Mar 15, 2017

Panamanian Immigration Policies

Haven't been in the mood to blog for some time.  Got quite involved in the US general election and then quite depressed with its outcome.  Reserved my ranting and raving for facebook and had nothing additional or positive to post.  I figure enough disenchanted citizens will be jumping Ship USA as is,  and have just been hoping we get the liberals and democrats here in Boquete.  Lord knows we don't need any more Trump supporters.  Many are returning home, and my best wishes accompany them!

As a result of the new administration's attitudinal changes toward immigrants and foreign visitors, a backlash has been brewing  abroad.  Panama is no exception.  I expected it would happen. The primary impact is occurring at the fronteras as immigration officials tighten down on perpetual tourists.  But I'm also hearing stories of unpleasant encounters with Panamanian traffic police over routine, previously overlooked driving issues.  Just yesterday,  someone who knows someone I know had their car confiscated when they forgot to take their driver's license along on a short run into David.  In an area replete with forgetful retirees, this sort of matter used to be handled with patience and tolerance.  Usually, the driver would be stopped and allowed to call a friend to meet them and drive their car home.  This time the rules were strictly enforced.  The driver was ticketed, the car towed, an it took a full day and about $250 to locate the car and get possession of it back.   What goes around comes around, and I was fearing we would see changes in attitudes here as well. 

Today, the US Embassy sent out an email to all expat residents and "wannabe residents" in Panama. It discusses a tightening of immigration policies here in Panama and addresses frequently asked questions newbies might have. I've done a cut and paste below:

Seal with white background
U.S. Embassy in Panama
Message for U.S. Citizens
March 15, 2017
The U.S. Embassy in Panama would like to inform all U.S. Citizens in Panama that on March 6th 2017, the Panamanian Immigration Authority (Servicio Nacional de Migracion-SNM) announced new guidance for Panamanian immigration officials on the enforcement of pre-existing regulations.  According to the SNM, immigration officials have been instructed to be stricter about the enforcement of the regulation that foreigners entering Panama with tourist status prove that they are in fact entering Panama as tourists and not residing in Panama. Since the announcement, the Consular Section has received many questions from U.S. citizens about this new guidance.  Below are the most frequently asked questions along with the responses the Consular Section received from the SNM.  Should you have further questions, please reach out to the SNM directly via phone at 507-1800 or visit their website at:
In order to re-enter Panama on tourist status, does a U.S. Citizen need to return to their country of origin (the country from which they came into Panama) or can they return from a third-country (example: Costa Rica)?
Answer:  In the new guidance SNM does not specify if the tourist needs to return his/her country of origin. What is being implemented is that, in most cases, the person needs to leave Panama for a minimum of 30 days before reentering as a tourist.
In order for a person to re-enter Panama on tourist status, what is the minimum amount of time the person needs to spend outside of Panama?
Answer: The new requirement that is being implemented by SNM in reference to time spent out of Panama is a minimum of 30 days before applying for admission, in most cases.
In order for a person to re-enter Panama on mariner visa status, what is the minimum amount of time the person needs to spend outside of Panama.
Answer: According to SNM, mariner visas are valid for 90 days and must be renewed on the 90th day, or the day before, from the date of the previous mariner visa stamp.  Mariner visas can only be renewed once before the visa- holder needs to exit Panama.  The amount of time the person with the mariner visa needs to stay outside of Panama is not specified by SNM. 
If entering Panama on tourist status, does the method of entry need to match the method of exit (i.e. can a U.S. Citizen enter Panama on a plane and use as proof of exit evidence that they own a boat in Panama and plan to exit via boat)?
Answer: The method of entry and exit into and out of Panama does not have to be the same so long as the entries and departures are met legally by using established Ports of Entry - land, maritime or air and admitted by a Panamanian immigration officer.
Do U.S. Citizens with legal Panamanian residency status also require a roundtrip ticket when entering Panama?
Answer: No.  A foreigner with legal residence in Panama does not need to show proof of exit from Panama. 
Is a person applying for Panamanian residency required to stay in Panama for the entire duration of time required to complete the residency process? If so, what happens if the process takes more than the allotted six months for tourist status.
Answer: If the person has an ID that shows that his/her residency is in process, the person is fine to leave and return to Panama.  If there is no ID, then the person should exit as a tourist (i.e., before the sixth month approaches).
How long does the FBI Identification Record process, required for purposes of obtaining residency in Panama, take? Can this process be expedited?
Answer: For information on the FBI identification record process, individuals may visit  According to the FBI website, the current turnaround estimate for these records is 12 to 14 weeks plus the amount of time the results may take to arrive in the mail.  Currently there is no option to receive the response electronically. For questions on this topic, individuals may call (304) 625-5590 or write an email to
Tourists are only allowed to drive in Panama for 90 days.  Is there an exception for this given that tourists are allowed to stay in Panama for 180 days?
Answer: According to the Transit authority ( Artículo 110) foreigners that enter Panama as tourists are not permitted to obtain Panamanian drivers’ licenses and are only allowed to drive with a foreign license for 90 days.  There are no exceptions to this rule.
Can SNM waive the FBI Identification Record process if a person does not exit Panama for two years? If so, would there be an exception to the 180 day stay limit for tourists for a person trying to obtain this waiver?
Answer: If a person stays in Panama for more than two years then the FBI requirement does not apply.  The waiver of the FBI requirement applies to those people that stay in Panama two years, without exiting.  In these cases, a fine is paid by the person for overstaying their tourist visa and the person is only required to present a PNM police record rather than the FBI check.

In all fairness I must admit that other factors probably also played into Panama's determination to implement established immigration policies.  The country has suffered (along with Costa Rica) surges of refugees and immigrants fleeing war-torn and repressive governments in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.  The majority of those passing through the isthmus were heading to the USA.  The numbers mounted as Obama was completing his last term and in anticipation of a stricter stance with the incoming president.  Matters were complicated when Nicaragua  refused to allow passage through its territories on the journey.  Costa Rica became backlogged with refugees and then tightened it's border and the domino effect started to hit Panama. 

It's not a good time to relocate to Panama unless you plan to do so legally and pay the associated costs.  A conservative estimate of government and legal fees for a pensionado visa is about $2000, in my humble opinion.  The pensionado visa is the easiest and cheapest way to establish residency, to the best of my (inexpert) knowledge.   It requires an FBI background check, miscellaneous filings with local government agencies, and takes about 6 months to complete.

My understanding of current Panamanian immigration policy is that a tourist visa is granted for only 3 months instead of 6 months as previously practiced, and upon leaving Panama, a tourist has to wait 30 days prior to re-entering again as a tourist.    I admit I am somewhat out of the loop regarding what is actually being implemented at the borders, but a television video from 2 weeks ago reported that 300 Venezuelans were turned back at the border because their passport activity was suspicious for perpetual tourist border-hopping practices.  

I guess all good things must end someday, as the song goes.