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.
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.
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.
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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