One of the topics I get asked to write about a lot is the different visas that foreigners can use to move to Panama. I’ve been hesitant to do this in the past, as I am not a lawyer, and not 100% versed in the law. However I believe it will be a good addition to the site, so I’ll talk about them after a lengthy disclaimer.
DISCLAIMER: As mentioned earlier, I am not a lawyer. I make no guarantee of accuracy and any claims made here are just to be used as a guide, and not as legal advice. If you are seriously planning a move to Panama, please consult a lawyer and don’t just trust a guy that writes a blog in his pajamas.
Panama makes it very easy for foreigners who want to move to Panama to do so. In fact, I’m willing to wager that Panama makes it much easier for foreigners to move here than your home country does for foreigners (especially if you are coming from the US). There are a number of different visas that can be used to move to Panama. I won’t discuss all of them here. What I will discuss is the top five visas that most expats use to live in Panama (there are several less commonly used specialty visas which you can consult a lawyer about). Which visa you use will depend on your own individual circumstances, and what you intend to do in Panama. Here’s my list of important visas for expats to know about, in no particular order.
1. Tourist Visa
IMPORTANT UPDATE 03/15/17 – The Panamanian Government has started cracking down majorly on perpetual tourists. They are now requiring tourists leave the country and not come back for 30 days if they want to renew their tourist status. Read more here. Original text is below, which is now outdated.
Believe it or not, Panama’s immigration policies are so lax, that many expats live here in perpetuity without ever getting official residency. For many countries, Panama allows tourists to come and stay in Panama for up to 180 days at a time, just using their passport. No visa or other documentation is required. After the 180 are up, all one needs to do is leave the country and reenter, and they get another fresh 180 days to stay in the country. This can be done indefinitely. You will meet many expats who have lived here for years on this status, making “border runs” a couple of times a year to renew their tourist visa. There is even a bus from Albrook Mall to Costa Rica that expats will take, and then once they enter Costa Rica they will spend 24 hours there and then take a bus back.
All you need in order to take advantage of this visa status is to hold the passport of a country that does not have special visa restrictions (this includes US, Canada, most of Western Europe, and some other countries. Make sure to research the rules for your own individual country), and hold a return ticket back home within six months your arrival. Tourists do not have authorization to work in Panama, but can rent and own property. This visa works well for people who telecommute to work in their home country, are looking to retire but don’t meet the requirements of the Pensionado visa, or who are taking extended sabbatical.
A couple of notes about this visa: Even though you can stay 6 months, your international drivers license is only good for the first 90 days of each stay. If you are planning on driving a car (which should be avoided if at all possible), you will need to leave every 90 days or risk running afoul of the law (there are many drivers license checkpoints set up on the roads of Panama, so if you are thinking or risking it: don’t). Also, since you are not technically a resident of Panama, if a future government decides they want to crack down on permanent tourists, your ability to stay in the country might be at risk.
2. Pensionado Visa
Panama’s Pensionado visa has made Panama a world famous retirement destination because of the relative ease to qualify for it as well as the host of benefits it provides. To qualify, one must receive a permanent lifetime monthly income (either through a private pension or a government program like social security) of at least $1000 a month. Their is no minimum age to qualify, so if you receieve a lifetime pension early (through Social Security Disability, for example), you can get a Pensionado visa to live in Panama. Pensionados are granted lifetime permanent residency for as long as they call Panama their home. They are not eligible to work or receive citizenship. But Pensionados do receive a wide range of other benefits that make this visa attractive to retirees.
The first set of benefits associated with the visa are import benefits. Pensionados are entitled to a one time tax free exemption to import up to $10,000 of household goods, and will receive a tax exemption every 2 years on the import of a car. The second set of benefits is the many discounts that Pensionados enjoy in Panama. This includes discounts on pretty much everything, including hotels, energy bills, airline tickets, restaurants, movie theaters, and hospital stays. You will find some places will try to attach strings on using these benefits, so they may not be as great as advertised every time you try to use them. Still, Pensionados tend to find significant benefits to the program’s discounts.
It’s important to note that any Panamanian citizen or permanent resident who is eligible for Jubilado status (Age 55 for women and 60 for men) are entitled to the same discounts as Pensionados (except for the import benefits). So if you get permanent residency through another visa, and meet the age requirements, you will still receive most of the benefits.
3. Work Permit
To answer one of the most common questions I get asked: Yes, you need a work permit to work in Panama as a foreigner. You can’t just show up and get hired for a job with no legal status. However companies in Panama can hire a limited number of foreigners to work for them, and if you receive a job offer from one, you will be eligible to receive a work permit.
If you get hired to work in Panama by either a local or multinational company, you can qualify for temporary residency with a work permit. Companies in Panama can hire foreigners to a maximum of 10% of their workforce. In each case, the company will need to be able to prove that the work cannot be done by a qualified Panamanian. Considering you are trying to move a major international business hub that is served by a country that only has 3.5 million people, there are actually a lot of opportunities for skilled foreigners to get jobs in Panama. This is easier if you are already working for a company with offices in Panama, but even if you are not, there are job opportunities for expats. One example is Copa Airlines, which is always hiring a ton of foreign pilots.
A work permit is good for up to 6 years, and must be renewed annually. A work permit on its own does not grant permanent residency, but those who are here on a work permit can get permanent residency and citizenship through the visas listed in numbers 4 and 5 on this list.
4. Marrying a Panamanian
Panamanians are awesome, and so is being married to one (I love you sweetie!). Besides giving you a happy life, marrying a Panamanian will grant you permanent residency and a fast track to Panamanian citizenship. If you are married to a Panamanian, you can apply for permanent residency. The process is slow, and you may have to prove your marriage is legitimate (similar to what you have to do in the US). It can take up to 2 years to receive final permanent residency through this visa, and you won’t be able to apply for a work permit until your residency is finalized. So if you have not separately scored yourself a work permit, you will not be able to work while your visa is pending. Once your permanent residency is granted, you are on a fast track to citizenship, and are eligible in 3 years.
5. Friendly Nations Visa
In 2012, through executive order, former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli made it significantly easier for many foreigners to get permanent residency and eventually citizenship with the creation of the Friendly Nations Visa. This new visa category applies to citizens of 47 different countries with professional and economic ties to Panama. You can find the full list here. If you are from one of these nations, you can get fast tracked residency (approximately 3-6 months, which is lightening speed in Panama) through one of three ways: With a job offer from a Panamanian company, purchasing property in Panama, or starting a Panamanian business. Most people go through route number 3, and start what is essentially a dummy corporation in order to get the visa. I was originally thinking of qualifying through this visa, and the attorney I was going to use said that most people set up these type of corporations.
In addition to qualifying one of these three ways, you must deposit at least $5000 in a Panamanian bank account, plus $2000 per dependent. Legal, application, and corporations fees on this visa can also usually cost about $5000. So of all the visas I listed, this is usually the most expensive to get. However, it is significantly cheaper than the previous economic visas that expats needed to use for residency in Panama.
Once your friendly nations visa is approved, you are eligible to receive a permanent work permit, even if you did not qualify with a job offer. This makes the Friendly Nations Visa the best choice for expats who are not coming down here with a job offer but need to work and want to get authorized quickly. Recipients of this visa are also eligible for citizenship five years after permanent residency is granted.