An executive order issued last week by the Panamanian Government has caused a lot of confusion among the expat community in Panama. The order was taken by many to mean that Panama was reducing the length that tourists could remain in the country for one stay from 180 days to 90 days. Many in the English and Spanish media reported this as such, including this blog. After consulting several immigration lawyers, all who read the order and interpreted it to mean that the the visa length had been reduced to 90 days, I published an article titled “Panama Tourist Visa Length Reduced to 90 Days.” I have since removed the article, and would like to sincerely apologize for publishing the incorrect information. I was not the only press outlet to come this interpretation, but I pride myself here on providing expats with factual information, and I fell short in that situation.
So what happened? The truth is the Panamanian government made a much more minor administrative change to immigration law than we all thought. The order, Decreto Ejecutivo 590, simply reduced the period of time that a temporary residence permit was granted for those in the process of applying for residency down from one year to only 6 months. The order caused confusion, because in it, it mentioned a paragraph setting the length of the tourist visa at 90 days. However, this was not a change from existing law. Tourist visas have always been valid by law for 90 days, but automatically extended for 180 days by executive action. Many believed that the inclusion of this paragraph meant that the the visa period had been changed to 90 days. However, the government has clarified that this is not the case.
The first clarification came from Director of Migration Services Javier Carrillo, when he spoke to “El Venezolano, a Venezuelan newspaper in Panama, and clarified that it was still 180 days for Venezuelans. This clarification caused confusion for expats of other nationalities, as it didn’t make clear if this was the case for everyone, or just for Venezuelans because they also let Panamanians enter their country for 180 days without a visa.
Further doubt was cast on the rule changing from 180 days, as several expats who came into the country after the decree reported that they were told by immigration that it was still 180 days. Finally, US Immigration services weighed in after being contacted by many Americans over the confusion regarding the law, and issued this statement: “Based on multiple inquiries from U.S. citizens in Panama regarding Decree No.590 dated December 28, 2016, the Consular Section contacted the Panamanian Servicio Nacional de Migracion (SNM or Panamanian Immigration Office) for further clarification on the length of time U.S. Citizens are able to stay in Panama as tourists. The SNM confirmed that U.S. citizens (as well as citizens of the UK, Canada, and Australia) are still allowed to enter Panama without a Panamanian visa and they can stay for up to 180 days as tourists.”
This clarification has been much appreciated, as the initial order, and the lack of explanation and appropriate coverage of the order in Panamanian press only furthered confusion. Many expats will be relieved to know that they can still stay in the country for 180 days at a time on a tourist visa. Please note, however, that this is only for those who already were able to enter Panama for 180 days just using their passport. If you are from a nationality that requires a visa, your rules may be different, and be sure to check with your countries consulate.
However, I strongly recommend that expats who are looking to live in Panama full time look to establish permanent residency, and not simply stay here as “perpetual tourists.” While this change has been held off for now, it is clear that there immigration is becoming a much more controversial issue in Panama. Already members of the PRD party in the assembly have proposed bills to limit the length of a tourist visa to 30 days. Expect immigration to be the main issue in the 2019 elections, with the potential to some very real and drastic changes happening then. So if you are planning to make Panama your long term home, work with an immigration attorney to establish permanent residency, and protect your future in this country. Panama offers several easy, affordable ways for expats to get permanent residency, and more should take advantage of it.