In my early years writing for International Living, I researched most of the countries drawing expats today. The different options for residence always caught my eye. One country welcomed retirees with a special visa. But the fine print? “Foreigners can own construction, but not the land it is built on.”
Another country offered 10-year visas, but not permanent residence. (And you had to show a monthly income of over $3,000.) Yet another had a worrisome track record: it changed its retiree residence program and failed to grandfather in existing members. Meaning a large group of expats was suddenly living abroad sans legal status.
Now, no visa is perfect. Virtually any residence program is going to take some time and patience…there will be paperwork to file and fees to pay. But all are not created equal. And it’s precisely in the “residence programs” category that Panama outshines its rivals.
If you’re from the U.S. or Canada, you won’t need a visa to visit for up to 90 days. (And there are others on the visa waiver list, as Panama maintains friendly relations with a long list of countries.) Panama even issues free travel insurance to visiting tourists.
But if you’re interested in making it permanent, you’re sure to find a residence option that meets your needs. Panama is best known for its Pensionado or Pensioner Residence Program. If you have a lifetime pension of at least $1,000 a month, you can apply for permanent residence. The program also entitles pension-holding retirees to a long list of discounts…and I’m talking across the board. From medical expenses to entertainment, retirees in Panama can seriously stretch their dollars.
The most important point about the Pensionado: the government has pledged to allow residents to keep their status, even if the rules change further on down the line. A promise Panama kept when, about five years ago, it made changes to the program.
Expats of all ages are being welcomed these days, so no worries if you’re not quite ready to retire. Panama’s newest residence options include a program for nationals of more than 40 countries that are on good terms with Panama. Known as the “Friends of Panama” visa, it doesn’t ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “investments.” Requirements are straightforward and include a local bank account with a balance of at least $5,000. You must also do one of the following: buy real estate, start a business, or get a job here.
The Friends of Panama program is one of the world’s least expensive. But if even that’s too rich for your blood, there’s another Professional Resident option that welcomes college grads to Panama. That’s right, you must have a degree—at least a Bachelor’s or equivalent—in order to apply. You must also hold down a job here, in any of a variety of professions (excluding those reserved for nationals, such as brokering real estate,).
There are other programs, too. A good Panamanian attorney—well versed in immigration law—can help you choose the best option for you. In some cases you can have your legal residence in as little as six months (from time of application). And you can stay in Panama while your application is being processed, if you wish.
Of course ease of obtaining residence won’t have any bearing on whether or not you’ll actually be happy in your adopted country.
If you daydream about sunshine, tropical beaches, and welcoming locals, then possibly Panama is for you. If you know yourself well…and you know you don’t do well without modern amenities, then Panama is probably for you. And if you consider a solid, growing economy and stable, business-friendly government to be essential to a free and happy life, then Panama may be a perfect fit.
The country has beaten out neighbors time and time again, topping indexes for everything from its excellent Internet and cellular coverage to its rock solid infrastructure. If all that sounds good to you, maybe add “visit Panama” to your New Year’s resolutions. (And picture yourself on the beach this time next year.)
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Panama and other countries in IL’s daily postcard e-letter. Sign up here for these free daily postcards and we’ll send you a FREE REPORT – Panama: First World Convenience at Third World Prices