(this information was updated in April 2017 as some of the rules changed)
If you plan to live in Panama, I really encourage you to get a residency visa. It will make your life much easier. Here’s why…
As a tourist, you can stay in Panama 6 months. After that, you need to leave the country for 30 days before you can re-enter Panama.
If you plan to drive in Panama, as a tourist you can only drive for 90 days then you need to leave the country for at least 30 days before you can return. It’s a crazy rule… but it’s the rule!
Granted, some people have lived in Panama for many years and never did jump through the hoops or go through the expense to get a visa. Previously, tourist could stay in Panama 6 months then leave for only 3 days before they could come back. Those days are over.
I’m convinced that Panama is eventually going to raise the bar on obtaining residency. So, you want to make sure you get your residency visa before it becomes impossible. The requirements have already been tightening up over the last couple of years.
When I first moved to Panama you only needed a letter from your local police department stating that you did not have a criminal record. In 2012, Panama started requiring a national criminal report (FBI report for US citizens) to get a residency visa. And the report needs to be fairly clean.
If you had a DWI, you can probably still get a residency visa in Panama but if there is anything more serious than that the “Not Welcome” sign is out. If you have a criminal record, talk to an attorney in Panama to discuss your chances of getting a residency visa.
There is a big anti-corruption push in Panama now. And now, according to my attorney, there is also a big push to get people with criminal records out of the country. Just a few months ago a US couple I knew was deported because they have a criminal record.
There are many different visa programs but the two most popular visas are the Pensionado visa and the Friendly Nations Visa.
The Pensionado visa is for people who are retired and do not plan to work in Panama. To get this visa, you need a lifetime pension or social security of $1,000 for a single person or $1,250 for a couple. You’ll also need a national criminal report. If you are married, you’ll need a copy of your marriage certificate. All documents will need to be apostiled. But I do not advise getting them apostiled until your Panama attorney has reviewed the document to make sure it is satisfactory.
The Pensionado visa is also the most affordable residency visa to get because the government fees are waived. This will save you about $1050.
It cost about $1200 to get a Pensionado visa or $1600 for a couple.
In addition to an easy residency visa, a Pensionado enjoys the following discounts:
• 50% off on recreation and entertainment such as movies, theaters, sports, etc.
• 50% off hotels Monday through Thursday (30% off on weekends)
• 50% off passports
• 30% off public transportation like buses, trains, and boats
• 25% off airfare
• 25% off restaurants (15% off fast food)
• 25% off electrical, telephone, and water service
• 20% off doctors and specialists
• 20% off prosthetics and other personal assistance devices
• 15% off hospitals and private clinics
• 15% off dental and optometry services
• 10% off prescription medications
• tax-free importation of household goods, up to $10,000
• tax-free importation of a vehicle, or tax-free purchase of a local vehicle, every 2 years
To get the discounts, you must be 55 if you are a woman and 60 if you are a man. I have no idea why there are different age requirements. Sometimes the rules and laws in Panama, like everywhere, make no sense.
These discounts are available for all Panamanians – called jubilano discounts. Luckily, the discounts are extended to foreigners who get a permanent residency visa.
Even if you get the Friendly Nations Visa or any other residency visa, you will still be able to get the Pensionado/Jubilano discounts if you meet the age requirements.
If you plan to start a business or work in Panama (sell a product or service even part time), you should get the Friendly Nations Visa.
To get a Friendly Nations Visa, you do not need to prove a monthly income. But you will need to either have a job offer letter, purchase a property worth at least $100,000, or set up a corporation with the intent of doing business in Panama. You will also need to deposit $5000 in to a Panama bank account and show proof of the deposit. If you are a married couple, you will need an additional $2,000 per dependent deposited in the bank and your marriage certificate apostiled. You will still need to show a national criminal report which has to be apostiled.
The Friendly Nations Visa will cost about $1050 more than a Pensionado visa because the government fees are not waived. If you set up a corporation, you can add an additional $1000 to the costs, this includes the attorney fees and the corporation costs. You can sometimes find a corporation to purchase for $300 which will save money.
Getting either visa has 3-steps.
STEP ONE: First, you should select an attorney to work with. We have several recommendations which we provide during the tour. The attorney will advise you on what documents are needed depending on which residency visa you plan to apply for.
Once all the documents are given to your attorney and they are translated in to Spanish, you will go with your attorney to immigration to present your application for a residency visa. That day you are issued a temporary visa card which is good for six months.
The temporary visa can be obtained at any immigration office. You do not need to stay in Panama City.
If you do not plan to stay in Panama, you should also get a multi-entry visa stamp on your passport. This will cost an additional $50 and take two days. If you leave the country without a multi-entry visa stamp, it is a $2000 fine. So, I advise always getting the multi-entry visa stamp in your passport.
STEP TWO: Sixty to 90 days later, your attorney will notify you that your permanent visa is ready. You will need to go to Panama City to get your permanent visa. This visa card is good forever and will not need to be renewed.
STEP THREE: Then about 60 days later your Cedula, or permanent resident ID card, will be ready. You will need to go to Panama City to get this card. The Cedula is a national ID card.
Until you get a visa, you cannot get a Panama driver’s license.
STEP FOUR: If you plan to work in Panama, you will also need to get a work permit card. You can get the work permit about 30 days after you get your Cedula. You can never get a work permit if you have a Pensionado Visa.
Unlike other countries, the “time in country” requirements in Panama are easy too. You are not required to live in Panama. But it is required that you visit at least a few days every couple of years.
After 5 years, you can apply for Panama citizenship and a Panama passport. A Panama passport is a valuable passport. I know several expats who have successfully applied for a Panama passport.
Panama will likely join the list of nationals who do not need a visa to travel to the United States. Panamanian citizens are already among the only foreign nationals who can apply for the “Global Entry” program in the United States. Joining the Visa Waiver list is a logical extension. I expect it to happen.
This puts Panama among the top residency options in the world that lead to a tier 1, top quality passport.