First Month in Panama

One of the biggest concerns people have about relocating to Panama is not knowing Spanish. Don’t let the lack of knowing Spanish stop you from enjoying a more stress-free and affordable life in Panama. There are places where you can live in Panama and do just fine with very limited (or no) Spanish.

Some areas of Panama have a higher concentration of expats who speak English. In these areas, more Panamanians speak English, so it is easier for some to start, at least initially, in an area with plenty of expats because it will make your transition to life in Panama easier. In the expat communities, you’ll find that some restaurant menus are in Spanish and English, people at the bank speak English, doctors speak English, and even signs at the grocery store are in Spanish and English. In expat communities, there will always be someone close by who is bi-lingual and can help with translations if necessary.

But, even in the expat communities, it is good to learn basic Spanish phrases. You’ll find that the more you are around Spanish speakers, the more Spanish you will learn!

If you move to an area where there are not many tourists or expats, there will be only a few (if any) Panamanians who speak English because they have not been exposed to, or had the need to know English.  In these areas, you’ll need to learn more Spanish faster.. keep reading to learn how!

So, you moved to Panama, and you are getting settled into your very first rental. You are unpacking, you are walking around your town and finding out where the grocery stores are, where the restaurants are, and most importantly, where the closest place is where you can sit down and order an ice-cold beer (or margarita).  There will probably be several places like this, and there will be other expats you can chat with!

Learning Spanish is high on your priority list, but first things first. Your suitcases need to be unpacked, and you must buy food to put in the refrigerator so you can cook something this week! When you move to Panama, Spanish is the official language, which could present some new challenges – but they are easy to overcome!

With that in mind, these are some basic things you will need to know to communicate and function in Panama that first month.  The first chart has a few words and basic phrases that will make your first month in Panama easier.

If Panamanians see you trying to speak even a little Spanish (even if you butcher it) and you have a big smile, they will do everything they can to help you communicate. They sincerely appreciate that you are trying.


To get started on learning Spanish and feeling more comfortable speaking and hearing Spanish words, get DOULINGO. It’s a FREE Online App. They also have a paid version you can subscribe to later when ready to take it to the next level.


Panamanians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.  In their culture, being polite is very important.  When you walk into an elevator, you should make eye contact and greet everyone on the elevator by saying “Hola” or “Buenas” to everyone.  The same applies when you walk into a doctor’s office or get on a bus.

Even when walking down the street, it is customary to make eye contact and greet the people you pass on the street.  There is a way to say “Good Morning, Good Afternoon and Good Night,” but if you just learn the word “Buenas” it covers the entire day.   Buenas is a lot easier to learn in the very beginning. Your brain is absorbing so much in your new home; these charts are just to get you started!

Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Night  — Buenas
Thank you- Gracias
You’re welcome – De Nada
How are you?  Como Esta?
Have a good day (or good day) tenga un buen día or just Buen día
Please – (you will use this often) Por Favor!
It’s nice to meet you! mucho gusto!
If someone sneezes, say — salud
Goodbye — ciao
Where is the bathroom? ¿dónde está el baño?


Here is a “cheat sheet of some basic words you might want to know when going to a restaurant. It will help you read the menu and also ask for items you might want. Also, it is important to know that in Panama, a waiter or a waitress will never give you your check until you ask. That is considered rude in this country. They know that some families might save up an entire year to be able to take the whole family to a restaurant. The employees would never give anyone the impression that just because they are through with their meal that they are no longer welcome. So whenever you are ready to leave the restaurant, remember to ask for the check by saying, “La Cuenta Por Favor!” If you don’t ask for your check, you may be there forever!

menu — menú
glass of water   — vaso de agua
juice — jugo
alcohol — alcohol
I want a beer!Quiero una cerveza or just Cerveza por favor
beer — cerveza
ice — Hielo (sounds like yellow)
fork — tenedor
spoon — cuchara
knife — cuchillo
may I have the check please? — la cuenta por favor
chicken — pollo
fish — pescado
fried — frito
grilled — A la parrilla
soup — sopa
salad — ensalada
salad dressing — aderezo para ensalada
potatoes — papas
rice — arroz
beans — frijoles
black coffee — café negro
coffee with milk — café con leche
dessert — postre
ice cream — helado
cake — pastel
pie — tarta
cash only — solo efectivo (be sure to determine if the restaurant is cash only before you order)
please — por favor
thank you — gracias

Notice I put Please and Thank you at the end of this chart. It’s important to ALWAYS when you ask for something you say “Please,” and ALWAYS when you receive something, say “THANK YOU!” You will never go wrong if you are always polite!

If necessary, you can always use Google Translate on your cell phone (be sure to download it) to help you translate a menu or to ask a question. With Google Translate, you can even speak the words you want to translate, and you can take a photo of a Spanish menu to get it translated into English.

Enjoy your new home in Panama! The key to easing your way into Panama is just to relax! Smile a lot, learn patience, be polite and realize that life does not have to move a million miles an hour!

If the situation comes up where you find yourself wondering if you should try something new, adapt this phrase as your new mantra, “Como no?” (Why not?)


That first week in Panama, it would be a good idea to get a Panama cell phone.  If your current phone is unlocked (not in contract), you can just switch to a Panama SIM card and use the same phone. A Verizon phone may not work in Panama.  There are several different cell phone companies in Panama.  I prefer TIGO because their service is great throughout Panama.  You can sign up for a monthly cell phone plan (no long-term contract) for $25 to $50 a month, or you can just add minutes/data as needed.

You will absolutely want to get Whatsapp installed (free download) on your phone because that is the primary way people make calls, send texts, and share photos or locations in Panama. When you buy a phone or a SIM card, the person at the store can help you download Whatsapp and set up your phone, so everything is in English. With Whatsapp, you’ll be able to make and receive free calls from friends and family back home who also have Whatsapp.

Having a Panama cell phone number will make it much easier for property managers and your immigration attorney to stay in touch with you.  Note that Panama cell phones have 8-digits and Panama landlines have 7 digits. The country code throughout Panama is +507.


The first week you are in Panama, you could get a Pensionado Visa, or you may want to wait for a month to give yourself time to get settled before you start the Visa process.  You should consult with an immigration attorney to determine what documents you will need to bring with you to get a Visa.  Some documents will need to be apostilled or authenticated in your country (not in Panama), so it will require advanced planning.

There are immigration offices throughout Panama that could make it possible to stay in your home after a day at immigration instead of a hotel.   Getting your Visa after you are settled in your rental will save a lot of money on hotel and eating out expenses.  For the initial processing Visa, it will require about seven days and 2-3 trips to immigration.


I have to tell you a funny story that taught me a valuable lesson. When I moved into my rental house in Boquete, there were eight hummingbird feeders. I wanted to fill them with sugar water to attract those tiny hummingbirds to my property. So, I went to the grocery store to buy a big bag of sugar. Easy right?  I looked at the aisle with flour and baking goods. I saw a big bag of white granulated stuff that looked like sugar with a domino on the front of the package. It must be sugar – right??  When I got home, I looked up the word on the bag, SAL, to discover that I had purchased 5 pounds of SALT. It’s a good thing I did not give it to the hummingbirds!

TIP! to avoid mistakes like this, it is a good idea to make your grocery list, but also look up the Spanish word for every item and write the Spanish word on your grocery list. This will help you learn the Spanish word for the things you purchase most often. And, if you cannot find an item, you can ask for help finding the item.

At the grocery store, you can’t assume that the items will look the same or be grouped in the same way you are familiar with. A good example is that sugar is also sold in its raw unprocessed form in Panama, a light brown color, though not brown sugar. You can also buy processed white sugar. In some grocery stores, sugar is on the same aisle as raw beans and rice, both staples, but not on the aisle with flour and other baking goods.

When you first move to Panama, it’s a good idea to walk up and down every aisle to get familiar with what’s available and where things are located.

By the way, you will need to take reusable cloth bags to put your groceries in because Panama banned single-use plastic bags!


Panama uses the US dollar so if you’re from the United States, there will be no exchange rate to deal with, which certainly makes life easier in Panama.  Note that some restaurants, all farmer’s markets and street vendors are cash only.  There is an ATM at every bank.

When you make a purchase at a restaurant, they will usually give you a bill, or you can see the amount on the cash register, which makes it easy to figure out how much to pay.

But sometimes, you‘ll be in a situation with no written bill or a cash register. For example, if you make a purchase at a farmer’s market or fruit/ vegetable stand, there may not be any prices posted. You may need to ask “how much” or “Cuánto cuesta?

When the salesperson tells you “cinco veinte” ($5.20), you’ll need to figure out what they are saying. The most common Spanish numbers you will need are listed below. Don’t worry; if the salesperson sees a puzzled look on your face, they will usually enter the numbers in their calculator to show you the price or write it out on paper.  It would be a good idea to carry a small calculator with you too so you can enter numbers if necessary.

There are several youtube videos to help you learn how to pronounce Spanish numbers.

Here are the most common numbers you will be using while visiting or living in Panama.

1 – uno
2 – dos
3 – tres
4 – cuatro
5 – cinco
6 – seis
7 – siete
8 – ocho
9 – nueve
10 – diez
11 – once
12 – doce
13 – trece
14 – catorce
15 – quince
16 – dieciséis
17 – diecisiete
18 – dieciocho
19 – diecinueve
20 – veinte
21 – veintiuno
22 – veintidós
23 – veintitrés
24 – veinticuatro
25 – veinticinco
26 – veintiséis
27 – veintisiete
28 – veintiocho
29 – veintinueve
30 – treinta
31 – treinta y uno
32 – treinta y dos
33 – treinta y tres

Moving to Panama will be a fun adventure. You’ll learn new things every day!

Jackie Lange

Jackie Lange is the founder of Panama Relocation Tours and lives in the highlands of Boquete Panama. She has helped thousands of people relocate to Panama.

Reader Interactions


  1. Shirley Taylor says

    This is a great article!!! Love that you included many Spanish phrases. I will print this off to keep for my records.
    I purchased Gary’s course, which includes a LONG list of words!!!. I was VERY disappointed that Gary’s Course EXPIRES after about a year…so if you don’t start it right away, you won’t have access to the audio files from his website because your account will no longer work. So it is really $79/YEAR NOT $ 79 for the course. BE READY to start when you purchase!!!. I REALLY wish someone would do a 3 day Spanish IN-PERSON course on the East Coast of the US(PA or MD) like Gary used to give years ago. NOT everything is conducive to ‘online’! :( and NOT everyone has the resources to go to MEXICO or CANADA to take a 4 day course.
    Nonetheless, I should be able to get back to the Spanish studies when I’m done with my professional coursework. Hopefully the course will not have expired by then.

    • Jackie Lange says

      HI Shirley, Gary Scott’s Online Spanish Course is a one time fee of $79 for a lifetime access. I let him know you’d love to do a live Spanish class on the East Coast.

  2. Chuck says

    Can’t thank you enough for your dedication in equipping people like us who plan on relocating to Panama with such valuable info. This article was chock full of good advice & we truly appreciate all the little tips you share with us.

  3. Shirley Taylor says

    Thanks Jackie! I did get a response from David Cross from Gary’s team. He did say there is NO time limit on the course now and that it IS UNLIMITED access!!

  4. Karyl Brod says

    Great information! Thanks Jackie! You are the best!!

  5. Todd Schrauf says

    As a former and hope to be again soon expat, who has gone through the Spanish learning experience I would say that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn for an English native speaker. It is a very regular language (every word is spelled exactly how it is pronounced), it has no verb tenses that you don’t have in English (unlike say French or Italian), and many words in English are very close to those in Spanish (for example words that end in tion in English are the same in Spanish with the ending of cion instead eg: emotion = emocion). In my experience learning to read Spanish is the easiest, speaking it is a bit harder, and understanding others when they speak (especially longer sentences and conversations) is the most difficult. But the key to really getting comfortable with a language is practice (i.e. repetition) and desire. And the teaching aids have greatly evolved so that you are learning phrases instead of the parts and trying to put them together (basically the same way as a child you learned your native language). You will find that when you get to the point that you are no longer translating in your mind from one language to the next (for example you will use phrases like buenos dias or por favor so often that your mind quickly skips the interpretation). It took me about 2 or 3 years of living abroad in Peru before I really felt comfortable in business meetings conducted entirely in Spanish. My only formal training was using audio tapes everyday of phrases in English and Spanish (enough to get to basic conversation level) and the rest through interaction with the locals (many of whom were bilingual). Although a few of my expat coworkers never got very proficient at Spanish but managed nonetheless, the majority took very quickly to it. Learning a new language can be a lot of fun (not like when you took it in high school in my experience), and using it everyday really speeds up the learning process.

  6. Debbi says

    I commented on this section 7 months ago & here I am again studying this page & getting ready to implement these suggestions as we hope to relocate as soon as Panama reopens its’ borders. My biggest priority is trying to learning some Spanish. I previously spoke fluent French & Greek & pray I don’t mix up 3 languages & come out with a mish mash of confusing words!

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