Living and Working in Panama
It’s tough to get a permit to work in Panama. The country has high unemployment and the government wants jobs to go to Panamanians, not foreigners. However, foreign investors, entrepreneurs, and retirees are welcome to make their home in Panama if they meet certain conditions.
Coming to Panama as anything other than a tourist requires considerable paperwork, the services of a Panamanian lawyer, and certification by a Panamanian consulate. The process is time-consuming. Allow several months for the paperwork to make its way through the system, and try to get a lawyer who specializes in immigration law.
The biggest and most established law firms include: Morgan and Morgan; Galindo, Arias, and López; Arias, Fábrega, and Fábrega (ARIFA); and Icaza, González-Ruiz, y Alemán (IGRA).
A useful book for those planning a move to Panama is Living in Panama, by Sandra Snyder. It covers the daily realities of life in Panama, particularly Panama City, and includes tips on everything from registering a car to choosing a school to how to pay the phone bill.
It’s widely available in Panama or can be ordered online; visit www.livinginpanama.net. (Full disclosure: Sandra is a family friend, but her knowledge is solid. She has lived for years in Panama and is so plugged into the local scene some Panamanians turn to her for tips.)
Residency For Foreign Retirees
Foreign retirees who want to make their home in Panama must get a visa de turista pensionado (pensioned tourist visa). Retirees are required to hire a lawyer to handle the process. Fortunately, Panama wants relatively affluent retirees, so the requirements are not nearly as onerous as in some other countries.
These include a recent medical evaluation certifying the applicant is in good health, an HIV test, proof of retiree status, and a monthly pension of at least US$500, plus US$100 for each dependent the retiree wants to bring along. The dependents also need a clean bill of health. The applicant must also show proof of not having a police record back home.
The lawyer will explain the kind of documentation needed, as well as the photos, passport photocopies, and other bureaucratic fodder that must be supplied.
Benefits of turista pensionado status, besides the right to live in Panama, include the right to import up to US$10,000 worth of possessions for personal use duty-free, as well as the duty-free import of a vehicle every two years. A huge plus for retirees, both foreign and domestic, is discounts at restaurants and hotels, for transportation and many medical services, and for some financial dealings. These can range from 10 percent to 50 percent.
Retirees are allowed to invest in Panama, but are not allowed to work except under certain special circumstances.
Work Permits, Temporary Visitor Visas, and Immigrant Visas
Work permits are generally only granted if a Panamanian company has offered the applicant a job, and even then only if it can be proved no Panamanian could do that job. The permits are issued by Panama’s labor ministry, El Ministerio de Trabajo y Desarrollo Laboral, and getting one requires a good Panamanian attorney. The applicant must then apply for a temporary visitor visa, again with legal help.
Executives who want to work in the Zona Libre de Colón, technical and scientific experts, and qualified candidates interested in working at one of the Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge) projects have the best chance of being approved.
Investors who want to live and do business in Panama must meet several other conditions, not the least of which is a commitment to invest at least US$40,000 in capital and hire at least three Panamanian employees.
Anyone with assets of at least US$200,000 in a Panamanian bank account can apply for an immigrant visa, even without job prospects.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition