We’ve been living in Panama for almost two years now. Even though we’re here full time, year round, officially we are tourists. We’ve made no effort to “regularize” our status, as they say in the immigration biz, because we weren’t ready to commit to staying here.
When we arrived, a tourist visa let you stay in the country for six months at a time. Renewing it was easy – you made a border run. It was a simple, straightforward process that took us 5+ hours of driving each way, but only had us at the Panama/Costa Rica border crossing for about an hour.
A pain, but not a problem.Now, though, Panama is making it much more difficult. So much more difficult, in fact, that we’re preparing to apply for residency rather than have to deal with the border issues.
What Type of Residency?
If you decide to become a permanent resident in your new country, you first need to understand what types of residency are available, and which ones you might qualify for. Here are the choices in Panama.
The most popular residency visa in Panama is the much-publicized pensionado visa. There’s no age requirement attached to it and it’s permanent as long as you don’t leave the country for longer than two years.
You just need to prove you have enough permanent income to support yourself.
This is usually in the form of a government pension (Social Security in the US). You need a monthly check of at least $1,000. If you have dependents, you need another $250 per dependent. Or, if you buy a house to live in for at least $100,000, that monthly requirement drops to $750.
One friend, whose Social Security check fell a little short of the $1,000 figure, purchased a small annuity to make up the difference. She had to do a bit of additional paperwork, but she got her visa without a hitch.
If you have private retirement funds but not a monthly check, you can apply for a private income retiree visa. For this, you need to deposit a substantial amount and leave it in one of two specific banks for the five-year duration of your visa. It needs to generate income of at least $850/month for you, and you cannot include dependents.
If you’ve wanted to go back to school, or if you plan to do some serious language study, this might work for you. It only gives you a couple of years, but it does provide formal status.
“Big Money” Visas
If you’ve got plenty to invest, you could go for a Person of Means visa, a Forestry Investor visa, Business Investor visa, or some other type of visa that involves injecting big bucks into the country.
Friendly Nations Visa
This one, created by President Ricardo Martinelli, will probably disappear when he leaves office later this year. It allows nationals of 40+ specific countries to gain residency and work in Panama. You can include a dependent, and you need to show at least $5,000 on deposit in a Panama bank, with another $2,000 per dependent.
To qualify, you must own real estate, have a work contract with a Panamanian company, or own a Panamanian corporation.
There are a few others – if you marry a Panamanian, for example.
These vary with the type of visa you’re applying for, but there are some requirements shared across the board.
Police Background Check
This is your first hurdle. You need to produce a background check from the national police of your country. In the US, this means the FBI. You need to send your fingerprints off to Washington to start the process.
If you’re already in Panama, as we are, this becomes a bigger undertaking than it would be if you start the process before you leave the US.
Proof You’re Married
If you’re applying as husband and wife, they want proof you’re legally married. Apparently if you give them your marriage certificate they’ll keep it, so plan to get a duplicate certificate, properly authenticated, that you can leave with them.
Proof of Income/Investment
All these visas require that you can support yourself either with a pension, investments, business ownership or a work contract. The country requires proof.
As far as I know, you’ll need a Panamanian lawyer to file paperwork for any and all visas.
Money for Fees
Application, processing and filing fees can be substantial (in addition to what you pay the lawyer).
Once you’ve submitted your application, Panama will issue a temporary residence visa right away, although the permanent visa can take months. If you plan to travel during that time, you’ll need a Multi-Entry Visa, which costs $100.
If you do leave the country while your application’s in the pipeline and don’t have the Multi-Entry Visa, you’ll incur a big fine. Better – and cheaper – to pony up your $100 and follow the rules.
Is Permanent Residency Worth It?
You’ll need to determine that for yourself.
Obviously, it wasn’t worth it to us when we first arrived. Since then, Immigration is enforcing stricter rules at the border to the point where getting residency is now the lesser of two hassles.
Permanent residency status makes some things a lot easier.
Driving, for instance.
It’s legal to drive with your US license here – but only for the first 90 days after you enter the country. Even though you’re allowed to stay for 180 days as a tourist, your driver’s license becomes invalid after 90. If you have an accident after 90 days, insurance won’t pay because they consider you to be driving on an expired license. If you’re stopped for a traffic infraction, or just a routine check, you might have to pay a hefty fine.
To legally drive, then, as a non-resident, you need to make the border run every 90 days. Once you’re a resident, you can get a Panamanian driver’s license.
As an older resident, you can save money with the jubilado discount, available to residents (if you’re a woman over 55 or a man over 60) on a wide variety of goods and services. With the jubilado you save money at restaurants, hotels and airlines. You get a discount at the grocery store and a percentage knocked off your electric bill. Some of the discounts can be substantial.
As a non-resident, many airlines will require you to purchase a return ticket to your home country before they’ll let you board the plane for Panama. That happened to me when I was coming back from Florida last July. I ended up buying a fully refundable ticket, then canceling it after I got home. It wasn’t a problem, but it was a nuisance.
It’s not just the airlines who do this to you – that’s become one of the requirements when you leave and reenter the country at the Costa Rica border. One friend, a French citizen who hasn’t been back to France in years and has no plans to return there, was forced to purchase an airline ticket to France before they allowed him back into Panama. (He and his wife have lived here for eight years as tourists.)
No more border runs! They’re time consuming and expensive, and they’re becoming more time consuming and more expensive.
Fewer worries about the rules changing. Generally, once you have your residency you’re allowed to keep it even if they change the rules. Without it, your life abroad can be upended with little or no warning.
A US friend who just received his residency here told me that, when he first arrived in Panama, the tourist visa was good for 90 days. Then, suddenly, it was decreased to only 30 days so he had to go to the border monthly. Then it went back to 90 … then up to 180 … There’s talk of a major change that would eliminate perpetual tourists completely if one political party comes to power in May.
The right to live in the country. This seems obvious, but I think it needs spelling out.
It’s a good idea to have the right to legally reside in more than one country. With the state of the world and the global economy today, if things get really bad where you are, it’s good to have the option to go somewhere else.
The time to create that option is before you really need it.
The only real downside I’m aware of is the financial cost, and the time involved in gathering the necessary documents and nursing them through the system.
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
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