Visas, Residency, Citizenship…What Does it all Mean?

Unraveling the mysteries of paperwork abroad

If you don’t have much experience traveling to other countries, trying to decipher the documentation required can be daunting. Here is a brief primer to help you put together the pieces.

  • Passport – A Passport is an official document issued by your government, certifying your identity and citizenship and entitling you to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries. There is a fee for this document and it has to be renewed every 10 years or so, depending on your home country and age. Everyone that travels to and from another country must have a passport. If you are from the U.S., Canada, E.U., or Australia this document is all you need to bring, along with your return airline or bus ticket, to enter and leave Panama.
    • Panamanian law requires that travelers present a passport that has a remaining validity of at least three months. Tourists from the above mentioned countries, arriving by air or road, are permitted to stay in Panama for 180 days without obtaining a formal visa.
    • Do not confuse a Passport with a “Passport Card”. A Passport Card allows the holder to enter the United States only by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It is often used by people who go on vacation cruises. It will not get you into Panama.
    • While in Panama, every tourist should carry a copy of their passport with the entry stamp in it at all times. Only original documents are accepted at entry and exit points.
  • Visa – A visa is a sticker or stamp affixed to your passport. It grants you the right to enter a country, either as a one-time entry, multiple entries, or for a specific length of time. As mentioned above, some countries do not require a visa to visit Panama for up to 180 days, including the US, Canada, and the EU. If you will be staying longer than 180 days or are from another country not mentioned above, you will require a visa to gain entry. A visa is obtained from an Embassy or Consulate office and there are many types of visas depending on the reason for your stay (for example, student, tourist, or work visas).Keep in mind that while some tourists may be permitted to stay in Panama for up to 180 days without a visa, currently foreigners are only allowed to drive in Panama using their valid foreign driver’s license for 90 days.
  • Tourist Visa – A tourist visa may be required in Panama if your visit is longer than 3 days. Again, if you are from the US, Canada, Australia, or the EU your tourist visa is essentially the entry stamp you get in your passport when you arrive in Panama via plane, car or bus. If you plan to stay longer than 180 days, you will have to leave Panama and go to another country for 72 hours. When you return to Panama you will get a new entry stamp valid for another 180 days. There are some ‘perpetual tourist’ in Panama who live there by traveling to Costa Rica every 3 -6 months to keep prolonging their stay indefinitely.
    • If you arrive as a tourist in Panama via your private boat, there is currently an entry permit fee of $105 which will allow you to stay for up to 3 months and can be extended for up to 2 years through an approved application with the immigration authorities.
    • Tourist visa holders are not allowed to engage in any paid activity in Panama.
  • Temporary Resident Visa – There are different types of temporary resident visas. These visas are usually for a specific length of time and are renewable. They are sometimes issued for work or study reasons. Some may require a bank statement proving a minimum monthly deposit or have other requirements. You will need to consult with a Panamanian attorney to acquire this visa and they will advise you on the specific type needed for your purposes and what the requirements are. Plan ahead because these could take as long as a few months to obtain.
  • Permanent Resident Visa – Permanent residency may be granted if you are married to a citizen of Panama or if you’ve resided legally for a number of years as a temporary resident. It is not an obligation. Panama has made permanent residency very attractive by offering tax breaks and other incentives. If you decide to become a permanent resident there are numerous visa options available. Again, you should consult with a reputable Panamanian attorney who has experience with immigration questions.
    • You can be a resident of Panama and a citizen of your home country at the same time. Residency simply means you have the right to live (reside) in a country. If you are originally from the United States and continue to file your tax returns every year, your citizenship is not affected. It does not matter where you live or how long you’re away. Therefore, establishing residency overseas is not an issue for Uncle Sam or your social security check.
  • Panamanian Citizenship – Establishing residency overseas is one thing – to establish citizenship is another. You may request to become a citizen of Panama by naturalization if you have had formal residency in Panama for 5 consecutive years, or you have had formal residency in Panama for 3 consecutive years and have children born in Panama by a Panamanian parent.There may be advantages to establishing dual citizenship, which means being a citizen of more than one country. Many people take this route. You may also have reasons to become a citizen of Panama exclusively and choose to renounce the citizenship of your current home country. This is an option to consider carefully.Contact a Panamanian attorney for assistance with this process. They will advise you of the consequences and/or benefits of becoming a citizen of Panama so you can make an informed decision.

I hope this has given you a clearer picture of the different types of documentation used when traveling and living in Panama or any other country other than your current home. I will continue to post articles with updates as well as the step-by-step processes involved in getting these documents and others.