Like all countries, Panama has immigration laws that govern how long a tourist can stay in Panama and the immigration law also defines the rules for getting a Visa to live in Panama indefinitely. If you want to live in Panama or obtain legal residency in Panama, you’ll need to get a permanent residency Visa. This Visa entitles you to live in Panama indefinitely. There are many different kinds of Visa and the rules are different for each one. The Visa most foreigners are interested in are the Pensionado Visa or the Friendly Nations Visa because they are the least expensive and the fastest Visa for getting permanent residency status. Below I will discuss the process for getting either of these Visas but first I want to discuss the big differences for qualifying for each.
The Pensionado Visa, also known as the retiree Visa, is the easiest and least expensive Visa to get. To qualify, you will need to show a lifetime income of $1,000 per month pension plus $250 per month for each dependent. So, a couple would need to prove $1250 a month in lifetime income from a pension, Social Security, military retirement. It is the least expensive Visa because the government of Panama waives all fees which saves you $1050 in expenses. The drawback of this Visa is that you can never work in Panama. You cannot offer any services or products for sale in Panama if you have a Pensionado Visa. The benefits are that you get a lot of discounts like 25% off all airfare, 25% off utility bills, 50% off movie theaters, 20% off prescriptions, and restaurants.
The Friendly Nations Visa is the ideal Visa to get if you do not have a pension and/or if you would like to work in Panama. You do not need to prove any income. However, you do need to open a Panama bank account with a deposit of $5,000 plus $2,000 for each dependent. As soon as you get your Visa, you can start spending the money in the account. To apply for this visa, you will either need a labor contract (job offer) or you will need to set up a corporation that shows Panama that you have the “intent” of doing business in Panama.
Additional good news… if you are a woman who is 55 or a man who is 60 you will still qualify for all the Pensionado discounts even though you have the Friendly Nations Visa.
Unfortunately, getting a residency Visa is a multiple-step process that will require several trips to Panama. If you wait to get your Visa until after you have already moved to Panama, you can avoid the expense of airfare and hotels.
THESE ARE THE STEPS FOR GETTING A PERMANENT RESIDENCY VISA IN PANAMA:
1. Select a Panama lawyer to work with. The lawyer will send you a list of documents you will need to obtain in your country. You will need a national criminal report, like an FBI report, marriage certificate, proof of pension if applying for the Pensionado Visa, etc. Most of those documents will need to be apostilled or authenticated. Most documents cannot be more than 6 months old but better to apply for a Visa within 1-2 months after you get your documents. Bank reference letters cannot be more than 30 days old. You will need a Panama bank account to get the Friendly Nations Visa. You should confirm that your lawyer can help you set up a bank account for the Friendly Nations Visa. During a Panama Relocation Tour, you will meet the lawyer who handles all the Visa applications for our tour clients.
2. Once you have all the documents the lawyer requested, you should scan them, then email them to your lawyer so they can make sure everything is correct and get all documents translated into Spanish before you arrive. You certainly do not want to make a trip to Panama only to find out that one of the documents is not correct.
3. When you arrive in Panama, on the first day you will meet with your lawyer at their office to sign documents giving them the authority to represent you at immigration. There is also a questionnaire form that is required for getting a Visa. Don’t be surprised if you are asked if you have even been a prostitute or a drug dealer. This will be a 1-hour meeting.
(NOTE: If you get your documents authenticated at the Panama Embassy in your country instead of an apostille, there is an additional step in Panama which must be done before you can apply for your Visa at immigration. You will need to get all documents authenticated by the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Panama City. Your attorney will take care of this for you. This will take 2 days and they charge $5 per document. You can avoid this step if you get your documents apostilled.)
4. The 2nd day, you will meet your lawyer, or their representative, at immigration to file your application for a Visa. This will take 1-3 hours depending on the line.
5. On day 3, you will meet your lawyer at immigration again to get your temporary, or also called a processing Visa. The temporary Visa is good for 6 months. This gives immigration time to verify all the documents you have submitted. Once everything is verified, and before the 6 months is up, you will be notified by your lawyer that your permanent Visa is ready. You will probably be at immigration 3-4 hours this day.
6. If you do not plan to stay in Panama for the 6 months that your Visa is being processed, you will need to get a Multi-entry Visa stamp in your passport. This allows you to leave Panama while immigration is processing your Visa. Your lawyer will help you with the Multi-Entry Stamp process. You will need to give immigration your passport. It will take 2 days to get it back. Failure to get the Multi-Entry Stamp then wanting to leave Panama before your permanent Visa is ready will result in a $2000 fine. It is better to get the $50 multi-entry stamp!
7. About 2 months to 5 months after you get your temporary Visa, your lawyer will notify you that your permanent Visa is ready. This will require a trip to Panama City for 1 day to get your permanent resident Visa.
8. The day you get your permanent Visa, your lawyer will apply for your Cedula (a national ID card) which you can pick up about 1 month later or your lawyer can pick it up for you. The Cedula or national ID card is good for 10 years so you will need to come back to Panama to renew your Cedula if you are not already living in Panama.
9. Once you get your Cedula, you can apply for a work permit if you got the Friendly Nations Visa. It takes several months to get the work permit and cost $500 plus whatever fees your lawyer charges. A work permit is good for three years and can be renewed.
As you can see, getting your permanent Visa will take more than one trip to Panama. There are multiple steps in the Visa process. It will save you money if you wait to apply for your Visa after you move to Panama
Once you get your visa, you are NOT required to live in Panama, but you are required to come back at least every 2 years for a visit.
10. After 5-years, you can apply for Panama citizenship and a passport IF you have lived in Panama the two previous years before applying.
I know it sounds complicated. And it certainly would be very complicated if you were trying to get a Visa without the help of a competent Panama lawyer. Your lawyer will make the whole process easy for you. Picking the right lawyer to work with is essential in the entire Visa process.
(COVID UPDATE: The process is a bit different during the pandemic in 2020. Often, your attorney will be the only one going into the immigration office while you wait outside. You will only go in to sign paperwork or get fingerprints. After the pandemic, the immigration process will go back to the normal procedure.)
NEED A CORPORATION?
If you’re getting a Friendly Nations Visa, you must set up a corporation. Your immigration attorney will handle that for you. It costs $1000 to $1500 to set up a Panama corporation – depending on which attorney you use. They will ask you for what name you want for your corporation, then they will search to make sure it is available. You’ll need to give them the names of 3 officers (family or friends). When you arrive in Panama to get your Visa you will finalize your corporation documents. There is no timeline for when you must start doing business with your corporation. Be aware that there is a $300 a year renewal fee for a corporation plus your registered agent fee which is usually about $100 a year. Your attorney will help you pay that renewal fee.
DO YOU PLAN TO START A BUSINESS OR WORK IN PANAMA?
If you plan to work in Panama, even in your own business, you will need a work permit. You cannot apply for a work permit until you get your permanent Visa. To run a business in Panama, you’ll need a business license and a RUC number too. Your attorney can help you with both. You’ll also want to hire a Panamanian CPA to help you with bookkeeping and to file tax returns for you.
HOW TO MAKE IT EASY!
The right immigration attorney can make the whole process of getting a residency Visa EASY! Our Online Panama Relocation Guide has recommendations of several immigration lawyers we know are honest and reliable. Their prices are much more affordable than other immigration lawyers too.