IMPORTANT UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF ARTICLE
For many years, Panama has had some of the world’s most open immigration laws. In addition to providing many avenues to achieve permanent residency with low requirements, it has been very easy for foreigners from many countries to live in Panama as “permanent tourists.” Panama allows citizens from many countries to stay up to 6 months just using their passport, and it has been as easy as leaving the country and coming back in order to get a new 6 months on your passport, allowing expats to live in Panama on tourist status indefinitely. For a while, the government turned a blind eye to this practice, even encouraging it, as it brought a lot of foreign investment into the country. But now, as Panama has been undergoing an immigration boom, the government is starting to crack down on this practice.
The first tangible crackdown on permanent tourists has been the tightening of border controls at the Costa Rican border. The Costa Rican border has long been a preferred method of renewing their tourist visas, as it’s a lot cheaper to take a bus to Costa Rica to make a “border run” than fly out of the country. Panamanian immigration authorities have started cracking down recently on these border runs, stating that tourists to try to renew their 6 months at the Costa Rican border will not be allowed back in. Many migrants, mostly Venezuelans, have been stranded as a result.
Extranjeros que salgan a Costa Rica a sellar pasaporte para entrar como turista no entrarán a Panamá pic.twitter.com/QZYK8a2zJk
— Migración Panamá (@migracionpanama) March 6, 2017
This does not appear to be a blanket ban on all border runs. Many of those who are blocked are missing one or more of the things that Panama requires in writing, but has often not enforced, to enter the country. This includes staying out of the country for at least 3 days, producing a return ticket to your home country, and being able to show $500 cash to prove you are financially viable. If you do decide to attempt a border run, make sure you have all of this to show at the border when you attempt to return to Panama. Some foreigners have reported being able to still make border runs if they have these documents. As with anything immigration, your experience is largely determined by the border agent, and with this new crackdown, you may face difficulty regardless. With the fluid situation there, I would not recommend going the border run route unless absolutely necessary.
While there has been no crackdown announced yet on tourists who leave the country and return via plane yet, it’s clear that this new policy is not an end in and of itself, but just a step in the government’s stated overall desire to end perpetual tourism. Director of Immigration, Javier Carrillo, recently gave an interview to Telemetro where he stated that no foreigner will be allowed to stay in Panama as a tourist “todo su vida (their whole life).” He further stated that the intention is for these tourists to either legalize their permanent status or return to their home countries.
Already, the Canadian government has updated their travel guidance for Panama to warn people of the stricter immigration controls. Under their new guidance regarding length of stay, they state: “Tourists may only remain in Panama for a maximum of 180 days. If you wish to remain in the country after that time, you must change your residency status. If you attempt to renew your stay in Panama by travelling out of the country for a short period of time with the intention of returning to Panama as a tourist, immigration authorities may deny you re-entry, as they are implementing stricter border controls.”
It is my strong recommendation that if you are currently living in Panama as a perpetual tourist, to work to get your residency sooner, rather than later. If you are planning a move to Panama and hoping to stay here as a perpetual tourist, I recommend that you amend your plans to include pursuing legal residency. Panama is still incredibly generous in the relative ease and low cost they allow foreigners to get permanent residency, and you can read about them in this article I wrote here.
With new Panamanian elections coming in 2019, expect the issue of immigration to be a bigger topic of discussion, and don’t be surprised if you see more restrictions down the line. The idea of permanent tourism in Panama isn’t dead yet, but it’s certainly on life support.
UPDATE: Here is the text of an email that the US Embassy sent out to it’s wardens a few days ago regarding this issue:
“Dear Wardens- We here at the Embassy have reached out to immigration to obtain details about the news pasted below regarding the implementation of immigration regulations. According to the Duty Chief at Migracion-Paso Canoas, the PNM Immigration Director is enforcing these migratory requirements across Panama. This means that if an Immigration Official determines that a foreigner is using tourism status to reside in Panama, the entry will not be allowed. The Duty Chief gave examples of this situation, indicating that persons who exit Panama before the 6thmonth approaches and re-enter after three days, which is a clear sign that the individual is residing in Panama under a tourist status, will not be allowed re-entry.
In summary, these regulations were already in the books but now it seems the immigration authorities throughout Panama are going to be stricter about enforcement. That said, we have yet to receive a complaint from a U.S. citizen actually denied entry at the border for the reason outlined above. “