How to get a residency visa if you can't be a pensionado

Wednesday, September 29 2004 @ 10:49 PM UTC

Contributed by: susangg

HOW TO GET PANAMANIAN RESIDENCY IF YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR THE PENSIONADO VISA


What if you don’t have a corporate “pension” and you’re too young for Social Security? Without one or the other, you are ineligible for the “Pensionado” visa. But there are several other ways to get a permanent residency visa, and some of them even allow you to eventually become a Panamanian citizen, if you so desire. All are a bit more complicated than the Pensionado visa process, will take longer, and will cost a bit more money in legal fees. This is a brief summary of the main requirements and benefits for several visa alternatives that may be available to you. It is not all-inclusive, and its primary purpose is to prepare you for meeting with a competent Panamanian lawyer experienced in handling visa proceedings for expats. You absolutely require a lawyer to get a residency visa. Please note that besides the alternatives described here, you can also obtain legal residence by marrying a Panamanian or by demonstrating that you are entitled to Panamanian citizenship. If you think either of those apply to you, see a lawyer.

It is important to remember that the government may, and sometimes does, change the rules for these residency visas. For example, in January of 2004, the amounts required for the business investor and small business investor visas were increased from $100,000 to $150,000 and from $10,000 to $40,000 respectively. This could happen again.


PRELIMINARY REQUIREMENTS THAT APPLY TO EVERYBODY

Things you will need to get regardless of which visa alternative you select

Each type of visa will require specific types of documents that your lawyer will explain to you. But there are certain things that you will have to obtain regardless of which procedure you select. There are time requirements for some of these things, and your lawyer will explain those to you, to make sure that your documentation is not “stale” when it is presented.

Things you will have to get from your home country:

1. Your passport must have at least six months before it expires
2. You will need a letter from your local police department confirming that you do not have a criminal record. (Traffic violations won’t disqualify you but if you have more serious convictions, you will need to discuss this issue with your lawyer). If you have difficulty getting this letter from your local police or sheriff’s department, you can also contact the US Department of Justice, submit a fingerprint, and get a federal clearance letter.
3. If your want your spouse to get a visa also, you must provide a certified copy of your marriage certificate, and your spouse must also have an up to date passport and a police clearance.




Authentication or apostille

All documents you must produce from your home country (including the above and any other documents that your lawyer tells you to provide) EXCEPT your passport, which is self-authenticating, must be notarized and “authenticated.” There are two ways you can authenticate your documents: (1) you can have them authenticated by a Panamanian Consul in your home country: or (2) you can have them apostilled. Most countries (including Panama and the USA) have signed on to the Hague Convention on Apostille. The apostille is a (nearly) universal procedure for accepting another country’s notary seals. If you live in the USA, your home state’s secretary of state will apostille your notarized document. Go to your state’s web site and search for “apostille.” If your state doesn’t have a web site, call the state information office and ask who handles apostilles, call that office for instructions. If you are a US citizen, be aware that each state has its own procedures and requirements for issuing an apostille, and you must read the instructions carefully.

Things you will have to get while in Panama:

1. You will need a “good health letter” and an AIDS test (with a negative result) from a Panamanian doctor. Any local doctor can provide this. “Good health” for visa purposes is defined as not having any communicable diseases, and particularly, venereal disease. Having a physical disability or chronic non-communicable illness will not disqualify you from getting a visa.
2. Proof of legal visitor status in Panama: You must be in Panama legally. If you have overstayed your tourist or temporary visa, fix the problem before applying for a residency visa.
3. You will need 4-6 “passport” photos (but they will also take photos of you at Immigration).

Time Line:

For these visas, when you and your lawyer submit the paperwork, you and your dependents will receive a 3 month temporary residence card called a “carnet.” By the end of those 3 months, the paperwork “should” be completed and you will receive either your cedula or a one-year temporary residency permit (depending on the program under which you are applying). If for some reason, the Immigration Department hasn’t approved your application, you will return to the Immigration office and get another 3-month card. If you plan to travel to and from Panama during this time, you should ask for a “multiple entry permit” and pay a fee for same.

Important warnings:

1. NEVER take legal advice about immigration matters from someone who is trying to sell you something. Stockbrokers and real estate agents and land developers are not qualified to give legal advice, though they often pretend they are. Never buy anything if your reason for purchasing is to get a visa until after you have retained immigration counsel and discussed your proposed investment with him or her.
2. Do hire an immigration lawyer who comes highly recommended by at least one or two other expats who have used him or her. Do not merely pick the lawyer who offers the cheapest rate. Price of legal service is certainly a factor, but should not be the sole factor in your selection.
3. Avoid “ten percenters.” These are gringos based in the USA (or maybe Canada or England) who purport to offer “full services” to expats, including real estate and legal services. Typically they work on commission as shills for Panamanian lawyers. It is unethical for a Panamanian lawyer to accept commissions from non lawyers and a lawyer who will do that is not the kind of lawyer you want representing you.
4. Avoid immigration lawyers who tell you they can get things done faster or better, or can “get around” legal requirements because of their “connections.” They can’t, and their willingness to pretend they can means that you are likely to be ripped off.
5. When asking for a fee and costs quote from an attorney, be sure to inquire about the total costs, not only the fees and costs for the initial application. Some of these visa alternatives require one, two, or more temporary visas, with repeated submissions of documentation and investigation before permanent residency is obtained, and your lawyer will charge you fees at each step of the process.


A FEW VISA ALTERNATIVES

THE SELF SUFFICIENT RETIREE (“RENTISTA”) VISA

This visa offers some of the benefits of the Pensionado visa to someone who does not have a corporate or government “pension,” but has access to a lot of liquid assets and can afford to let the cash sit in a time deposit account. To qualify for this visa, you must deposit sufficient funds in a 5 year CD with the National Bank of Panama to earn at least $750 per month in interest. Given the current low interest rates, this will probably require from $200,000 to $250,000. Like the Pensionado resident, this visa will allow you to import a car duty-free every two years and enjoy a one time duty-free importation of $10,000 worth of household goods. However, unlike the Pensionado visa, this program does not offer a truly “permanent” visa. You will get a 5-year residence permit. At the end of that time, if you want to renew your permit, you must also renew your CD. And, like the Pensionado visa holder, this visa does not allow you to apply for Panamanian citizenship. Your investment must be in the name of the primary applicant and not in the name of a corporation or trust. The interest payments may be deposited into the Panamanian bank of your choice, and you can save or spend it as you like. Panama will not tax you on this interest.

CAVEAT: Some stockbrokers are trying to sell securities to expats by promising them that some of the funds required to obtain this visa can be invested in Panamanian securities. Do not buy securities based on such a representation. Stockbrokers are not competent to advise you on such matters. Do not make any investments or purchases until you have retained a lawyer and your lawyer has advised you on what is and isn’t acceptable to the government.


THE ECONOMIC SOLVENCY (BANK DEPOSIT) VISA

To obtain this visa, you must deposit a minimum of $200,000 into any licensed Panamanian bank with a 2-year CD, plus an additional $5,000 for each dependent for whom you are applying for residency. The funds must be in the name of the primary applicant personally, and not in the name of a corporation or trust. The interest can be deposited into any Panamanian bank and you can save or spend it as you like. It is not subject to Panamanian income tax. Once your application is processed and approved, you will get a one-year residency permit. At the end of that year, you will receive permanent residency and a cedula. After 5 years, you will be eligible to apply for Panamanian residency.

See the CAVEAT above re brokerage accounts.

THE REFORESTATION INVESTOR VISA

This visa requires you to invest a minimum of $40,000 in a government-approved reforestation program. It is one of the easiest ways to get a visa because of the relatively small amount of money required up front. However, there will be additional funds required yearly to pay your share of the maintenance expenses of your reforestation land; the amount will vary depending on which program you invest in. And do not expect to see a return on your investment for many years, because the trees that will be planted on your land take a very long time to mature. After initial approval, you will receive a temporary one-year visa; at the conclusion of that year, you will be able to receive a permanent residency and a cedula. After five years, you may apply for Panamanian citizenship if you desire.

CAVEAT: There are very few Panamanian reforestation companies that have obtained final government approval for their projects, and are able to offer you full title to your property. It takes a long time for the government to approve a reforestation project. Do not invest in a reforestation project until your immigration lawyer has investigated the project and has confirmed that it is government approved and that you will receive title upon completion of the purchase. There are many people purporting to sell reforestation land to expats seeking immigration visas whose projects are not yet approved by the government and whose land is not titled. Also, if the environment matters to you, do not invest in a “monoculture” project; meaning one that only plants one kind of tree on the land.


THE BUSINESS INVESTOR VISA

To obtain this visa, you must make an investment of at least $150,000 in a business that employs at least three Panamanians, who must be enrolled in the Seguro Social system. The investment must be made by the primary applicant for the visa. If the business is a corporation, the primary applicant must prove ownership of at least $150,000 worth of “shares” in the corporation that owns the business. In other words, if the business has $200,000 worth of corporate stock and it is jointly owned by husband and wife, neither will qualify for this visa. To avoid having to restructure the corporation, it is advisable to retain immigration counsel before the corporation is formed. The business must have a business license and all applicable permits required for that type of business. You must show at least 3 months of payments to Seguro Social for the three employees at the time the papers are submitted to Immigration. You will have to provide your lawyer with copies of the corporate formation and documents and share certificates proving the primary applicant’s ownership of the shares, and documentary evidence of their value. An accountant may be required (your lawyer should be able to find you one.) After your initial application is approved, you will get a temporary visa good for one year. When that year is up, the Immigration Department will review your paperwork and you will have to demonstrate that you are still in business, still have three employees on Seguro and have paid all required business taxes. You will then receive your permanent residency and cedula. After 5 more years, you will be eligible to apply for Panamanian citizenship if you so desire.

CAVEATS: This is a good way to obtain a visa if you are interested in going into business in Panama and believe you can earn a more than you would by keeping money in a bank CD. It is not the easiest way to get a visa; don’t do it unless you want to be in business in Panama. Also, beware of real estate hucksters who try to sell you real estate and tell you “this property comes with a Panamanian corporation and you are eligible for a visa.” That is NOT true; you aren’t eligible for a visa merely because you invest in real estate; don’t take legal advice from real estate agents or property sellers.

THE SMALL BUSINESS INVESTMENT VISA

This is similar to the regular business investment visa (see above) but it only requires an investment of $40,000, rather than $150,000. Most of the requirements are the same as the regular investment visa, but it will take you 3 additional years to get permanent residency. When your application is approved, you will get a one-year residency visa, after which you must demonstrate that you are still in compliance with the requirements. This process will be repeated three more times. The government scrutinizes small business investment visa applicants very carefully because immigration officials believe that many of these applications are fraudulent. After you have successfully renewed your one year visa three times and passed a final re investigation, you will be given permanent residency. After five more years, you will be eligible to apply for Panamanian citizenship.

THE AGRICULTURAL INVESTOR (“IMMIGRANT FARMER”) VISA

To obtain this visa, you must own and operate a working, productive farm, and be certified by the Panamanian Ministry of Agriculture as being competent and experienced in Panamanian agriculture. It takes up to 8 years to obtain permanent residence in this manner, and your farm and farming credentials will be repeatedly inspected. Upon initial approval, you will receive a one-year provisional visa. At the conclusion of that year (and another inspection) you will receive a two-year provisional visa. At the conclusion of the two years (and another evaluation) you will receive a five-year provisional visa. Only after that 5-year period has been completed will you be eligible for permanent residency and a cedula; and another 5 years is needed before you can apply for Panamanian citizenship.

CAVEAT: This visa takes longer to obtain than any of the other visa alternatives. Because it does not require a minimum dollar investment, it can cost less in upfront funds than some of the other alternatives, but legal fees will be high due to the requirement for repeat temporary visa renewals and reinspections. Do not invest in a farm merely to get a visa; there are easier, faster and cheaper ways to do this; and discuss this and other options carefully with your attorney before purchasing anything.

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