Getting Our Panama Residency | OPERATIONEXPAT.COM

NOTE — This post covers our recent experience getting our Panama residency through the current Friendly Nations Visa program, which will change significantly as of August 7, 2021. Since I’m coming from the U.S., it’s solely an American perspective.

As a result of Executive Decree #226 issued by President Cortizo, a corporation and bank account will no longer enough to meet the requirements for a Friendly Nations Visa. Applicants will have to have an employment contract with a Panamanian company OR hold title (in their personal OR corporate name) to $200,000 of real estate OR deposit $200,000 in a three-year certificate of deposit with Banco National. And, instead of getting your permanent residency in months, you’ll have to wait years—two to be exact. Click here for the official info.

No matter what visa you’re considering or what country you’re coming from or when you’re coming, you’ll definitely find something to help you in this post.

Although I’ve done a lot of research over the past five years, my intent in writing this blog isn’t to become yet another armchair advisor. This blog is my online diary that I share in the hopes that it can help make the ride a little less bumpy for someone else.

When it comes to residency, you always want to work with an attorney rather than rely on blog posts and expat groups on social media! The good ones will ensure you check every box and have a smooth experience.

Almost 4-1/2 years ago, Ken and I landed at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City for a 10 day reconnaissance trip to determine if Panamá would be our new home someday.

By the end of our 10 day road trip, we both had a crush on the tiny surfing community of Playa Venao.

Thank god I didn’t know what 2020 would bring or I probably wouldn’t have returned a little over a year later and bought our property!

If it weren’t for Covid, I would have begun the residency process earlier. I lost four months, but I’m grateful that’s ALL I lost. (In fact, 2020 gave me an opportunity to refine my vision of both my main business and my future nature and book retreat.)

In January 2021, it was FINALLY time to put my years of research to the test and start getting my Panama residency!

The original plan was for me to come down solo in June and Ken would join me in December-ish after tying things up with work.

And, then Panamá pulled the first rug out from under us — as you’ve probably already heard, beginning in August, the rules for the Friendly Nations Visa drastically change (more on this later). The new requirements were a BIG push for Ken.

Our attorney pushed hard for him to scramble to catch up with me—and, against all bureaucratic odds, he did!!!

Types of Panama Visas

Here’s a brief overview of the most popular types of Panama visas:

Americans used to be able to enter Panamá as a tourist for a max of 180 days as long as they met certain conditions (see below). However, as of September 2021, the maximum stay for all tourists is 90 days.

To do this, you’ll need to have:

  1. A valid passport that doesn’t expire for at least six months past their date of arrival and has enough blank pages for the official Panamanian stamps
  2. Proof of a flight (or possibly bus) ticket that will take you back out of Panamá before 180 days

There’s no formal visa process or additional requirements — you simply show up with #1 and #2 and you’re good to go.

In the past, a lot of folks would reset their stay timer simply by taking a 72 hour trip to Costa Rica.

But, in the months before Covid hit, there were grumblings that the government was cracking down on “perpetual tourists.” First, Covid made this a difficult, if not impossible, door to squeeze through. Then, the tourist visa rules changed to eliminate this cheat.

I bought a return flight back to California just shy of 180 days (the amount of days tourists could stay at the time I was getting my visa) after my arrival and Hopper’s change fee waiver — only to be used in the event I didn’t my permanent residency.

If you plan on staying here for the long-term, it’s really necessary to invest in one of the permanent residency visas — the two most popular being the Friendly Nations Visa and the Pensionado Visa.

 

This is the typical visa of choice for retired folks. But, anyone can actually qualify if they’re over the age of 18 and have the following:

  • A monthly annuity of a minimum of $1,000 OR $750 plus the purchase of at least $100,000 worth of real estate.

A few caveats on this visa:

  • Minor children must apply for their own visa as they cannot get residency under their parent’s pensionado visa.
  • In the past, pensionado visa holders weren’t eligible for citizenship, but now they are!
  • Also, in the past, pensionado visa holders didn’t qualify for a work permit, but I heard this has changed (check with your attorney, but I believe after living here for 10 years, they are eligible).

In 2012, Panamá introduced a new Permanent Residency option that allowed nationals of specific countries that maintain “friendly, professional, economic, and investment relationships with the Republic of Panamá” to obtain their permanent residence permits in an expedited manner.

At the time we applied, the following nations were considered friendly:

Andorra—Argentina—Australia—Austria—Belgium—Brazil—Canada—Chile—Costa Rica–Croatia—Cyprus—Czech Republic—Denmark—Estonia—Finland—France—Germany—Greece—Hong Kong—Hungary—Ireland—Israel—Japan—Latvia—Liechtenstein—Lithuania—Luxembourg—Malta—Mexico—Monaco—Montenegro—Netherlands—New Zealand—Norway—Paraguay—Poland—Portugal—San Marino—Serbia—Singapore—Slovakia—South Africa—South Korea—Spain—Sweden—Switzerland—Taiwan—United Kingdom—Uruguay

Here’s what you need to qualify for this version of the Friendly Nations Visa until August 7, 2021:

  • A valid passport that is good for 6 months beyond your arrival date
  • A set of additional passport photos
  • A reference letter from a Panamanian bank indicating an operating balance of no less than $5,000 US. (Once you get residency, you’re free to take the money back if you want.)
  • Show financial or investment ties to Panamá to establish a specific reason for wanting to settle in the country. There are two ways to do this:
    1. A Panamanian corporation in which you’re a director, officer, and stockholder (You will have to submit a copy of the Articles of Incorporation, Certificate of Good Standing from the Public Registry, and the stock certificate.)
    2. An employment contract with a Panamanian corporation. (There are several jobs that that non-citizens are not allowed to hold, so get educated on this!)
  • Provide an authenticated criminal history background report from your home country or the country where you have resided in for the past two years. (See below for the authentication procedure.)
  • Obtain an original medical examination report from a Panamanian doctor. (Your attorney takes care of this.)
  • Complete and file a formal application to be a Permanent Resident. (Your attorney will do this.)
  • A second form of identification, such as a driver’s license, identification card, citizenship card, etc.
  • Submit a sworn affidavit that explains the reasons for applying for Permanent Residency in Panama, along with a statement regarding your ability to support yourself and any dependents, if applicable. (Your attorney will supply this form. We also submitted copies of the deeds for the property we each own to strengthen our reasons.)
  • Apply for a Multiple Entry/Exit Visa so you can leave Panamá when you only have temporary residency. (Read more about this important step below!)
  • Pay two non-refundable fees—$800 to the Immigration Department (an advanced fee in case of applicant’s forced repatriation) and $250 to the National Treasury (for the immigration application fee).
  • A copy of a utility bill showing the address where you have been or will be living in Panamá (it does not need to be under your name).

Thank GOD Ken and I squeaked by on the original visa decree—it would have been very tough for us to qualify under the new one.

Even if we somehow managed to do it, it would be two years (instead of a few months) before we were granted permanent residency.

NOTE #1 — As I mentioned above, as of August 7, 2021, qualifying for the Friendly Nations Visa will become much tougher, Taiwan will no longer be on the team, and Peru is on the team.

NOTE #2 — While gathering my visa documents, I freaked out when I read on another blog that if you’re unmarried, you need to bring “confirmation of unmarried status by means of an official certificate from your country.” This is NOT true for a single, childless person applying for the Friendly Nations Visa.

NOTE #3 — Just before we left California, I freaked out again when I read a post in one of the Expat groups about a requirement to have your birth certificate apostilled. This ONLY applies to those with minor children. In the case of divorced spouses with children, there needs to be a written, notarized and apostilled authorization from the other parent to authorize the parent applying for residency to legally take them out of their country of residency.

There are several other, less common, ways to get your Panama residency, including the:

  • Study & Exchange (Student) visa
  • Professional Employment (Digital Nomad) visa
  • Reforestation visa
  • Person of Means vista
  • Business Investor visa
  • Marriage to a Panamanian citizen

Here’s a good article with more info on the most popular residency programs—Top 6 Panama Residency Programs

Finding a Panamanian Immigration Attorney

The Panama Expat groups on Facebook are an excellent place to find suggestions for qualified and honest attorneys.

In Panamá, most attorneys cover a lot of bases—immigration, real estate transactions, creating corporations, wills and trust, etc.

You must choose an attorney who can get you through the process as quickly, smoothly and inexpensively as possible and that you trust enough to grant Power of Attorney to act on your behalf. #NOPRESSURE

When my journey began back in 2017, I immediately started making a list of potential attorneys. It was quickly evident who the top dogs were.

I chose my first attorney the same way I chose my ex-husband—for safety and security instead of true love. (Although I vowed never again to do this with love, it seemed like the best way to go with my Panamanian attorney.)

The first thing I had them do for me was my Panamanian will. It was a semi-painful, totally impersonal process.

Who needs legal matters to be personal??? Me. (Have you read my other posts???)

It’s not just that I’m a big mush…it can actually help the entire process.

Despite a lot of emails going back and forth for the better part of a year, no one knew who I was or, most importantly, that I didn’t speak Spanish, when I showed up at their office.

This cost me three hours waiting in my own attorney’s lobby and another two+ hours wait on blistering hot curb outside the notary office.

Throughout the entire process my actual attorney never reached out to meet me, either virtually or in person.

That’s just not how I like to do business.

So, I decided to find an attorney of like mind to get me through the immigration process.

As often happens in situations like this, the pendulum swung waaaay too far in the other direction. 😆

Several days after my torturous will day, I sat down with a young immigration attorney who was in the very early stages of transitioning into private practice.

I fell hard…she was a woman who came with a solid recommendation who loved chatting as much as I did and our meeting ended with a hug.

It wasn’t long before the warning signs struck.

Communication was super spotty after our meeting (even messages about the FREE website I offered to do for her went unanswered…run, Janet, run!!!).

Multiple benefits of the doubt later, I WhatsApped her with a simple request…let me know when it’s time to get started so I board my flight in June with everything I need.

Fortunately, I’ve already learned not to rely on anyone but myself, so I got started when I knew it was about time to start.

When I hadn’t heard from her by February, I went back to my list of attorneys and started emailing potential candidates.

There was a clear choice.

Rosalba (“Rose”) Moreno of MovingtoPanama.net responded to my inquiry quickly and immediately sent me detailed and organized instructions that were consistent with the notes I had taken over the past several years.

Here is Rose’s bio:

Rosalba Moreno — Panama Immigration Attorney | OPERATIONEXPAT.COMRosalba Moreno
Attorney at Law & Translator

Rosalba Moreno is a Panamanian Attorney and a certified translator for Spanish and English.  She practices Immigration Law, Corporate, Business Law and Civil Litigation. She also has a background in Criminal Law and interned for Deborah Ellis in St. Paul, Minnesota one of the Top 40 Criminal Defense lawyers, according to Minnesota Law & Politics Magazine.

She holds an LLM (Master of Laws) from University of Minnesota Law School and a J.D. degree from Universidad Santa Maria La Antigua in Panama. Rose is also a Hubert. H. Humphrey Fellow Alumni, one of Fulbrights scholarships, and spent a year of mid-career interchange at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Her price was slightly higher than my other quotes (mostly because of the bank account and accountant audit fee), but my gut said not to quibble over a few hundred dollars. We got our money’s worth!

Oh, guess who contacted me in MAY…just a few WEEKS before my plane took off???

If I would have relied on the “sweetheart” attorney, I would have missed out on the current friendly Friendly Nations Visa. 😳

Here’s to TWO important life lessons that most of us have probably learned already — never surrender all of your power to anyone and the best choice is usually somewhere in the middle!

The (Now OLD) Friendly Nations Visa Process

As I mentioned above, the process below ONLY applies before August 7, 2021! (See the gold box above for the bullet points.)

 

NOTE — The following procedures are for an UNMARRIED person with NO MINOR CHILDREN. There are additional requirements if you aren’t both of these!

Rose sent very clear, strict and familiar instructions. But, reading about it and actually doing it are very different things! Here is my very best recollection of every single hoop that Ken and I jumped through:

Your passport has to be good for at least six months beyond your arrival date. Since mine would expire about eight months after my arrival date, I went ahead and renewed it before I left so I’d be good for another decade. (God bless me for doing this!!!)

Ken did the same thing with his driver’s license (brilliant man!).

We each made two copies of both IDs to add to our file along with a set of new passport photos.

You’re required to submit Identity History Summary Check (AKA Background Check) and proof of legal residency (obtained from the FBI within several months of your residency application) to the Panamanian Immigration Department.

This document must be EITHER:

  1. Apostilled by the U.S. Department of State in Washington DC; OR
  2. Authenticated by a Panamanian Consulate (your job in the U.S.), then translated and authenticated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (your attorney’s job)

An apostille is an internationally recognized form of authentication issued to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Convention of 1961) by the U.S. Department of State.

Our original plan was to use Monument Visa to complete Option 1 as they can significantly expedite the process by taking your FBI record to the State Department in person to have it apostilled.

However, they confirmed what I suspected—because of Covid, the State Department was super backlogged, so they emphatically recommended going with Option 2.

And, I quote them: “Before Covid I would definitely recommend having it apostilled through the U.S. Department of State in Washington DC. Before they closed to the public, this was always a four day process. With that office remaining closed to the public it’s now a six week or more process. …I would go directly to the Panama Consulate.”

So, that’s what we did. Here are the steps for Option 2:

STEP 1: Ordered our Identity History Summary

We did that HERE in minutes. This is all we had to do:

  1. Complete the application
  2. Choose how we wanted to submit our fingerprints (definitely choose the option of getting them done at a local branch of the USPS who will submit them electronically to the FBI as it saves significant time!)
  3. Pay the $18 fee
  4. Choose how we received our results—by email or snail mail (here’s why you choose the former straight from the FBI’s mouth: “Current processing time for Identity History Summary requests submitted electronically is estimated to be 3-5 business days upon receipt of the fingerprint card. Current processing time for Identity History Summary requests submitted via the mail is 2-4 weeks. Allow additional time for mail delivery.”)

STEP 2: Get It Fingerprinted

Who would have thought getting fingerprinted would have been so stressful???

Apparently one’s fingerprints can get worn out from age and/or major computer use. Being dehydrated also causes a problem.

Three strikes for me!!!

I literally FAILED electronic fingerprinting on my first visit.

I was told to return in two days fully hydrated and lotioned up.

I’d like to say I nailed it on my return visit, but the truth is I barely passed—but, it’s pass/fail so who the eff cares!

Within hours of leaving the post office, my complete Identity History Summary Check was in my inbox.

STEP 3: Get It Notarized

We printed out our reports and got them notarized by a local notary.

STEP 4: Send It to a Panamanian Consulate

The Panamanian Consulate in Long Beach (California) is awesome. I was stunned when a very real and knowledgeable person told me exactly what I needed to do.

We were to send them the following:

  1. A cover letter with our personal info, specific request, name and physical mailing address of our Panamanian attorney
  2. A hard notarized copy of our final FBI record
  3. A total of $115 each ($35 fee plus $80 for Fedex to Panamá)

No translations necessary as these must be done in Panamá (see Step 4)!

Mostly because of  Covid, Option 1 would have been taken 2-3 months and Option 2 ended up taking about a week.

STEP 4: Translations & Authentications in Panamá

This extra step is only required IF you did NOT have your documents apostilled by the U.S. State Department.

Our attorney translated all of the documents and took everything to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MIRE) to get officially stamped so it would be accepted by the Immigration Department.

Before the latest change to the Friendly Nations Visa requirements (effective August 20, 2021), a corporation was a major component of the residency package.

For many people, the corporation step is just a formality. But, for Ken and I, it was a legit need as we will both be running businesses here. In fact, Ken already had his corporation, so this step was just for me.

Rose made it easy—all I had to do was describe my future business activities, choose my board members, and provide three potential names for my new company.

Not long after sending her the email with all of my answers, I was a proud new mama of Escribáceo Corp, S.A., the Latin American baby sister to Scribaceous, Inc.

The tallest hurdle in the entire residency process was getting our bank accounts.

As I mentioned, Ken could only get two weeks off work, so it was imperative we got our accounts quickly—NOT an easy feat in Panamá.

Rose had us gather the following documents to provide to the bank:

  • The last two months of statements from our personal checking, savings, investment and business accounts
  • Our latest personal and business tax returns
  • Original commercial letters of recommendation from our banks and accountants
  • A personal letter indicating why we were interested in opening an account and where the current and future funds would come from

The list of preferred banks that I’d spent four years building meant nothing. Rose was in charge and she would only consider a bank that had a good track record of approving expats in 1-2 days and that had a solid online banking system.

This put Banesco in first place. Specifically, the Via España branch.

Rose did a lot of leg work before we arrived, including having her accountant audit all of our financial documents and personally visiting the bank to make the initial introductions.

It all paid off. The only reason we didn’t get an account on the first day we visited was because it was a Saturday and Banesco’s U.S. liaison had the day off. (Apparently, they didn’t get the memo that we were STRESSED OUT!)

True to her promise, our Banesco account representative called Rose first thing Monday a.m. with the fabulous news of our approval.

Three hours later, Banesco had $10,000 more in assets and Ken and I had Panamanian debit cards in our sweaty little hands.

NOTE — If you are bringing a minor child with you, both parents will also have to get their birth certificates apostilled.

Do NOT Forget the Multiple Entry/Exit Visa Stamp!

While you’re awaiting final and formal approval of your residency, you’re in residency limbo for several months.

While you’re legally allowed to reside in Panamá during this time, you’re required to have a Multiple Exit and Entry Visa stamp in your passport if you’re going to leave and come back. (Permanent residents don’t need this.)

I first learned about this crucial Panamanian stamp from a woman who posted in one of the expat groups on Facebook.

Her attorney dropped the ball and had forgotten this step and, as a result, she was slammed with a $2,000 fine when she left and returned to Panamá while her residency was processing.

Even though I was sure I wouldn’t be leaving before I received my permanent residency card, Rose insisted I get it — because you just never know if a global pandemic will hit. 😆

Rose totally handled this process for us as well and did the following:

  • Requested the multiple entrance and exit visa
  • Provided an original and copy of our passports
  • Provided two passport photos of each of us
  • Provided an original and copy of our temporary Panama ID card
  • Submitted proof of economic solvency (again)
  • Indicated the reason why we required this stamp

This was the second most nerve wracking step in our process because, for the 48 hours this is processing, we would be without our passports and Ken was completely at the mercy of the Immigration office.

Immigration pulled through for us again. They get major kudos for having the system down — which is, by the way, thanks to the two WOMEN who run the department.

UPDATE: There is a new decree as of August 2021 that changes this process a bit. Now, the Multiple Entry Visa is attached to the temporary ID and you no longer need to leave passports at Immigration for 48 hours. (Also, if people that came in before the pandemic and their police records expired during this time, they are now allowed to use a Panama Police Record.)

How Long Does It Take To Get Panamá Residency?

Well, the answer to this question has A LOT to do with how well you followed instructions, how organized, knowledgeable and savvy your attorney is, and countless other bureaucratic variables.

Ken, Rose and I nailed it, so we were done in a matter of days after our boots hit the ground running. (This was one of the only times in my life where the weekends were majorly inconvenient.)

  • Day 1 (Saturday) — We met Rose at her office to sign the Power of Attorney, go over invoices, and get an overview of what would be happening over the next few days. Afterwards, we went to Banesco to start the process of opening our bank accounts. 
  • Day 2 (Sunday) — Rest
  • Day 3 (Monday) — Rose registered us at the Immigration office, then we returned to Banesco to complete the process of opening our new accounts. 
  • Day 4 (Tuesday) — Rose delivered bank letter and other docs to Immigration office
  • Day 5 (Wednesday) — Visit Immigration office to take photo and get our temporary residency cards
  • Day 6 (Thursday) — Rose turns in our passports for the Multiple Entry/Exit visa stamp
  • Day 7 (Friday) — Wait
  • Day 8 (Saturday) — Wait
  • Day 9 (Sunday) — Rest
  • Day 10 (Monday) — Rose returns our stamped passports and we are DONE!
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