UPDATE! This information turned out to be incorrect. The change is only for people from countries that have to apply for a visa before being allowed in Panama. It does not apply to people from the US, Canada, and the many other countries who have a reciprocal agreement with Panama. See the later post here.
President Varela published a decree on January 10th that stated the tourist visa would be 90 days (it used to be 180 days). If you are applying for residency you can get permission to be here for 6 months (it used to be a year).
What does this mean? TIP (this is Panama) and no one knows exactly. But it looks like Panama is trying to discourage the permanent tourist thing.
Up until now, it has been possible to stay in Panama for 180 days, leave for a while, then return and get another 180 days. “A while” is ambiguous. It used to be that it could be done in a day, checking out of Panama and into Costa Rica, and then immediately reversing the process and checking out of Costa Rica and back into Panama. Now it is usually at least overnight, or sometimes 72 hours before the officials will let you back into Panama. 72 hours is said to be the official rule but nobody can find where this rule is written down.
Now, however, tourists get a visa for 90 days. What happens after 90 days? Can you make a “border run” and get another 90 days? (not a change for many since your foreign drivers license is only good for 90 days) At first it looked like $50 would get you an extension for 6 months but on careful reading, it looks like this only applies to people waiting to get their residency application processed so it wouldn’t apply to tourists.
The decree is here.
Article 1, in my best attempt to translate says –
The immigration authorities of the National Immigration service will issue a tourist visa valid for a term of no more than ninety days, if the foreigner complies with the requirements (loosely translated) of international agreements with Panama and reciprocal principals.
The National Immigration Service will issue a card of transit for 6 months for foreigners who have presented a request in the categories and subcategories of temporary residents and permanent residents. (article 2 says this costs $50)
There is a news article in English here.
Is this a good thing? There have been a lot of people coming here from Colombia and Venezuela and Panamanians are afraid of that effect on the country, especially if they are poor and don’t have means to take care of themselves of they get into trouble. A tourist also isn’t subjected to any background checks. Even expats from the US have gotten sick without the means to pay and then became a drain on the health care system, or there have been criminals, or people running from creditors.
I’m glad we are legal residents here. I know the process is tedious and costs money, but now we don’t have to worry about any of this. I feel good that we have made this commitment to the country we love. If you plan to live here as a permanent tourist, it is probably a very good idea to have a Plan B in case this becomes no longer possible.