Want To Live Or Work In Panama? Get Your Paperwork Sorted!

Recent comments by a newly elected government official caused quite a stir amongst expats. Immigration laws will be under the spotlight and enforcement will undoubtedly improve. So, if you want to live or work in Panama, you better get your paperwork sorted.

2019 was an election year for Panama and the new president took up the reins of government on 1 July 2019. It was a public holiday with countrywide celebrations of a peaceful, free and fair election.

Just for the sake of interest: The president and vice president, who must be native-born Panamanians and at least thirty-five years of age, are elected to five-year terms by direct popular vote.

What caused the uproar?

Congresswoman Zulay Rodriguez presented a draft law that would regulate migration to Panama and the uncontrolled entry of foreigners into the country.

She said “Los extranjeros que ofendan nuestro país, nuestra bandera, se van inmediatamente de Panamá.”

Translated directly, it means “Foreigners who offend our country, our flag, leave immediately from Panama.”

If you understand Spanish, you might want to listen to the entire speech, or forward to ‘minute 10’ for the punchline.

This article is not political

Just to be clear, the Travel Hippi website is apolitical. And this article is void of political comment or bias.

It is instead a general discussion about living and working in Panama, with specific reference to the attitudes of expats.

Panama basics to keep in mind

Like so many aspects of life, we need to distinguish between fact and perception. And between the actual law and the day-to-day application thereof.

Tourist visas

Panama has tourist-friendly laws and regulations, allowing the citizens of many countries to enter the country visa-free. That is a tourist visa of 180 days upon arrival.

For the remaining countries, citizens need to apply for a visa before arrival. If approved, the visa is normally valid for a stay of 90 days.

Renewal of tourist visas upon re-entry

Those entering visa-free can re-enter Panama for a subsequent stay of 180 days, provided they exit Panama for 30 days.

Residency and work

For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the two most popular residency visas, namely the Pensionado Visa and Friendly Nations Visa.

Residency becomes permanent once your application gets approved and your permanent residency card is issued. Before that, it is an application in process.

In order to work in Panama, you need a work permit, which you can apply for only after you become a permanent resident.

Up to now, the Pensionado Visa does not include the option to apply for a work permit, although this could change in future.
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Generous laws and an apathetic attitude

As mentioned earlier, Panama has very generous visa laws. It is also one of the easiest countries in which to get permanent residency.

To a certain degree, however, Panama has become a victim of its own generosity and immigrant-friendly policies. Add to that a relatively placid approach to enforcement and the result is the large-scale abuse of the system.

Too many expats have developed an apathetic attitude towards Panama and its laws. Some blatantly flout laws and openly tell others how to game the system.

The issues and non-issues

Now that we have recapped the basics, we can try and understand why the Congresswoman’s statement caused such an uproar.

And an uproar it was! Especially on Facebook groups where people mentioned several different issues.

The issues and subsequent discussions have revealed the apathetic attitude of some, the ignorance of others and a good measure of arrogance. Fortunately, there were also a few clear-thinking and informed opinions.

So, let us try and dissect the issues as well as the many non-issues.

Issue #1 Semantics are important

The first issue is the misuse or misunderstanding of the legality of immigration.

An immigrant is one who lives in a country legally. Those who are in a country illegally, are illegal aliens, they are not illegal immigrants. There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant since the word immigrant implies legality.

Another issue stems from the varying use of the terms “expat” and “immigrant”, for different groups of foreigners. It seems to imply differences about wealth, intended length of stay, perceived motives for moving, nationality, and even race.

For example, US citizens refer to themselves as expats, but many would refer to other Latin American citizens as immigrants – without having any knowledge about them or their circumstances.

Another example is found in Europe. A British citizen working in Portugal would typically be called an expat, while a Portuguese citizen working in Britain is referred to as an immigrant.

In one word – Anglocentrism.

Issue #2 The time required for re-entry

This has been the source of many complaints and much confusion.

The law has always stated that the time required is 30 days. However, this was not enforced.

Until recently, a tourist could do a border run, have a cup of coffee in Costa Rica and re-enter Panama for another 180-day period. Subsequently, officials became stricter – tourists had to remain outside Panama for a day before allowed re-entry. More recently that became 72 hours.

And now it is back to the original 30 days.

My point is simply that the lack of enforcement of a law does not change the actual law. Lenience does not create a right.

Costa Rica border control. This cute office is a 40ft shipping container that was converted into an office
Border control office in Sixaola, Costa Rica, just accros the border from Panama

Issue #3 You are either a resident or a tourist

If you have successfully applied for permanent residency, congratulations, you are a permanent resident of Panama!

If you are in Panama without a permanent residency card, you are a tourist, not a resident. Easy as that.

Issue #4 Learn to scroll

If your paperwork is in order, you have nothing to worry about. If you have successfully completed the immigration process, then the Congresswoman did not talk to you or about you. Learn to scroll.

Issue #5 Share your concern but quit the whine

If your paperwork is not in order, you probably have reason to be worried, but you don’t have to publish your hissy fit on Facebook. Especially not if you want to be condescending.

I am not implying that people cannot or should not share their legitimate concerns on any Facebook group. That is the purpose of such groups – to share information and ask for assistance or recommendations. And general chatter, including being kicked out of the country if you break the law.

I do however dislike the demeaning nature of many of the comments.

Issue #6 Equal respect

I find it amusing that people would completely respect the laws and regulations when visiting countries such as Australia, Japan, Russia or Canada.

But when they set foot on Panama soil, things are somehow different.

They complain when the law is enforced. They want to enter the border with only a photocopy of their residency card. They are surprised, sometimes downright irritated, when police or immigration officials ask them to produce an identification document. And they are even more surprised when the photocopy of their passport is not acceptable. They want to work illegally and some openly support others to do the same.

In many cases, it is a matter of ignorance – although that by itself is no excuse.

In many other cases, though, it is a matter of arrogance where people think that this so-called “third world banana republic” deserve less respect than any other country.

While we are talking about identification, let’s clarify that too. Every person – not just tourists – must have an identity document on his person. Officially, identification documents are either a Cedula (Panama identity card) or a passport. A photocopy of the passport is not acceptable because officials need to see the date of entry or the immigration stamp.

Your residency card or driver’s license is not an official form of identification. If an official accepts it, it is at his discretion. And because he’s a nice guy, not because he’s obliged to.

Issue #7 Understand both the letter and the spirit of the law

Here I am specifically referring to the Friendly Nations Visa and the “economic relationship” in particular.

The spirit of the relevant law is that citizens of the 50 qualifying nations must establish a professional or economic relationship with Panama.

You can accomplish this in one of two ways:

Option 1 – Professional activity: Being employed by a bona fide Panama corporation will demonstrate a professional relationship.

Option 2 – Economic activity: Setting up a new Panama corporation to start a business; or buying an existing Panama corporation which does business in the country.

The requirement to start or buy a business gets flouted by many immigrants. In fact, because of a lack of enforcement, many sell or de-register their corporation soon after the approval of their application for residency, and never bother to start a local business.

Issue #8 Don’t overestimate your contribution

A few people, with their paperwork apparently in order, were very upset because the Congresswoman did not publicly recognize their contribution to the economy and overall well-being of the country.

Panama obviously understands the value of immigrants, specifically under the two visas covered in this article. Otherwise, the country would not have these visas.

Retirees spend their pensions locally and others start businesses. That is valuable. Many own real estate and pay rates and taxes. That is equally valuable.

However, people should not consider their gross spending, nor their spending in isolation.

The gross amount spent by immigrants does not go to government coffers. Only sales tax, property taxes and the income tax paid by the businesses they support, go to the fiscus. Chances are that the additional pressure on infrastructure created by an immigrant can outweigh the net contribution by that immigrant.

The same goes for new businesses, especially in the hospitality sector. The additional pressure on electricity supply, freshwater supply, refuse removal, sanitation, roads and safety can easily be under-estimated. And when business owners are less than honest with their taxes, their contribution is proportionally less.

I do understand that some people are sensitive about anti-immigrant rhetoric. They feel that they contribute and want the locals to appreciate their contribution.

My personal feeling is that most locals are not anti-immigrant. But there is despair. Many are desperately poor and the inequality between immigrants and locals is stark.

Is there a real issue?

Without wagering a political opinion, I would say there is no real issue. At least not for those who stay within the law.

On the other hand, if your Panama paperwork is not in order, please do not be surprised if you find yourself on the wrong side of law enforcement.

It is not always convenient or cheap to be legal. But it is our moral obligation to be good global citizens.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  ― The Dalai Lama

I would love to have your thoughts about immigration. Or about gaming the system.

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Want to work in Panama, then get your paperwork sorted

Sold everything, became minimalist. Retired early, in Hispanic America. Helping others do the same. This free guide will help you plan your relocation. Do you have a question?

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