To get a residency visa in Panama, you need to provide a criminal background report from your country of origin. For US citizens, that means an FBI report. Five years ago, you only needed a local police report but the laws changed in 2012 to require a nationwide criminal report. It’s a good thing because someone could commit a murder in one state but have no police record in another state, so they were able to get a Visa in Panama. The national criminal report put a stop to letting criminals get a visa in Panama.
If there are no dings on your criminal background report then you should have no problems getting a visa quickly. A temporary visa, which is good for one year, takes a couple of days. Then about 2-3 months later, you get your permanent residency visa. This applies for a Pensionado Visa or a Friendly Nations Visa or other Visas.
However, if you have any dings on your criminal background report, then you can expect delays in getting your permanent residency visa. If you have had any arrests or DWI (driving while intoxicated) or other offenses, then your visa has to go to either the Supervisor of Immigration or the Director of Immigration for approval.
It takes a very long time for an attorney to get an appointment with the Director of Immigration so it is better to go through the Supervisor of Immigration for approval.
But, the Supervisor of immigration has recently been replaced. The new Supervisor has not taken office yet and no one knows for sure when that will happen. The Supervisor has the power to OK your visa even if you had infractions on your criminal report. They will usually only approve your visa if the offense happened more than 5 years ago and did not involve use of a gun in a crime.
You can usually still get your temporary visa which is good for a year. But until the new Supervisor takes office and sets their rules for Visa approval if there is an offense on your criminal, you will be put in a holding pattern pending approval.
So, what happens if your criminal report reveals offenses that Immigration would not approve?
Then you cannot get any visa right away, not even a temporary visa. After you have lived in Panama two years (without leaving for more than 30 days total), then you can apply for a Visa with only a Panama Police report, provided that the Police report is clean. You would not need to present an FBI report or any criminal report from your country of origin.
Living in Panama without a permanent visa will require leaving the country every 90 days if you are driving or every 6 months if you are not driving. Most people go to Costa Rica for a few days because it is convenient to drive or take a bus to Costa Rica from Panama. These are the current rules in 2015. There is talk of changing the rules to require that you leave Panama for 30 days or more if you do not have a residency visa.
Before you gather all the documents necessary to get a Visa, it is best to discuss your personal situation with a Panama attorney especially if you have offenses on your criminal report. The attorney can advise you on the best way to proceed. Each Visa has different requirements. The Pensionado visa requires that you can prove a lifetime income of $1000 per month for one person or $1250 for a couple. A Friendly Nations Visa requires that you either set up a corporation with the intent to do business in Panama, or you have a labor contract, or you have purchased a residential property worth at least $100,000 and it is titled in your name. The Friendly Nations visa also requires that you have a Panama bank account with at least $5,000 deposited. Always discuss with your attorney what the current requirements are because things change in Panama!
The delays in getting a visa are unfortunate. But keeping criminals out of Panama is a good thing!