Recent changes in tourist visa regulations aim to limit visa-free residency in Panama. Officials are frowning upon the perpetual tourist and new regulations will make this practice more difficult. This article explores the question of whether visa-free residency in Panama is at all possible, and whether it can be justified.
Panama’s tourist visas are straightforward and easy to obtain. The two categories are as follows:
- Visa-free: citizens of countries that qualify for visa-free entry will receive a 180-day tourist visa on arrival.
- Visa required: the remainder of the countries’ citizens need to apply for a tourist visa prior to arrival, and if successful, will normally receive a 90-day tourist visa.
You can check whether you qualify for visa-free entry into Panama here.
Tourist visa renewal
Tourists can apply for extensions to their particular visa, by submitting the required paperwork and fee at an immigration office. The extension could be anything from 30 to 90 days.
However, the practice that this article refers to is the renewal of the 180-day visa by doing a so-called border run. That is, leaving Panama for the prescribed time, and then receiving a fresh 180-day visa upon return. Some would use the opportunity to fly to a destination further away, but most just make a dash for the Costa Rica border.
These “border runners” are referred to as perpetual tourists. Moreover, by repeating this process, a tourist can stay in Panama indefinitely. Voila! Visa-free residency!
Is visa-free residency in Panama possible?
The short answer is no. The long answer is also no. You cannot use the word residency, in its formal or legal sense, alongside the phrase “visa-free.”
Perpetual tourists may claim that they reside in Panama, which is grammatically correct, but border runs do not equate to residency.
So what exactly is residency?
Here we specifically refer to permanent residency, since temporary residency would almost defeat the purpose of border runs.
Permanent residency refers to a government sanctioned right to live in Panama indefinitely, subject to its laws and regulations at any given time. Residency in Panama can be obtained through a number of different visas, the two most popular being the Pensionado Visa and Friendly Nations Visa.
Upon approval, immigration issues a photo residency card proving the holder’s status.
Like most other countries, permanent residency in Panama does not include all the rights enjoyed by its citizens. You do not receive a passport and cannot vote in any elections. Most importantly, residents do not automatically qualify to work in Panama. Apart from the need for a work permit, there are more than 25 jobs or job categories reserved for Panamanian citizens.
No, perpetual tourism is not illegal; it is simply operating within the legal system. It is not the evasion of any laws; it is avoiding the hassle and expense associated with an application for residency.
The practice has however facilitated a number of undesired behaviours, causing all sorts of headaches for the government. The main problem is that many perpetual tourists take up jobs illegally, which is possible because they are able to stay in Panama for a prolonged time.
In order to counter this, the government frequently issues new regulations. There are four ways in which to change regulations in order to deter the practice of perpetual tourism:
- Changing the status of a country, from “visa-free” to “visa required”;
- By decreasing the length of time tourists can stay in Panama;
- Increasing the number of days between exit and re-entry;
- Limiting the total number of entries into Panama.
Remain aware of changes to regulations
Until recently, a tourist could have done a border run, have a cup of coffee in Costa Rica and re-enter Panama for another 180-day period.
Subsequently, regulations have stipulated that tourists have to remain outside Panama for a day before allowed re-entry. That became 72 hours, which has now become three months. The total number of entries is now limited to three!
Like anything, there are exceptions. The description above is applicable on the ardent perpetual tourist gaming the system.
Is perpetual tourism morally justified?
There is no simple answer to this question. The answer will mostly depend on who you ask, and may sound something like this:
The perpetual tourist: “Of course! I am legally here and I’m not breaking any laws by doing border runs. Besides, I am spending my entire monthly income here and doing the local economy a favour.”
The permanent resident: “It is legal but I’m not sure it is okay to game the system. Apart from the letter of the law, one should also look at the spirit thereof. Panama’s tourist visa is very generous, so why milk it to the extreme? Similarly, Panama’s residency requirements are easy and affordable. Be a good global citizen and apply for residency.”
The government: “No it’s not. We have very tourist friendly regulations and we welcome tourists with a free, 180-day visa. However, too many tourists are abusing our laws and using perpetual tourism to avoid applying for residency or taking up jobs illegally. There are also pressure on service delivery and infrastructure, some of it not covered by the claim of additional local spending. We have no choice other than tightening regulations.”
My personal opinion? Being legal is not always being right.
“It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.” – Sarah Turnbull
I would love to have your thoughts on perpetual tourism.
Below are a few tours I would definitely recommend doing while in Panama City.
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