weird talking about myself in the 3rd person, like I'm The Rock or something "The Rock says!"): 

I read this email to my wife, Marlene, and she wants to answer the concerns of your 18-year-old. I'll do the typing, but it's her words:

"The first point, about the studying for her career as a lab tech or RN. In David, which is 30 minutes from Boquete (approximately) there are 4 university options that you can visit the websites to. I'll give you the details of these schools.  

UNACHI Universidad Autonoma de Chiriqui – This is a free school, but your daughter will need all of the credits from every school she's ever attended along with her diploma. Try to authenticate her diploma with the Canadian government. This is an all Spanish school. But it's free and they offer Spanish classes. What might make sense is for your daughter to spend the first year or two at least, learning Spanish because in her career Spanish will be necessary. 

Universidad Latina de Panama-Chiriqui – This one isn't free, but it's known as being one of the best schools. With this school she may need to do some studying in Panama City as well. 

Columbus - Also not free

UDI (Universidad del Istmo) this is another popular school. This is their main website, but they have a branch in Chiriqui

UDI in Las Tablas

"For your other daughter, wishing to be a VET, we're not sure if there is a school she can attend in Chiriqui. She could definitely enroll in a school in Panama City though. The good thing is that out in Chiriqui, they're in desperate need of volunteers. Your youngest daughter could volunteer to work for any of the organizations out there, even being underage. I know there are a few that assist with spaying and neutering pets. Most of them would probably accept your daughter as a volunteer and teach her a lot of what she needs to know.

"Same with your oldest daughter. A lot of the clinics and hospitals need volunteers, so as she's learning Spanish and going to school, she can volunteer to get some of the credits she needs. 

"As for the dating scene, your daughter, being a foreigner should have no problem snagging a man. But in all honesty, it's getting a good man that might be the problem. Panama is unfortunately full of players (not all Panamanian men, but most). But out there in the area you're considering moving to, you'll also find a lot of other foreigners from all over the globe. So many young entrepreneurs are moving here too and conducting their business via the web. So it shouldn't be nearly as difficult as she thinks.

Marlene and Estefania in Boquete

"I strongly suggest that your daughters put a lot of focus on learning Spanish. Young kids soak it up easily (under the age of 10), but your daughters will probably need to put a lot of effort into it. This is can be the most rewarding experience of their lives, especially since they are already being home schooled, but they need to have an open mind and just roll with the punches. 

"My husband had a rough time and still does since he doesn't speak Spanish very well. He gets frustrated a lot. So they need to be prepared for that and you need to be ready to be there for them. Take classes with them and just embrace this move as a family." 

Alyce wrote:

Hello Christopher!  Love your blog so much!  My husband (the Panamanian) and I (the gringa) just moved here at the end of October with our 3 kids.  I was hoping you could help me with a little info about getting a visa/residency.  We've been told that we have to get an attorney to represent us, but am not sure whether I should believe that.  We brought our marriage certificate, my birth certificate and my FBI background check, all authenticated through the Panamanian Consulate in Houston and have seen the list of other documents required, but can't find the solicitud/application available anywhere so far.  Any insight you could give would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks so much!

Chris replied:

Thanks so much for the kind words and for checking out my site. I really do appreciate it. Wow, you're kind of in the same boat I was in when moving here. I wish I had a good answer for you. My father-in-law has taken care of everything for me (he's a lawyer, but not an immigration lawyer) and we've run into a lot of hiccups, and he's finding things about by trial and error.

I've been here over 4 years and I just got my permanent residency. I've heard of people with great immigration lawyers who've gotten it much quicker. 

I'd definitely go with an attorney. I know people who are going at it alone, but many of the papers have to be signed by a lawyer, so you will need one at some point. It's great that you brought all the paperwork with you. I had to fly to Miami just to get that police background check authenticated by the Panamanian consulate.

I'm so sorry I don't have a great answer for you. Immigration and taxes are the two areas I try to avoid because they change so rapidly and they're so darned complicated. Let me see if I can get some answers for you on this whole thing. I seriously think you're better off getting a lawyer. I'm in the process of finding a good attorney I can refer people to. As soon as I find this person, I'll let everyone know. 

I'll get back to you as soon as I find something out. If you figure it out before me, let me know, lol.

Thanks again for checking out the site and welcome to Panama.

P.S. To all readers out there, if you know a trustworthy lawyer here in Panama, who speaks English, and truly knows the immigration system, please comment below so I can contact them. Thanks guys!

Alissa wrote:

I really enjoy your blog and have been to Panama twice searching for the right place to call home.  I am not a retiree, but my parents are, and they were the ones with the idea of Panama. I think we have fallen pretty hard for El Valle de Anton.  We have adored our time there and actually met a decently sized group of expats.

Now, what really is the deal with working? Are we able to work or not? Is it better to have your own business? Is that even possible?  I would like to move there and be able to support a family.  Any guidance and/or suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Thanks so much and I look forward to hearing from you!

Chris replied:

Thanks so much for checking out the site and for writing. El Valle is a beautiful place. I'll be doing a report on that area as soon as I can. It's a great place to call home for sure. Something about that place makes me feel like I'm driving to the Kellerman's place on Dirty Dancing. It just feels like a big resort town.

El Valle de Anton from above

So the deal with working? Uff, that's a tough question. It kind of depends on how you're setting up your immigration stuff here. If you're coming here as a pensionado, you can't work (because you're considered a retiree). If you're doing the new "Fast Track" visa, that's specifically for bringing more workers over here, then you can work.

However, finding a job here is the hard part. I'm legal to work here since I went the "I have a Panamanian wife" route. There's definitely no shortage of jobs in Panama, but even with the work license, it's hard to find a legit, good paying job. I did the call center thing for awhile and they work you like 6 days a week for about $700 per month. You can find other jobs, especially if you have a degree, and even better if you speak Spanish, but the best paying job I've found so far was only $1500 per month.

I don't imagine the job market in little ol' El Valle is booming, but it's possible you can do some sort of freelance online gig or even land a photography job (especially in such a beautiful town). I'd definitely consider opening a business here. That's the whole reason I'm doing Panama For Real. I'm just tired of writing about Panama for other people. 

Hello from El Valle

The great thing about Panama, is that many of the small towns here are lacking something. This means great opportunity for you to move in and open up shop. For example, in Pedasi, one of my favorite beach towns, an Australian couple owns a bakery, a guy from the U.K. has his own real estate business, a lady from France owns a souvenir shop, a lady from Spain runs the's the limit. If you move somewhere and realize the pizza in the area sucks...just open your own pizzeria. In El Valle, there's still plenty of opportunity, and more and more people are moving to that area and visiting that area. 

Of course, opening a business requires money though. I moved here right after the recession wiped out my job, so I've been struggling a bit. If you're moving here with any sort of retirement or permanent income, or if you have a chunk of change you can put towards opening your own business, you can find some great opportunities here.

It's definitely a tough place to try to go about a normal career.

Jim wrote:

Hi Chris, discovered your blog and find it very helpful.  I have been in Panama 5.5 months and need to do a border run to renew my visa. I plan to ride the bus over the Costa Rica border, turn around and come back to get my passport stamped.  I believe there is a rule wth immigration that I have to show a round-trip ticket, and can't simply buy a one-way ticket back into the country.  I am told I simply buy a round-trip bus ticket where I probably will never use the return ticket.  Do you have current knowledge of how to play the border run game without getting stuck?

Chris replied:

Thanks so much for checking out the site and for reaching out to me. A friend of mine just did the border run so I'm asking him all about it as I write this. Here's the process he went through.

1. He and his girlfriend bought tickets to the border between Panama and Costa Rica. They did this at the Albrook Bus Terminal and the ticket was about $21. Apparently it's a shorter trip and costs less than going all the way to San Jose, Costa Rica. To get to San Jose (which is what some people do), you'd need to travel about 8 hours farther.

Here's the border where the bus drops you

2. Once you get to the border, you just walk over, and the whole process takes a couple of hours, but the bus drops you right at the office, so it's very easy. You only pay about $1 (for a stamp) at the border, so crossing over is very easy.

The Immigration Offices

3. Don't forget to exchange some money for the Costa Rican Colones. You can do that at the border. My friend says you can use dollars, but you'll be charged a lot more.

My friend tells me a guy with fanny pack is usually at this corner exchanging money

4. My friend and his girlfriend stayed the night in a town called Golfito. He said you can catch the bus right there at the border for about $3.50 with a  company called Transgolfo. It's about an hour and 45 minute ride. He saw other people turning around and going right back to Panama. I heard you have to stay one night at least, but he said people were returning right away, that it's a bit of a free for all, anything goes kind of thing. He and his girlfriend stayed one night in Golfito, at a hotel called "Samoa del Sur" and then returned.

Where you catch the bus to Golfito

Here's the hotel link: and he said the cost was about $65 per night for a room with two beds.


5. When you get back to the border, you'll need to find a place called Tracopa. There you'll need to buy a ticket from David, Panama to San Jose (so it's basically a wasted ticket just to show you have plans to return to San Jose at a later date).

6. Cross back over the boarder, showing your purchased ticket (for your future trip from David to San Jose) and either $500 cash or credit card (they basically just want to make sure you're not homeless and coming to Panama broke).

7. Once Panama has allowed you to cross the boarder, you'll need to buy your ticket back to Panama City in a little house-like building (a border office located only about 50m from the building you exit after crossing over). From there, you just go back to the same place where the bus dropped you the first day. The bus schedule is strange, with like 4 hour gaps or something like that, so make sure you check the schedule for that too.

So all that was a long way of saying, "Yes, you will need a return ticket when crossing back over to Panama, that way they think you have intentions of leaving."

I hope this all helps. Thanks again for contacting me.

So that's it for this Monday's Q&A. Keep the emails coming and I'll do my best to answer them. Thanks again for reading,