Jamaica Expat Country Guide
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Originally inhabited by the native Arawak and Taino tribes, Jamaica has long held an important role in international commerce. Colonized by the Spanish in 1494, who were then overthrown by the British in 1655, and finally gaining independence in 1962. During that time Jamaica established herself as one of the most important sugar-growing areas in the world.
These days many ancestors of the original ethnic groups survive, creating a complex patchwork of different ethnicities and skin colours across the island. While the island measures just 146 miles long, these days the population includes those who can trace their heritage back to Africa, China, Spain and Britain.
Indeed it is this ethnic melting pot which has created such a fascinating and colourful country, unique to anywhere else in the world.
The original draw of Jamaica for the sugar barons was her climate; warm and humid around the year, and enjoying heavy periods of rain, the tropical climate was perfect for growing coffee and sugar cane. This, combined with the rich red soils to be found here made Jamaica the most agriculturally productive island in the British Empire for many years.
Like many countries near to the equator, rather than experiencing four seasons, the year is split into a “dry” season and a “wet” season, though rain may in truth fall at any time of the year.
The wet season runs from May to November, and is the period in which hurricanes are most likely. In the past, a number of these have been serious, causing devastation on the island.
The dry season runs from December through till May and is typically the best time to visit. At such times tourist numbers increase considerably, as do prices at hotels.
Jamaica enjoys an average annual temperature of 25-30’C right around the year, though this heat is tempered somewhat inland, where the island rises in altitude.
There is little doubt that Britain’s rule of Jamaica has had a significant impact on Jamaica’s culture. Missionaries worked hard to encourage the population to convert to Christianity, and these days Jamaica allegedly enjoys the highest number of churches per capita anywhere in the world.
Possibly the most obvious trait among native Jamaicans is their warmth and “joie de vivre”. It is expected, for example, when entering a bus or public building, to greet others warmly and openly. You should also come to expect such greetings, which can take some getting used to for those expats from more conservative cultures.
Note that despite the classic view of Bob Marley and the Rastafarians in Jamaica, drug use is still illegal and can receive significant penalties. Jamaican prisons are infamously harsh so you would be well-advised to avoid any contact with drugs during your trip here.
In other words, if you are approached while alone it is wisest to assume the worst and to make a polite but firm getaway before you’re subtly hounded for money.
Jamaica can be thought of as a bi-lingual country with two different languages in use.
The first of these is Jamaican Standard English (JSE) demonstrating further cultural impact from British rule. This means that visitors and expats here are unlikely to struggle to communicate. JSE is used in most “professional” environments such as commerce and government, greatly easing the expat’s entry into Jamaican life.
The second language is known as Jamaican Patois, a conglomerate language based on English but with West African influences.
In most cases expats and tourists will be able to get by speaking English, though may enjoy the challenge of picking up words and phrases of Patois, which regularly have an oddly-familiar sound to them thanks to their English basis.
Jamaicans drive on the left-hand side of the road, but there are dangers aplenty both in the form of other drivers and general road conditions – especially outside Kingston, the capital. Driving in Kingston itself can be quite an experience for expats, with roads either suffering from terrible congestion at rush hour, or drivers dashing to make up lost time at other times of the day. While theoretically it is possible to drive in Jamaica for six months with a British driving license, most people opt for public transport during their visit.
Taxis are arguably the most ubiquitous form of public transport in Jamaica. These come in a range of forms, both licensed by the government and unlicensed. As a high-crime country, it is generally safest to stick to those taxis approved by the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) which can be identified by their red license plates.
Taxis for locals are typically known as “route taxis” and may pick up and drop off at any point, sometimes ferrying multiple passengers at the same time. They can be an ideal and low-cost way to get around and meet the locals.
Alternatively if you would rather have a taxi to yourself you can rely on the many tourist taxis to be found here – frequently known as “contract carriages”.
The other major source of transport in Jamaica are the licensed minibuses known locally as “coasters”. Once again, those with red license plates are generally the safest option, as these have been individually approved by the tourist board.
Despite its past position as the crown in the British Empire, these days Jamaica is regarded as a poor country. This is felt nowhere more prominently than in terms of the healthcare facilities on offer in Jamaica.
Standards at public hospitals may be meagre at best, with only Kingston and Montego Bay boasting hospitals capable of dealing with serious conditions. Outside of these areas the emergency services may be patchy.
Most expats rely on the limited number of private facilities for their needs. Note that serious medical situations may require air-lifting to another country such as mainland USA so expat insurance should be considered essential.
The currency in Jamaica is the Jamaican dollar (JMD).
That said, many businesses are happy to accept US dollars, especially in areas popular with tourists. This willingness to accept other currencies means that visitors should be sure to check whether prices quoted are in Jamaican or US dollars as they are worlds apart in terms of value. That “bargain” might not look so tempting when you realize you’re being quoted in US dollars.
Credit cards are widely accepted in Jamaica and ATMs are easily found in urban areas. Note that in Jamaica cash machines tend to be referred to as “ABMs” and in some areas you may find armed guards standing nearby. These are for your own protection while withdrawing funds and should not be a cause for concern.
For Westerners relocating to Jamaica there is much good news.
Broadly speaking the Jamaican education system is modelled on the British system, meaning that pupils will be able to study a wide range of subjects and study for qualifications on par with international standards. Additionally, due to the languages in use, most lessons are taught in English. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 11.
There are a number of high quality international schools on the island should you wish your children to study for other qualifications, or to enjoy the smaller class sizes such schools typically offer. The Jamaica Independent Schools Association (JISA) represents the private school industry and is an excellent source of information when selecting a suitable school.
Food & Drink
Jamaican food, like its people, is unique – and in the best possible way. Classic Jamaican dishes represent all the colours and flavours to be enjoyed on this beautiful island. Traditional dishes combine meat with an assortment of locally-produced fruits and vegetables into mouth-watering (if spicy) combinations.
Curried goat or chicken are specialities, as is the now world-famous “Jamaican Jerk”. Here Scotch Bonnet chillies are used to create sticky, spicy chicken which is at the same time moreish and devilishly hot.
The best-known dish of all in Jamaica is “ackee and saltfish”. Ackee is a local fruit which must be picked when fully ripe or it contains potentially-lethal chemicals. Fortunately the locals are experts at picking it at just the right time, and when combined with the locally-caught fish, provides a thoroughly unique taste experience.
Generally speaking tap water is considered safe to drink all across Jamaica, with water treatment facilities meeting international standards.
Jamaica may be a beautiful country offering a warm welcome to travellers, but sadly the poor state of the economy means that crime rates are higher than in many other countries. As a result visitors should take suitable precautions to avoid risk.
Crime tends to be particularly prevalent in and around Kingston, though in reality issues can arise almost anywhere.
These issues are particularly noticeable at night. Visitors are therefore advised not to use public transport, travel alone or walk in unfamiliar areas after dark. Keep valuables out of sight at all times and be certain to keep your bag to hand. Be cynical of anyone you don’t know approaching you for a “chat” and aim to stick to areas where other people are around.
If the worst happens, contact the English-speaking police on 119.
Places to Visit
It’s no real surprise why Jamaica is such a popular tourist destination. That incredible climate, the friendly people and the laid-back attitude all contribute to make this island somewhere you might just never want to leave. But it’s not all lying on the beach sipping cocktails; with so much history, not to mention natural beauty, where’s a whole world of opportunity for travellers willing to make the effort. Here are some of the things no visitor to Jamaica should miss on their trip…
Traditionally-known as the “Blue Hole”, this site is now more commonly-known as the Blue Lagoon after the eponymous 1980’s movie. The real draw to the area is the colour of the water to be found here, which changes with the direction of the sunlight. Once believed to be bottomless, these days visitors flock to the area to swim or take a boat ride on the most unbelievable azure waters.
Seven Mile Beach
Located at the small town of Negril, Seven Mile Beach is considered one of the finest beaches in all the Caribbean. Sheltered by a giant reef, the beach here is tranquil and the waters gentle, making them perfect for swimming and snorkelling. You’ll also find beach-front eating and drinking establishments all the way along, so you might just find that you never need to leave the palm-tree fringed white sands ever again…
Once the home of the 4th Earl of Orford, this old plantation house is as famous for its location as its architecture. Located high up in the Blue Mountains the property is now a hotel and restaurant offering some of the very best views in all of Jamaica. Sit and relax in the cooling breeze while enjoying a meal or treat yourself to some pampering at the spa to be found here.
Martha Brae River
Adventurous visitors looking for something a little bit “different” will find it on Martha Brae. Located near Montego Bay, the river is still as pristine as when Europeans colonists first discovered it, clothed on both sides by greenery and wildlife. These days the real draw to Martha Brae is the option to take an accompanied bamboo-raft ride up the river. Sit and relax as your guide gently steers you through the clean, turquoise waters.
Rose Hall Great House
This imposing mansion was built in the 1770’s and was reputedly inhabited by a witch who murdered three different husbands. These days, while the security levels are somewhat higher, much of that original magic remains. The extensive property has since been refurbished to its original splendour. Come to experience this living piece of history, complete with locals in traditional dress re-enacting many of the stories reputedly occurring here in days gone by.
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Of course, if you’re planning on travelling abroad please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.