Thursday, October 18, 2018

Country Guide – Panama Visas & Residency

The Panama guides are divided into three parts, namely:

At A Glance will give you a basic understanding of this unique Central American country by highlighting its most important features.

♦ Visas & Residency will focus on the most important requirements to make Panama your home.

Everyday Life covers the topics of safety, healthcare, ownership and cost of living. The purpose is to concisely discuss the four most important aspects, as ranked by prospective expats, to give you an overall picture of everyday life. 

Tourist Visa

When contemplating residency or immigration, most people would visit a country as a tourist before making a decision. The citizens of most countries don’t require a visa to enter Panama; you can check here if you need a tourist visa.

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Foreign citizens who qualify to enter Panama visa free, are granted a stay of 180 days. Other requirements include a return flight booking (checked at airport of departure) and a passport valid for at least six months after the date of entry plus blank pages.

For those that do require a visa, a stay of 90 days will be granted if your visa application is approved. For other requirements you should contact the Panama embassy or consulate in your country.

Tourists who enter visa free and want to stay for a second (or subsequent) round of 180 days, need to leave Panama for 72 hours before being allowed back. These so-called perpetual tourists make use of a practice called the “border run” which is a trip to Costa Rica for the sole purpose of legal re-entry. If you do consider doing this, make sure that you ask about the exact requirements for exit and re-entry at the time.

Note: for people travelling from a country where yellow fever occurs, it is a good idea to always travel with your vaccination certificate. 

Residency Visas

If you plan to stay for a longer term, or if you are considering immigration, then one of the 8 permanent residency visas can be considered. 

This is a straightforward option where the citizens of 50 “friendly nations” can acquire immediate residency, with an option to apply for citizenship after 5 years. The 50 countries are listed below:

•Andorra •Argentina •Australia •Austria •Belgium •Brazil •Canada •Chile •Costa Rica •Croatia •Cyprus •Czech Republic •Denmark •Estonia •Finland •France •Germany •Greece •Hong Kong •Hungary •Ireland •Israel •Japan •Latvia •Liechtenstein •Lithuania •Luxembourg •Malta •Mexico •Monaco •Montenegro •Netherlands •New Zealand •Norway •Paraguay •Poland •Portugal •San Marino •Serbia •Singapore •Slovakia •South Africa •South Korea •Spain •Sweden •Switzerland •Taiwan •United Kingdom •Uruguay •USA

The spirit of the relevant law is that citizens of the 50 “friendly nations” must establish a professional or economic relationship with Panama. This can be accomplished by one of the following two options:

Option 1 – Economic activity: Setting up a new Panama corporation, or buying an existing Panama corporation which does business in the country, will show an economic relationship. Note that non-Panamanian citizens are prohibited from operating a retail business.

Owning a Panama corporation does not automatically allow you to work in that business – you still need to apply for a work permit.

Option 2 – Professional activity: Being employed by a bona fide Panama corporation will demonstrate a professional relationship. Once the employment contract is stamped by the authorities, the applicant must obtain a work permit and be registered with Panama’s Social Security system. There are other documents that must be submitted by the employer. Note that non-Panamanian citizens are prohibited from the following jobs:

•Dentist •Dental Assistant •Lawyer •Veterinarian •Chiropractor •Medical Doctor •Nurse •Medical Assistant •Medical Radiologist •Medical Laboratory Technician •Pharmacist •Nutritionist •Sociologist •Psychologist •Physiotherapist •Speech Therapist •Social Worker •Accountant •Hairdresser •Cosmetologist •Chemist •Engineer •Architect •Journalist •Economist •Public Relations jobs •Agricultural Sciences jobs

Further requirements for the Friendly Nations Visa:

♦ Both the economic and professional options above must be supported by proof of economic solvency. This can be done by opening a Panama bank account and depositing a minimum of $5,000.

♦ Dependants include a spouse and children up to the age of 25, provided that children are unmarried.

Documents required for the Friendly Nations Visa (and Panama bank account):

♦ Passport valid for at least 6 months from date of application, plus blank pages;

♦ Second identification such as identification card or drivers licence;

♦ Criminal history record (if you are resident in another country, that criminal record must be accompanied by proof of legal residency; if you have resided in Panama for the last 2 consecutive years, the criminal history record must be issued by the national police (DIJ) in Panama);

♦ Marriage certificate if a dependant is a spouse. If you are unmarried, confirmation of unmarried status by means of an official certificate from your country;

♦ Birth certificate if a dependant is a child. For children over 18, confirmation of unmarried status by means of an official certificate from their country;

♦ Original medical examination report from a certified Panama medical doctor (ask your lawyer about their service to supply a translator if required);

♦ Proof of solvency (letter from your Panama bank, addressed to “Servicio Nacional de Migracion”, confirming the required balance);

♦ Confirmation of economic or professional activity (the former by way of corporation records, the latter by way of a work contract by a Panama company registered with Social Security);

♦ The remaining documents will be prepared by your immigration lawyer;

♦ For the bank: most of the above plus a reference letter from your bank (some banks require that the letter be addressed to them) as well as at least one more letter of reference from a professional practitioner (for example your auditor/accountant).

Government fees:

♦ Each adult (person older than 18 years) and child older than 12 years, two certified checks ($250 in favour of “Tesoro Nacional” for immigration fees, and $800 USD in favour of “Servicio Nacional de Migracion” for repatriation purposes). Each child younger than 12 years, one certified check ($250 in favour of “Tesoro Nacional” for immigration fees).

♦ A multi-entry visa fee of $50 per person. The immigration office will only accept denominations of $20 or smaller.

Note: Ask the immigration lawyer for a detailed quote. Then put your understanding of the quote in writing and ask him to confirm. Some lawyers have hidden fees and/or extra charges for some steps. It is your right to be fully informed upfront.

Other important notes:

♦ Liaise with your immigration lawyer ahead of arrival, preferably 30 days or more, in order for them to schedule your visit and application.

♦ Your immigration lawyer will probably ask you to email scanned copies of the documents for review. If everything is in order, they will then probably ask you to courier the final (apostilled) documents at least 14 days ahead of your planned arrival.

♦ Arrange to be in Panama City for at least 2 weeks from date of arrival to collect your temporary residency card.

♦ Once complete and correct paperwork is filed with the immigration office, the applicant will receive a temporary residency card, valid for 6 months.

♦ Documents must have been issued within 90 days of the date of presentation to the immigration office.

♦ All documents originating outside of Panama, must be apostilled by the Panama embassy/consulate in your country. (An “apostille” is a form of specialized authentication, issued and attached to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Apostille Convention. Panama is a signatory to the convention, and require/use apostilles. To apostille documents, submit the document, together with a certified copy, to the Panama embassy/consulate in your country. A fee is charged for the service.)

♦ The immigration office requires a dress code that can be described as business casual: collared shirts, long pants/dress and shoes (no t-shirts, shorts, mini-skirts and/or sandals).

♦ Final approval of your application, before the issue of your permanent residency card, normally takes 3 months, but could be anything between 2 and 6 months. Plan to have a full day available to collect your card.

♦ After permanent residency is obtained, an application for a work permit can be submitted.

♦ Part of the process includes a multi-entry visa stamped in your passport, so after the temporary residency card is issued, you can travel without hassles.

♦ The granting of permanent residency requires you to be in Panama for at least 2 weeks per annum.

♦ Once you receive your temporary residency card, you can no longer use your home or international driver’s licence, you now have to have a Panama licence. As with the residency card, the driver’s licence will be temporary, and a permanent licence must be obtained after receipt of your permanent residency card. (You can obviously wait until your permanent residency card is issued, then do your driver’s licence, if you don’t plan to drive.)

The Pensioner Visa is an easy and popular way to obtain residency in Panama. Although the name is “Pensioner” Visa, any person over the age of 18, with a lifetime annuity income, may apply.

The Pensioner Visa’s appeal includes the eligibility for discounts and exemption from certain duties:

DiscountItem / Service
Once-offduty exemption for importing household goods to a value of $10,000
Bi-annualduty exemption for importing a new car
50% offentertainment anywhere in the country (movies, concerts, sports)
off hotel stays from Monday through Thursday
reduction in closing costs for home loans
30% offbus, boat, and train fares
off hotel stays from Friday through Sunday
25% offairline tickets
at restaurants
discounts on utility bills
20% offmedical consultations
professional and technical services
15% offat fast-food restaurants
hospital bills (if no insurance applies)
off dental and eye exams
10% offprescription medicines
1% less onhome mortgages for homes used for personal residence
Note: permanent residents and citizens of retirement age (55 for women and 60 for men) would qualify for most of these discounts anyway. Discounts are not necessarily given automatically, sometimes you have to ask for it, so learn this Spanish phrase in the meantime: “Por favor, deme mi descuento de pensionado" 

The basis of the Pensionado Visa is a lifetime annuity income, but there are two different options to consider:

Option 1 – Annuity only: A lifetime monthly annuity income of at least $1,000 received by the main applicant, or in the case of a married couple, their combined income.

Option 2 – Annuity and real estate: A lifetime monthly annuity income of at least $750 plus the purchase of real estate of at least $100,000.

Further requirements for the Pensionado Visa:

♦ Dependants include children below the age of 18, or below the age of 25 subject to proof that they are full-time students. Failure to prove enrolment will disqualify a child from the right to residency. Since a child cannot use a parent’s pensioner visa to obtain permanent residency, he or she will have to apply for another suitable visa.

♦ The required monthly annuity amount of $1,000 will increase by $250 for each dependent. This additional amount can be satisfied by interest earned on savings at a Panama bank.

♦ The real estate mentioned in Option 2 must be registered in the applicant’s personal name.

Documents required for the Pensioner Visa:

♦ Passport valid for at least 6 months from date of application, plus blank pages;

♦ Criminal history record for at least the past 5 years (if you are resident in another country, that criminal record must be accompanied by proof of legal residency; if you have resided in Panama for the last 2 consecutive years, the criminal history record must be issued by the national police (DIJ) in Panama);

♦ Marriage certificate if a dependant is a spouse. If you are unmarried, confirmation of unmarried status by means of an official certificate from your country;

♦ Birth certificate if a dependant is a child. For children over 18, confirmation of unmarried status by means of an official certificate from their country;

♦ Original medical examination report from a certified Panama medical doctor (ask your lawyer about their service to supply a translator if required);

♦ If pension is paid by a government/government institution/social security: a letter from the respective institution which certifies that the applicant receives a pension for life of at least $1,000 per month (words underlined, in italic must appear in the letter);

♦ If pension is paid by a private institution:

  1. A letter from the institution certifying that the applicant receives a pension for life of at least $1,000 per month (words underlined, in italic must appear in the letter);
  2. Certification of the existence of the institution and that it is in good standing with the relevant government;
  3. Proof of payment of the monthly pension (typically by way of bank statement).

♦ Certificate of Public Registration of the Panama real estate with title in the applicant’s name (if applicable);

♦ Proof of interest earned (if applicable)(letter from your Panama bank, addressed to “Servicio Nacional de Migracion”, confirming that the required amount of interest is earned from local deposits);

♦ Proof of domicile in Panama by way of a utility bill, rental agreement or letter from a hotel;

♦ The remaining documents will be prepared by your immigration lawyer;

♦ For the bank: most of the above plus a reference letter from your bank (some banks require that the letter be addressed to them) as well as at least one more letter of reference from a professional practitioner (for example your auditor/accountant).

Government fees:

♦ No immigration or repatriation fees are payable.

♦ A multi-entry visa fee: $50 per person. The immigration office will only accept denominations of $20 or smaller.

Note: Ask the immigration lawyer for a detailed quote. Then put your understanding of the quote in writing and ask him to confirm. Some lawyers have hidden fees and/or extra charges for some steps. It is your right to be fully informed upfront.

Other important notes:

♦ Liaise with your immigration lawyer ahead of arrival, preferably 30 days or more, in order for them to schedule your visit and application.

♦ Your immigration lawyer will probably ask you to email scanned copies of the documents for review. If everything is in order, they will then probably ask you to courier the final (apostilled) documents at least 14 days ahead of your planned arrival.

♦ Arrange to be in Panama City for at least 2 weeks from date of arrival to get your temporary residency card, then upon approval, another full day for the collection of your permanent residency card.

♦ Once complete and correct paperwork is filed with the immigration office, the applicant will receive a temporary residency card, valid for 6 months.

♦ Documents must have been issued within 90 days of the date of presentation to the immigration office.

♦ All documents originating outside of Panama, must be apostilled by the Panama embassy/consulate in your country. (An “apostille” is a form of specialized authentication, issued and attached to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Apostille Convention. Panama require/use apostilles. To apostille documents, submit the document, together with a certified copy, to the Panama embassy/consulate in your country. A fee is charged for the service.)

♦ The immigration office requires a dress code that can be described as business casual: collared shirts, long pants/dress and shoes (no t-shirts, shorts, mini-skirts and/or sandals).

♦ Final approval of your application, before the issue of your permanent residency card, normally takes 3 months, but could be anything between 2 and 6 months.

♦ Part of the process includes a multi-entry visa stamped in your passport, so after the temporary residency card is issued, you can travel without hassles.

♦ The granting of permanent residency requires you to be in Panama for at least 2 weeks per annum.

♦ Once you receive your temporary residency card, you can no longer use your home or international driver’s licence, you now have to have a Panama licence. As with the residency card, the driver’s licence will be temporary, and a permanent licence must be obtained after receipt of your permanent residency card. (You can obviously wait until your permanent residency card is issued, then do your driver’s licence, if you don’t plan to drive.)

♦ After recent changes, this visa can now lead to citizenship.

♦ Residency in terms of this visa excludes the possibility to get a work permit.

There are six more residency visas that can be used to obtain residency or citizenship, namely:

  • Reforestation Investor Visa
  • Self Economic Solvency Visa
  • Business Investor Visa
  • Professional Employment Visa
  • Married to a Panama Citizen Visa
  • Parents of Child Born in Panama

Detail information about each of these will follow soon. Stay up to date with new information, news and views by subscribing to our newsletter.

Cédula

A cédula is the national identity card issued by the Civil Registry of Panama. It is not directly linked to your permanent residency in that the application for the cédula is not a visa requirement. It is a voluntary application that can be done 60 days after the issue of your permanent residency card.

“Why bother with the time and cost to obtain a cédula?” you may ask. Because it demonstrates that you take your immigration status seriously, and it will make everyday life in Panama a little easier. Locals will instantly recognize the card for what it is, making you a little bit more Panamanian. Think of the cédula as more “senior” than your residency card. 

The cédula fee payable to the Civil Registry office is $65 and the card can usually be collected within 10 days after successful application.

Citizenship

Citizenship can be obtained through 6 of the 8 permanent residency visas, summarised as follows:

Visa Permanent residencyCan it lead to citizenship?Waiting period to apply for citizenship?
Friendly Nations VisaImmediate*Yes5 years
Pensioner VisaImmediate*Yes5 years
Reforestation Investor Visa2 yearsYes5 years
Self Economic Solvency Visa2 yearsYes5 years
Married to a Panama Citizen Visa2 yearsYes3 years
Parents of a Child Born in Panama Visa2 yearsYes3 years
Business Investor Visa2 yearsNoN/A
Professional Employment Visa2 yearsNoN/A
*Immediate means that a temporary residency card is issued upon submission of correct and complete documentation, and a permanent card is issued upon final approval, normally within 2 to 6 months.

Although you become eligible to obtain citizenship, it does not happen automatically, you have to apply for it. And the Panamanian government has discretion on the naturalization process.

The first criteria for citizenship is common sense – be a good citizen, obey the law and follow the rules. It is also important to remain informed – governments change, policies change and the rules do change from time to time.

Two other criteria that must be considered are time spent in Panama and a meaningful economic relationship.

Retire Early, Retire in PanamaTime spent in Panama: There does not seem to be a definitive answer, but from all the sources I have consulted it seems that a safe option is a minimum of 2 weeks per year. Some would stretch that to a week every 2 years but I would not take that chance.

Meaningful economic relationship: If you chose the Friendly Nations Visa and the Economic Relationship option as your route to citizenship, make sure you understand both the law and its underlying intent. Registering a new corporation in Panama at the time of applying for residency, might suffice for that purpose. But the intent of the visa is that this new corporation will start to do business in Panama.

Panama does not recognize dual citizenship and the law requires an oath of renunciation of your former citizenship. However, some countries (including the USA) consider this oath to be non-meaningful and as such, you would effectively keep your original citizenship.

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This will help you to make an informed decision, by prompting the thinking and planning process around immigration.

Travel Hippi, retire early, retire abroad