Becoming a legal resident is an important part of the expat experience in Panama. When we first arrived here two years ago, one of the first things we did was engage our attorneys, Miranda and Contreros in Boquete, for advice about getting our residency visa. There are a few options available, but we chose to wait until John could start collecting Social Security, which would give us the pension income we needed to apply for the pensionado visa. Why? The pensionado is less expensive and carries many financial advantages.
Driving Legally and the Tourist Stamp
Visitors without visas who arrive in Panama receive a “tourist” stamp, which entitles them to remain in the country for 180 days. The stamp also entitles you to drive using a valid license from your home country, but here’s the catch – the driving privilege is only good for 90 days. (FYI, only folks who hold a permanent visa or who have successfully submitted a visa application – and therefore hold the temporary six-month multiple entry visa – can apply for a Panama driver’s license. A so-called international driver’s license is not valid in Panama.)
Why the 90-day rule for driving vs. 180 days for tourist-ing? This being Panama, it’s probably because it involves two different government agencies: Immigration (for visas) and the Transit Authority (for driving).
When the 90 days is up, you have four choices:
1) Hop across the Panamanian border and re-enter the country to receive a new tourist stamp and thereby re-set the clock.
Until recently, lots of expats – ourselves included – were able to do this with a quick “border hop” into Costa Rica (we did three border runs, documented here, here and here). But as of March 17 this year, border hops are now a much chancier proposition because the Panamanian government has started strictly enforcing its immigration laws — which have always required people to remain outside the country for at least 30 days before re-entry. These measures are primarily due to the huge influx of people from Venezuela and Colombia looking for employment in Panama, but they affect everyone who might try to abuse the system and remain a “perpetual tourist” (we know people who have hopped the border every 90 days for many years). Theoretically, border hops are still doable but you’ll be at the mercy of the border agent and how literal-minded that person feels about the rules on that particular day.
2) Hop on an airplane and fly to another country and back. Apparently, the new crackdown on border hops has mostly affected people who cross through the main two Costa Rica checkpoints at Pasa Canoas and Rio Sereno, not folks who fly in and out of Tocumen Airport. We ourselves flew to Mexico and back only a month ago and re-entry was a breeze – but we also had a month to go on our tourist stamps.
3) Stop driving after 90 days until you can leave the country and re-set the clock. On the advice of our attorney, we did this for a month until two simultaneous things happened: we started our visa application and we flew to Mexico. It’s amazing how well we got by without our car, depending on buses, taxis, and our generous friends for rides.
4) Start your permanent visa application. This is, of course, the best option if you’re eligible — which brings us back to our visa application experience.
Which Visa and When?
When we came to Panama in 2015, we could have immediately applied for a Friendly Nations visa. The biggest reason to wait the two years (until John began collecting Social Security) and go for the pensionado was cost. Our legal fees for the pensionados will cost about $2,400 for both of us, but the Friendly Nations would have cost about twice that.
Also, waiting two years meant we could be eligible to submit the Panamanian National Police report rather than the U.S. FBI background check (see below). With the new crackdown on border hops, we don’t necessarily recommend this approach now. We got lucky – John’s social security eligibility came through about the time of the crackdown – but we travel enough outside Panama anyway that we figured we’d be OK.
Pensionado Requirements as of 2017
All visa applications must be made through a Panamanian lawyer. All documents must be fresh (within two months of the visa application) and passports must have at least one year to run. All visa applications require that you obtain a health certificate in Panama.
You must submit a letter from the pension body (in our case, the U.S. Social Security Administration) stating the current amount that applicant will receive per month. Minimum is $1,000.00 per individual plus $250.00 for spouse. The pension letter must have an apostille seal from your country’s embassy and then the Consulate of Panama.
Married couples can apply together by providing a marriage certificate that has been certified by the state in which they were married. This certification cannot be over 60 days old (we had to apply to the state of Hawaii to get a brand-new marriage certificate). This document must also have an apostille seal from your country’s embassy and then the Consulate of Panama.
You must submit a country-wide background check; local U.S. police reports are not accepted. U.S. citizen are required to submit an FBI background check, but there’s a key exception: if you’ve been living in Panama for more than two years without going out for 30 continuous days or more at a time, you can submit a Panamanian National Police report. That’s what we did, and it was much faster and easier than dealing with the FBI.
Other documents that you will need: passport photos, health certificate, copies of every page of your passports, copies and more copies!! Translation forms, power of attorney for your lawyer to represent you, etc. Your mileage and time may vary, of course. Our attorneys obtained the police report and handled getting all our documents stamped and apostilled by the various agencies.
Once we had John’s proof of benefits letter from the Social Security Administration, we were ready to start the process. Again, the timing gods smiled down on us – we received the letter four weeks before our two-year anniversary of living in Panama. A side note: You can apply for social security benefits and obtain the letter no more than 90 days before your 62nd birthday.
In April we paid our attorney the retainer deposit of $500 and produced the social security letter along with health certificates from our local doctor ($25 each) and passport photos ($9.00). The ball was rolling!
A Long but Successful Day
It took about two weeks for our attorney to have all the documents certified and collected. We were now ready for our day at Immigration. We met our lawyer, Juan Contreros, in David (pronounced Da-VEED, the provincial capitol of Chiriqui province) promptly at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 29th. Juan showed up with our inches-thick visa application file, we gave the immigration officer our passports, and we took a seat.
An hour later our attorney said Migracion wanted to see our plane tickets from a four-day trip we made from Panama to Medellin, Colombia in 2016. Apparently the in and out stamps on our passports from Colombia Immigration were not proof enough we were there! Since we don’t carry all our previous airline tickets with us, we had to scramble and get an official itinerary from Air Panama ASAP. Our good friend and travel agent extraordinaire, Andrea Cook saved the day by getting this to us via email within an hour. Thank you, Andrea! It also turned out our lawyer had one of his staff do the same thing without our knowing.
Another hour or so and then we paid an immigration registration fee of $5.00 each. An hour or so after that we paid our $50 each for our temporary visa card and had our photos taken (hmmm – I wonder whatever happened to those passport photos we had to submit??), fingers printed, and electronic signatures recorded. Voila – we received our cards, and just like that we became legal residents. But wait, there’s more!
If you have a visa in progress, you must have a temporary (6-month) multi-entry visa stamp on your passport in order to travel in and out of Panama during that period. The stamp costs $50 and must be signed by the immigration office director. It’s a hefty fine – $2,000 (gulp!) if you get caught traveling without it. At 1:30, Juan informed us we were good to go except for El Director’s signature on the stamp – and unfortunately, the lady that handles that particular job (out of 30 or so people in the office) had just gone to lunch! Oh, Panama . . . we love ya. Off we went to PriceSmart next door to kill time until 3 p.m.
Back at 3 p.m. and our passports are stamped and sitting on El Director’s desk, but where is El Director? By 3:45 he was still MIA, although Juan had even walked around looking for him and saw his car in the parking lot. Juan advised us to go home, since the office was closing at 4, and he would retrieve our signed passports the next day. We were a tad disappointed not to be completely finished and more than a little apprehensive about leaving our passports, but sure enough, there they were, signed and stamped, at the law office in Boquete the next morning!
Thank you, Juan. He and his law partner, Lourdes Miranda, have given us fantastic service. We can’t recommend them enough!
Now we wait. Our visa application file is now in Panama City awaiting final approval, which by law must be done within six months (it usually takes about four months). At that point we will have to go to the immigration office in Panama City to get our permanent visa cards at a cost of $100 per card.
After that, we’ll be able to apply for our e-cédula cards.
So What’s a Cédula?
It’s basically a Panama ID card, available only to citizens or permanent visa holders (non-citizens with visas receive an “e-cédula,” with the “e” standing for extranjero or foreigner). Your cédula is primary proof of your age and identification, especially important if you’re entitled to the benefits of Panama’s jubilado (retiree) program. And those benefits are substantial: 25% off airline and cruise tickets, restaurants, tours, museums, etc. A minimum discount off the regular prices of hotels, motels and hostels. A 15% discount in the total cost for services of hospitals and private clinics. A 20% discount in pharmacies for prescription medications. A 25% discount on monthly utility bills including electric, water, and basic phone/internet. These are just to name a few; plus, at most government offices and banks you get to be in the jubilado line and get served first!
- Get your visa sooner vs. later. The border-hop/perpetual tourist thing just isn’t tenable anymore. And there’s no greater feeling than walking away with that visa card and knowing you’re legal and a real part of the Panamanian community!
- If you submit your application in David, be prepared for a full day of waiting. We have a friend whose application only took two hours, but you never know when a hiccup like our Colombian travel thing might pop up, or when El Director might decide to do a disappearing act. Bring a book, water, a smartphone if you have one (ours saved our butts on the Colombian thing), and – above all – patience and a positive attitude!