Moving to Panama
A comprehensive guide to moving to Panama
Moving to Panama is becoming increasingly popular – not only with well-to-do pensioners. The country on the isthmus between North and South America is a top destination for trade and logistic experts from around the world. InterNations GO! has compiled some useful information for expats.
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Relocating to Panama
Panama, the southernmost country of Central America, is bordered by Costa Rica in the west, Colombia in the southeast, the Caribbean Sea in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the south. It is known all around the world for the Panama Canal, which – since its completion in 1914 – has revolutionized trade and the transportation of goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific regions.
The Panama Canal still plays a uniquely important role for the Panamanian economy and is the reason behind many a foreign company’s foray to Panama. In the following, we will provide a short overview for expats moving to Panama with regard to visa requirements, health advice, and transportation in Panama.
Visa Requirements for Panama
First things first: Before going to Panama, you should of course think about visa requirements. To find out whether you need a visa or a tourist card to enter the country, you should consult the nearest Panamanian Embassy or Consulate in your country of normal residence. Citizens of the US, Canada, the EU and some other states can usually enter, and stay for 6 months, with a valid passport, an onward ticket, and proof of solvency. However, it is highly recommended to get up-to-date information well in advance.
The maximum period of stay is 30 days with a tourist visa. If you need to stay in Panama for a longer period, you can apply for an extension up to 90 days with the Servicio Nacional de Migración Panamá. Staff at the migration office will ask you to fill out a extensión de turista form (Spanish only).
Some people enter Panama on a tourist visa with the intention of staying indefinitely. You can do this legally if you leave the country for 72 hours every three months. However, please note that moving to Panama as a perpetual tourist does not entitle you to work in the country.
Work Permits for Panama
Expats coming to Panama in order to work for a foreign company, e.g. as an expert or consultant, do not usually require a work permit.
However, if you are moving to Panama in order to work for a local company, you will need a work permit. These are not easy to come by. The employment market in Panama is strictly regulated, and most companies are bound by restrictions on employing foreigners, such as the 10% rate. This is another reason why most expats find work with an international company rather than a domestic one.
The Ministry of Labor only grants work permits to people who already have a guaranteed job offer before moving to Panama. This is a significant hurdle, as your local employer has to prove that no qualified Panamanian citizen is available to do your job. However, once you have signed the contract, your future employer will act as you sponsor.
Nevertheless, expats are required to hire an attorney who will then apply for a work permit on their behalf with the Ministry of Labor. Make sure to get a qualified attorney because you rely on him or her to tell you what documents you need to submit in support of your application. The requirements vary, depending on the type of visa and work permit you are applying for. However, a health certificate and a negative HIV test are almost certainly required.
Once the work permit has been granted, your attorney can contact the Migration Department about a visa for your move to Panama. This visa will be issued for one year at a time.
Work and Residency in Panama
Foreigners with a permanent residence permit for Panama do not need a separate work permit. However, there are basically four ways to settle down permanently in Panama: You can either invest, or buy property worth 300,000 USD in Panama, or you can marry a Panamanian. Thanks to a 2012 presidential decree, citizens of 47 Panama Friendly Nations can also qualify for permanent residence, and they are able to get temporary residence- and work permits faster.
Please note that whichever route you chose in order to get a permanent visa for moving to Panama, it is likely to be a long-winded process involving lots of red tape. The good news is that if you’re staying in the country legally, you can apply for permanent residency five years after your move to Panama – even if none of the above applies.
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Panama: Visas, Transport, and Safety
Different Visas and Work Permits
The truth about Panama’s immigration laws is that they are not compiled in one section of the law, but interspersed with others. Some hark back to times when immigration laws were outright racist, seeking to exclude certain groups. Others have been passed to promote various sectors of the economy, such as tourism, scientific research, and ecological projects.
The visa types below are specifically for foreigners who are thought to benefit Panamanian society or the economy:
- Colon Free Zone Executive, i.e. foreigners exercising an executive position in a company doing business in the Colon Free Zone
- City of Knowledge Associate, i.e. a student, professor or administrator at an institution affiliated with the City of Knowledge
There are various types of visas for investors, for example:
- Business Investors must invest at least 160,000 USD in a business considered socially beneficial by the government.
- Small Investors must invest at least 40,000 USD and employ at least three Panamanians in a small business of which they are a manager.
- Tax Free Processing Zone Investors must rent land, office or a building in one of the tax free processing zones.
- Agro-forestry Investors must invest at least 80,000 USD in a reforestation project or 60,000 USD on a producing farm in Panama.
Transportation in Panama
Panama has two big international airports. Tocumen International Airport near Panama City is the largest and busiest airport in Central America, offering flights to major international destinations on a daily basis. A taxi ride into Panama City costs around 30 USD. Enrique Malek International Airport is located near David, in the west of Panama.
There is no Panama-wide rail network, but the Panama Canal Railway Company provides passenger and freight services along the Panama Canal between Panama City and Colón. The Pan-American Highway goes right through Panama, passing through Panama City and David. It ends at Yaviza, on the edge of the Darién Gap, only to continue in South America.
Road travel in general is not particularly recommended. Although Panama’s road system is reasonable, standards of driving are generally poor, and so are road maintenance and traffic management. Panama City has some forms of public transport, including a new metro system (first line completed in 2014, with a second line still under construction) and metro busses, which have come to replace the colorful “red devils” (diablos rojos), which used to haunt the streets of Panama City. When taking a taxi, make sure you only use registered yellow taxi companies. Drivers may try to pick up other travelers on the way, but strictly speaking this is not legal and you can insist on being taken to your destination first.
Safety in Panama
Panama is generally a safe country and there are no travel warnings in place. However, there is some street crime in the cities, especially in Colón. The majority of violent crime victims are members of rival street or drug gangs. If you are travelling through the country, you might want to avoid the border area with Colombia, though. Generally speaking, common sense and a sensible level of precautions should keep you out of any threatening situations.
Getting involved with drugs is one sure way of asking for trouble in Panama. Possessing even very small amounts of illegal substances can get you into prison for up to 15 years, and if you are caught in the company of someone who is using drugs you may be arrested as well. As the judicial process is reportedly very slow, it can take several months or even years before your trial gets underway.