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Panama Cathedral in Panama City

Panama Visas & Residency

By Betsy Burlingame

Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama
Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama

Summary: This article covers the ins and outs of the most common tourist and residency visas that expats and global nomads obtain when moving to and living in Panama. How long you can stay in Panama without a visa (or on a tourist visa depending upon your citizenship)? What are the advantages of becoming a legal resident of Panama? Would I qualify for the Friendly Nations Visa? How old do I have to be to qualify for the Pensionado Visa? How do I apply for a work permit in Panama? It also addresses how and why some expats choose to become citizens of Panama.

Panama is a popular expat destination for a number of reasons. Many expats and global nomads are drawn to Panama City for its restaurants, nightlife, employment opportunities, access to good medical care and international schools. Others prefer the beaches of Bocas del Toro and Coronado or the cooler climates in Boquete and El Valle. In addition to its wonderful cities, beaches and mountain towns, Panama offers a number of financial advantages to legal residents.

Requirements for Entry to Panama

180 Day Stay-Tourists can only remain in Panama for 180 days. This rule is strictly enforced by Panamanian immigration. Travelers must ensure that immigration officials place an entry stamp in their passport.

Covid-Testing Requirements When Traveling to Panama

As mentioned above, a certificate of COVID-19 Swab test must presented. One expat explained, "Nationals, residents, and foreigners who enter Panama now must present a certificate of swab / PCR or negative antigen tests time stamped within 48 hours. Visitors who do not carry the certificate will be obligated to undergo an instant test prior to the airport migration registration, which must be paid for by your wife. If the rapid test result is negative, your wife will be exempt from complying with the mandatory isolation. If the swab / PCR or antigen test is positive, your wife will go to mandatory isolation in a hotel hospital assigned by the Ministry of Health."

Why do I need to buy a return ticket when moving to Panama?

Many people moving to Panama ask about the return ticket requirement and whether or not it applies to people moving to Panama. One expat explained the reason why it is required, "The fact that you will apply for any residence in Panama does not necessarily mean that it will be approved. Hence, you need a ticket to leave in case this happens. Also, at the moment of your entrance, your status is not of a resident. A lot of the country that I visited requires that I have a ticket to leave if I am not a resident."

Financial Advantages of Residency in Panama

Panama's Most Popular Residency Visas

The two most common residency visas in Panama are the Pensionado Visa and the Friendly Nations Visa.

There are a number of other residency visas, such as the Rentista Retirado, which are listed on the Government of Panama Migration Service's Website.

Friendly Nations Visa vs. Pensionado Visa

"There are two main differences between the Pensionado and Friendly Nations Visas. The Friendly Nations visa is a little more expensive, you don't need to show a fixed income for life only deposit $5K in a bank account for a single person or $6K for a couple and if you ever want to work legally in Panama you can obtain a work permit. With a Pensionado visa you must provide apostilled prove of a lifetime pension and you can not obtain a work permit unless you obtain Panamanian citizenship. So you need to ask yourself the question 'will I ever want or need to work to supplement my income.' It may not seem like an important question now but it very well could be in the future especially if they manage to steal from or bankrupt the US social security system," explained one expat.

Do I need a lawyer to obtain a Friendly Nations or Pensionado visa?

Yes, you should hire a lawyer to apply for a residency visa. Some expats debate whether Panama's Office of Migration Service actually requires you to hire a lawyer or if it's highly recommended. "Obtaining the Panamanian Friendly Nations Visa was simple for me and many people I know. My attorney handled all of the necessary requirements up front. I visited the immigration offices with my attorney one morning and by the afternoon of the following day I was issued my temporary visa id card. My permanent id card was ready three months later. In fact, when this visa [Friendly Nations] was introduced in 2012 it utilized a new team using a fast tracked process compared with the pensionado visa... And for the record, I've met several people who chose inadequate attorneys who waited as long as two years to obtain their visas (Friendly Nations and pensionado) and some who had to hire yet a second attorney to complete the application. Remember, there's no regulatory body policing attorneys here in Panama as in the first world such as the Bar association in the states," wrote another expat.

How do I apply for the Friendly Nations Visa?

Read our article, Panama's Friendly Nations Visa for a step by step guide to the documents needed, the process of apply for the Friendly Nations Visa and frequently asked questions. Topics covered include:

How do I apply for the Pensionado Visa?

Read our article, Panama's Pensionado Visa for a step by step guide to the documents needed, the process of apply for the Pensionado Visa and frequently asked questions. Topics covered include:

Pensionado Discounts

Many people mistakenly believe that you need to have the Pensionado Visa to qualify for pensionado (aka jubilado) discounts. Fortunately, that's not the case. "The good news, if you meet the age requirements of 55 for women or 60 for men, then you still get all the pensionado discounts even if you get the Friendly Nations Visa," explained one expat.

The discounts include:

  • Import tax exemption on up to $10,000 household goods
  • Import tax exemption on a new car every 2 years (cars subject other taxes)
  • 25% off utility bills
  • 25% off airline tickets, 30% other transportation
  • 25% off at restaurants, 15% off at fast-food restaurants
  • 15% off of loans
  • 20% off doctors bills, 15% off hospital services (if insurance does not apply)
  • 10% discount medications
  • 15% off dental exams and eye exams
  • 1% reduced home mortgage on home used for personal residence
  • 50% off entertainment (movie, cultural and sporting events)
  • 50% off at hotels (Mon-Thurs), 30% off hotels (weekends)
  • 20% off professional and technical services

How do I apply for a work permit in Panama?

You should use the lawyer to apply for a work permit through the Ministry of Work and Labor. The cost and length of a work permit, depends upon your residency. With the Friendly Nations visa, the work permit lasts 3 years and is renewal for 3 year periods. See the details about applying for a Work Permit with a Friendly Nations Visa on the Ministry of Work and Labor's website. Here are links to the Ministry's page about work permits for foreigners married to Panamanians.

"A work permit cannot be issued to anyone who does not already have a residency visa. With a Pensionado Visa, you can never get a work permit and are not supposed to work in Panama (though some do it illegally). But with some of the other residency visas you can get a work permit," advised one expat living in Panama.

Do I need a Cedula in addition to a Residency Visa?

Yes. "The Cedula is Panama's national ID card. Once you have obtained your residency visa, you should apply for the Cedula. Yes, you need a Cedula for day-to-day activities in Panama. "I use my cedula at least 3X/week. It is the national identity card, is more widely accepted than a passport, and is more secure than carrying around a passport. It makes me feel like I belong. It was $65 well spent," wrote one expat.

"I have found that Panamanian people I deal with, particularly government officials and professionals, take us more seriously when we present a satchel up when we are asked for identification. It seems to be a sign that we respect our country and the people. Most people respect that," added another.

"I would agree with Jazzman. Especially when stopped by police patrols. I was just walking down the road in Panama City and a National Police cruiser rolls up. They seem to assume that all the gringos are here on tourist visas cause they never ask to see ID they always ask for a passport. I tell them my passport is at home and say but I have my cedula, which I show them. Completely, changes the tone of the conversation, they just say, OK have a good day then. It is valid for ten years but when it expires it is renewed free of charge. Only if you lose it do you have to pay a replacement fee. Therefore the $65 is a one time fee unless you are careless with it," explained another.

Why do people become citizens of Panama?

When asked why an expat would become a citizen vs. resident, one expat described some of the common reasons that expats obtain citizenship in Panama: "People acquire Panamanian citizenship for many types of reasons:

  1. Emotional. They feel more tied to Panama than their birth country; their spouse or children are Panamanian; or they are in disagreement with the politics in their homeland.
  2. Practical. It is easier to travel to some countries with a Panamanian passport, to open bank accounts or purchase real estate in Panama or elsewhere, it is sometimes convenient to have a second passport.
  3. Financial. They want to be a citizen of a country that doesn't tax worldwide income. If they are US citizens, this means renouncing their US citizenship."

How can I become a citizen of Panama?

"I know several people in Boquete who have obtained Panama citizenship and a passport after having residency for 5 years. My attorney said they are now requiring that the applicant actually LIVES in Panama the 2 years prior to applying. I have not seen this in writing but assume it is true," wrote one expat.

Cost? "It's $600," she wrote.

And, the process for obtaining citizenship after 5 years of residency and submitting an application is:

  1. interview
  2. test
  3. then wait for President to sign approval.

"I became a Panamanian citizen near the end of 2013. I became a resident in the year 2000. From the time that I had finished meeting all the requirements for nationality until the president actually signed it 5 or 6 years had passed. It was Martinelli who actually signed my letter of naturalisation. At the time I applied for citizenship I was married to a Panamanian and had a Panamanian child. The big holdup in my case was waiting for the president to sign it. Actually I had given up hope that they would give it to me. One day out of the blue my lawyer called me and said Martinelli had signed it so I was very surprised. I had to go to a ceremony in Panama City and dress up in rope tipica. There were 42 people who received citizenship at the ceremony. You have to sign a statement saying you are giving up your former citizenship which is something the US does not recognise. You are actually a dual citizen but Panama only considers you to be a Panamanian. So you leave and reenter Panama with your Panamanian passport. Once you are in another country you can use your US passport. Since I have only been travelling in Latin American countries I only use my Panamanian passport. Getting citizenship in Panama seems to be a long and drawn out process. The lawyer I used was very good but he doesn't speak any English. Most of his clients were from other Latin American countries. Getting citizenship is not expensive but takes an awful lot of your time. I wasn't required to get any additional information from my home country (USA) in order to get citizenship," described one expat.

How long does it take to become a citizen of Panama?

"I see very little down side to having more than one citizenship. But the US one is currently a very good one as well. For people from different countries the reasons are different as well as each individual. A lot of people it does not cost much to do and takes 5 years after the 5 years of permanent residency so better to get it and not need it than to not get it."

Other Resources

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama
Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama

Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama
Kovalenko & Vera Attorneys at Law in Panama


Oct 12, 2020 09:04

It seems you can now pay for a quick covid test when you arrive here in PTY and if negative you are good to go. Otherwise quarantined.

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