Panama’s Visa Shake-Up – an Updated Guide to Visas and Residency

Panama’s Visa Shake-Up – an Updated Guide to Visas and Residency

By in Exploring & Living in Panama with 22 Comments

Seemingly big changes to visas and temporary residency permits were announced by Panama, the latest this March. None, however, have a big impact on how residency is ultimately granted, and the government of Panama continues to aggressively court foreigners – retirees, professionals and investors – considering a move to the Isthmus.

The three changes to residency and visas were as follows:

  • First, the one-year temporary permit issued to foreigners while they complete the process to gain permanent or temporary residence has now been cut to six months, effective January 10. This shouldn’t be a big negative, given that immigration issues are usually resolved within six months for all types of applicants.
  • Second, as discussed in more detail under Tourist Visas below, a previous measure, which allowed visitors with a multiple-entry EU visa or EU residency to also use it to enter Panama was scrapped. That said, the measures won’t affect most European citizens, who are able to enter Panama without visas for short stays, and don’t affect visitors from the US, Canada or the UK at all.
  • Third, also detailed further under Tourist Visas, in March 2017 the government announced stricter enforcement of entry under tourist visas more broadly. Visitors entering Panama on tourist visas will now need to leave the country for a minimum of 30 days before re-entering again.

As of today, there are nine ways to settle in Panama.

1. Panama’s Retiree Pensionado Program

The most popular type of visa since I’ve been here is the pensionado visa, and with good reason. Panama has an enviable benefits program for retirees and, remarkably, it’s open to foreigners. The visa provides discounts for entertainment, domestic travel, hospital and energy bills, and the list goes on. To qualify, you must draw a pension of at least US$1,000 per month, and an additional US$250 for each dependent. The annuity or pension can be paid by a private company, military, government agencies, corporations, a bank, an insurance company, or a Trust. Buying real estate in Panama is not a requirement and foreigners who obtain residency via the pensionado program are protected from any future changes in the law. Note that you can apply for the pensionado visa even if you have yet to reach 55 or 60 (for women and men, respectively). The government reviews applications on a case-by-case basis, and if you’ve begun receiving your pension early (because of disability or any other valid reason) you are welcome to apply.

2. Friendly Nations Visa

The Panamanian government opened the floodgates for citizens of so-called “friendly nations” back in 2012, granting them the fastest path to permanent residency via the Friendly Nations Visa. This visa welcomes professionals and entrepreneurs from 48 countries that “maintain friendly, professional, economic, and investment relationships” with Panama. To qualify, you have to open a local bank account with a minimum balance of US$5,000, and either open a new company or buy an existing business in Panama, or find professional employment in Panama (proof of employment is needed for the latter). Talk to an attorney about the specifics of “starting a company” and the requirements of “working for a Panamanian company”.

Note: The Pensionado and Friendly Nation visas are the only ones granting immediate permanent residence. The visas below need a two-year provisional temporary residence before qualifying for permanent residence.

3. Professional Employment Visa

Visas for those working in a “professional” capacity are a popular path to residency, provided they’re not in protected professions reserved for Panamanian nationals (eg: medicine, accounting, real estate, and law). Applicants must have a university education and proof of any professional license needed from their home country. After two years as a temporary resident, permanent residence is usually granted, but, unlike other visas, you must make two applications two years apart to qualify. When filing the final application, applicants have to show that they have been employed in Panama for the last nine months and have been paying local social security.

4. Economic Self Solvency Visa

In a bid to attract wealthy foreigners, Panama offers three options to those with the means to put down US$300,000 in cash. You need to invest US$300,000 in either real estate, a certificate of deposit held with a local bank for three years, or any combination of the two that results in a total US$300,000 investment.  

5. Business Investor Visa

A US$160,000 minimum investment in the capital stock of a Panamanian corporation can buy you a Business Investor Visa, provided the business employs at least 5 local employees. The foreigner can be a shareholder and/or an officer.  

For the three visas above, an additional US$2,000 is required for each dependent.

6. Reforestation Investor Visa

Panama continues to offer reforestation as a path to permanent residency. A minimum investment of US$80,000 is required in a government certified project, over a five hectare teak or mahogany plantation. And with that investment you’ve got yourself a visa.

Typically these are handled by reforestation companies who offer a turn-key package that includes the land purchase contract, management contract, and legal fees required to process the visa.  The major differences between reforestation visa companies are the number of hectares of timber that you actually receive and the ongoing cost of managing your reforestation project.  Applicants can apply under their individual names or under a corporation.  For a comprehensive look at the economics of this type of investment, visit Panamaforestry.com.

7. Tourist Visa

Tourist visas were tightened at the end of 2016 for visitors from the EU, and again in March 2017 for citizens from all countries. The first move scrapped a previous measure which allowed those with a multiple-entry EU visa or EU residency to also use it to enter Panama. Under this, the new decree states that tourists requiring a visa to Panama must have a Panamanian visa, or residency or a multiple-entry visa valid for more than a year from Australia, Britain, Canada or the United States. That said, the measures shouldn’t affect most European citizens, who are able to enter Panama without visas for short stays. Similar measures were introduced in Costa Rica last month in the name of enhancing security. Second, in March 2017, the government announced that, while no additional new regulations would go into effect, enforcement of the tourist visa would be tightened, so that visitors traveling on tourist visas will now need to leave Panama for a minimum of 30 days before re-entering again on a tourist visa. This is important for those applying for residency: you have to have an ID showing that your residency is in process in order to leave and return to Panama.  If you don’t have this ID, then you should exit as a tourist (i.e., before the end of the sixth month tourist status approaches).

8. Parents of Children Born in Panama Visa

The parents of a child born in Panama who is over five years old are eligible to apply.

9. Marry a Panamanian

The route I went, with no regrets.  Hopefully she feels the same way.

We’d encourage you to talk to an attorney, particularly if it concerns Panamanian businesses or investment requirements. We hope this is a helpful guide as you chart your own path to Panamanian residency. As always, we’d love to hear from you about your thoughts and experiences.

About The Author

Kent Davis, founder and Managing Director at Panama Equity real estate, has been widely quoted in publications such as Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, The Miami Herald and the Financial Times for his unabashed views on the Panama real estate market. Panama Equity is regarded as one of the most active real estate agencies in Panama and Kent’s articles, reports, and market research projects have been syndicated by press agencies including Bloomberg and the Associated Press.   Connect with the Author via: Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Google+

22 Comments

  1. Libby says:

    Hello Kent ! I think we are the only people
    In the world who can’t seem to get Visas. We have a lump sum pension so we can not do the retiree
    Visa because we do not have any forms to say we
    Receive money monthly for life. We can do the Private Retiree Visa where you put a lot of money Into a CD at the National Bank of Panama but when we went in today the Manager said we can’t do a
    CD without being a resident or without having a visa ??? Our lawyer said the same thing but we just can’t believe it since it’s on every visa sites (
    Except this one ) our lawyer is not an immigration lawyer and didn’t tell us we can’t get the pensiado visa with a lump sum – after several trips
    Back to the states for apostilles and all the documents he told  us actually we have to prove we
    Get money for life but we don’t – we have a lump sum and do not draw SS yet for a few years.  So bummed out ! I didn’t think it would be this difficult and now it even seems impossible. 

    • Kent Davis says:

      Libby, thanks for sharing your situation and Im sorry obtaining a visa in Panama has been so difficult for you! Im going to intro you to our English speaking Panama immigration attorney…because if there is a way, he’ll know about it!

  2. Brent Moulton says:

    Is there a legal requirement to hire a lawyer for immigration visas or can you do it yourself? The lawyers here are so sleazy and over charge for everything.

    • Kent Davis says:

      Hi Brent, no legal requirement but be prepared for hurdles and going round in circles.

      If you’d like I can put you in touch with a trustworthy immigration attorney.

  3. Esther says:

    Hi, we are looking at purchasing land and a house package for approximately $360,000 but it is a Right of Possession.  Would this count towards an investor visa. If not the Friendly Nations visa, how easy is that to apply for?  Would we need a solicitor or would we need an agent as they are quoting $1800 for a couple?

    Many thanks

    • Kent Davis says:

      Esther, thanks for reaching out. I have to be honest, Im not an expert on ROP properties in Panama so you’d be best to hire a lawyer to handle that inquiry and your process. Friendly nations visa is straightforward enough, but there’s still lots of running around and most of our clients who have attempted it on their own usually end up bringing in a lawyer. Hope that helps!!

  4. Norman says:

    My understanding is that a Pensionado Visa (which I have) does not make one eligible for citizenship.

    • Kent Davis says:

      Hey Norman, let me check with our go-to Panama immigration attorney to make sure. If memory serves, he had said at one point that all of them had paths to citizenship, including the pensionado. But like I said, let me circle back here in a day or two!

  5. Peter H says:

    Hi Kent,

    With friendly nations visa, the applicant need to physically go to Panama and find a lawyer to set up a corporation and submit all the required documents? Are there specific requirements for which type of corporation to set up? Thanks.

    • Kent Davis says:

      Peter, thanks for your question about the friendly nations visa. Far as I know, most of the legal legwork can be submitted prior to a visit but you will eventually need to come to Panama to sit down with immigration and get all the legal visa-related paperwork signed in person to complete the process.

  6. D. Futrell says:

    Is it true a U S citizen can work in the city of knowledge without a work visa?  If so, is it only for 180 days?  Would he have to leave the country and be gone a certain amount of time before he could return to work again there?

  7. Ricardo says:

    Hey Kent,

    This was a great article, love the site and news letter. Question what if one for your parents were born in panama; How do Panamanian citizenship work could I have dual citizenship?

    Thanks

  8. Clyde Henry says:

    How many days can a U.S. citizen stay in Panama without a visa of any kind ?

  9. Gilberto Russo md phd says:

    Excellent publication
    Contents and format 

  10. Peter Myers says:

    Which visas lead to eligibility for Panamanian citizenship?

    • Kent Davis says:

      Peter, let me check with our resident visa specialist and get back to you both on this forum and at your @gmail account, thanks for your question!

      • Kent Davis says:

        Peter, per our go-to immigration attorney:

        Most of the Visa programs leads to a Panamanian citizenship. The key is to apply for a Permanent Status type of Visa or a Temporary program that converts in a Permanent status over time. For instance, programs such as: Friendly Nations, Self-Solvent, Investors and others offers Permanent Status and within 5 years after being granted such permanent status, the applicant will have the right to ask for Panamanian citizenship. Some Temporary Programs will turn into Permanent after 3-5 years of renewals. If the applicant marries to a Panamanian or have a Panamanian children, then the period will be reduce from 5 to 3 years…the key is to apply to the right Visa program”

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