With good planning, an experienced lawyer and a sense of humour, you can get your Panama cédula without hassles. Learn about the Friendly Nations Visa and the process of obtaining residency in Panama.
A number of sources detail the requirements for a residency visa, that is, the exact documents and money required to get the process done. Very few, if any, take the time to explain the actual process involved.
Apart from the process itself, there is a bit of confusion around the terminology. This discussion will straighten that out too.
Two different approaches to the process
Assuming you qualify for visa-free entry into Panama, you will receive a 180-day tourist visa upon arrival.
Some prospective residents use this period to experience the country, before making a final decision about living in Panama. However, keep the following potential pitfalls in mind:
- Documents required by the immigration office must have been issued within 90 days of the date of presentation. This implies that you will have less than three months to scout around, assuming you have arrived with all the required documents.
- Do not even consider trying to get the required documentation from your home country while staying in Panama. The time difference, non- or slow response from government departments and the cost of couriers are not worth your while. It is far better to arrive with everything ready, even if there is a chance of not using it. Unless you have money to burn and fly to-and-fro.
Others decide upfront that they want to apply for residency and start the process as soon as they possibly can after arrival. We followed this approach and literally started the process the day after arrival.
The preparation you do before departure is crucial. One missing, incorrect or expired document can bring your residency application to a halt. Apart from painstakingly checking that your documents are complete, you have to get them apostilled.
Documents originating outside of Panama must be apostilled by the Panama embassy or 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 requires apostilles. To apostille documents, submit the document, together with a certified copy, to the Panama embassy or consulate. A fee is charged for the service.
What will this residency process produce?
In local terms, a carnet (license) and a cédula (identity card). Allow me to explain.
Upon approval of temporary and permanent residency, you will receive a card indicating your residency status. Generally called a carnet, it is issued by the National Migration Service or immigration for short.
After that, you can apply for a national identity. Called a cédula, it is issued by a different department, namely the Electoral Tribunal. More about this card later.
Our route to Panama
Instead of flying to Panama using the cheapest or shortest route, we decided to take a detour – a five-week, mostly self-drive holiday through France. That explains the 36 days difference between our departure from South Africa and arrival in Panama.
Getting our Panama cédula
This is a concise version of the process we experienced. It shows the actual dates as well as the cumulative days before and after our arrival in Panama.
- Early April 17 Immigration lawyer finalised
The choice of immigration lawyer came after proper research, requesting quotations and confirming that we understand the quote.
- 13 April 17 (Arrival -48 days) Documents are ready
We received the last of the documents required for the Friendly Nations Visa.
- 17 April 17 (Arrival -44 days)
Arrived at the Panama Consulate in Pretoria to apostille our documents. However, they insisted that the Department of Home Affairs must stamp and sign our marriage certificate. We rushed to the nearest office, spent the entire day waiting for the re-issue of a document we already had in our possession, just to have it stamped and signed.
- 18 April 17 (Arrival -43 days) Documents are apostilled
Back at the Consulate, the personnel took pity on us and said we can collect the apostilled documents the next morning. Normally it would take three workdays to complete.
- 19 April 17 (Arrival -42 days) Documents are sent ahead
After consulting our checklist for the umpteenth time, we were satisfied that our documents were in order. We filled out the forms and watched while the big, yellow DHL envelope was prepared for its journey to Panama City.
- 25 April 17 (Arrival -36 days)
This was the big day – our departure! We arrived at ORT Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, being able to carry everything we own.
We were on our way to Europe, with Panama the as the final destination.
- 31 May 17 (Arrival) D-Day! Arrival! ¡Bienvenido en Panamá!
This was the next big day – our arrival! We arrived at Tocumen International Airport almost three hours behind schedule and reached our apartment in downtown Panama City just before midnight. Tired, but excited. We even took a walk, found an open-air bar and enjoyed the warm night while having a cold beer.
- 1 June 17 (Arrival +1 day) Bank account
We were hardly awake when the phone rang. It was our lawyer, telling us to get ready for a visit to the bank manager. It was a long wait, and a long session of filling out forms, but we walked out of the bank with a savings account in my name.
Since we were not willing to travel with a substantial amount of cash, I had to request a funds transfer to our new bank account (The Friendly Nations Visa requires a $5 000 deposit.)
While we waited for the money transfer, we visited a local doctor for the required health certificates.
- 5 June 17 (Arrival +5 days)
An email announced the arrival of the requested funds. We went to the bank to request the issue of the four cheques needed to cover the government fees, as well as the letter confirming the required deposit.
Panama operates on WhatsApp, and as we walked out of the bank, we used it to inform our lawyer that we have the cheques and letter ready.
- 6 June 17 (Arrival +6 days) First visit to immigration
All dressed up and ready for our first visit to the immigration office. Well, not really dressed up – 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 or sandals).
Most immigration lawyers use “runners”. They queue on your behalf, so you can arrive later in the morning.
We took a 30-minute taxi ride to the immigration office, where our representative met us. Within an hour, it was our turn and our representative ushered us from the one desk to the following. It was a blur of forms, questions, photos and signatures.
After about three and a half hours of marvelling at the organised chaos, we left the building with a stamp in our passports, confirming that we have lodged our application for residency.
- 20 June 17 (Arrival +20 days) Temporary residency card
After enjoying the time to experience everything that Panama City has to offer, we received the next call from our lawyer. Time to dress up again!
Our second visit to immigration was less intimidating, but it seemed like the process and time taken were the same as the first. Only this time we left the building with carnet in hand!
Now here’s an interesting note: 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 you must obtain a permanent licence 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 do not plan to drive.)
Final approval of your application, before the issue of your permanent residency card, normally takes three months. However, it could be anything between two and six months.
Since we were in Panama City, we decided to visit Taboga and Contadora islands on Panama’s Pacific side, as well as the Guna Yala islands on the eastern part of the Caribbean side.
- 17 July 17 (Arrival +47 days)
Back from our island excursions, it was time to get temporary drivers licences. We hired a tag along translator because we were a bit unsure of the process and procedure.
The process is actually straightforward and the office we visited was really well organised. Do make sure that your documents are in order, otherwise, they will simply send you back.
As for the translator? With hindsight, we could have done it without him. However, his rate was extremely favourable and apart from a having a translator, we had company and a wealth of local knowledge we could tap.
- 24 Aug 17 (Arrival +85 days or 2.8 months) Permanent residency! ¡Carnet!
The lawyer’s call came through while we were in Bocas del Toro, confirming the approval of our application. We booked a flight on Air Panama immediately and landed at Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport the next day.
Our third visit to immigration was really short and smooth; we walked out of there with our permanent residency cards!
On our way back to the hotel, the feeling of gratitude was almost tangible. I shared it on Facebook.
From the date of arrival in Panama to permanent residency in less than three months!
A word on getting a cédula
Getting your Panama cédula is something I feel strongly about; I think it’s the right thing to do.
It has nothing to do with your residency visa, there is no relation to immigration and it is voluntary. However, it is necessary if you want to apply for citizenship and subsequent to that, a Panamanian passport.
A cédula is a permanent identity issued by the Electoral Tribunal. In terms of process, it normally takes at least 60 days after permanent residency approval, for your file to reach the Electoral Tribunal, after which you can apply for your cédula.
Foreigners get an E-cédula; the E stands for extranjero, or foreigner.
All foreigners are legally supposed to carry their passports on them at all times for identification purposes. We carry our cédulas only, and never a problem. From banking to police checkpoints, no hassles.
It indicates a degree of legitimacy to Panamanians. It shows that you don’t just have a permanent residency visa, but have gone through the process of becoming a part of Panama. We are forever thankful that we decided to get our Panama cédulas.
- 5 November 17 (Arrival +158 days)
We did not check with our lawyer whether our paperwork reached the Electoral Tribunal before travelling to Panama City, we just checked the calendar and assumed it would be ready.
And it was! Only one problem: the all-important resolution, the document from immigration that actually approves your residency, was not on our file! (You need to take your resolution to the Electoral Tribunal offices to start the process)
It was a rare slip-up by the lawyer, and he immediately started the process to get a copy.
- 7 November 17 (Arrival +160 days) Permanent driver’s license
We now had time to spare and decided to get the permanent driver’s license done.
This time around we went on our own, without the translator. It was an absolute joy and walked out with our permanent licences in no time at all.
A week later, the lawyer confirmed that he received a copy of our resolution.
- 17 November 17 (Arrival +170 days)
After our permanent driver’s license outing, this was the next piece of official business we tackled on our own.
Our visit to the Electoral Tribunal was very different from the one to the immigration office. There were fewer people, we could find our way with our very limited Spanish and had our application submitted and approved within two hours. Officials told us to come back for the collection of our Panama cédulas after five workdays.
- 24 November 17 (Arrival +177 days or 5.8 months) ¡Cédula!
The second visit to the Electoral Tribunal was literally a walk-in-walk-out experience.
And that was it – from arrival to our Panama cédula in less than six months!
We were now set up to request citizenship after 5 years if we wanted to.
Our journey in summary
Temporary residency card: 20 days after arrival.
Permanent residency card: 85 days (2.8 months) after arrival.
E-cédula: 177 days (5.8 months) after arrival.
Important points to remember
The reasons for sending documents ahead of your arrival are twofold:
- Your lawyer can check for accuracy and completeness, and confirm before your departure;
- Your new corporation (if applicable), can be formed before your arrival, saving lots of time.
The two keys to hassle-free residency:
“If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy; God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t” – Hyman Rickover
I would love to have your thoughts on our process. Even better, tell us about your process!
Below are a few tours I would definitely recommend doing while in Panama City.
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