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

Panama Friendly Nations Visa: Updated Guide to Visas and Residency

Seemingly big changes to visas and temporary residency permits such as Panama Friendly Nations Visa 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. Panama 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 Panama 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 Panama 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.

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