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Message from U.S. Embassy re Immigration


Bonnie

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This arrived this afternoon from the Embassy:

 

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: http://www.migracion.gob.pa

 

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 https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/identity-history-summary-checks.  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 identity@ic.fbi.gov

 

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 (http://www.transito.gob.pa/sites/default/files/reglamento_decreto_640..pdf 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.

 

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I don't understand the answer to the last question. It suggests that one can have a tourist visa for two years if they just pay the overstay charge. Doesn't this contradict the requirement that anyone on a tourist has to leave for one month every 180 days? Anyone reading it differently? Should I inquire further of the Embassy?

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Another question that occurs to me is how to deal with the driver's license issue. Can one drive for only 90 of the 180 days? It would appear so. Or is there a way to reset the driver's license without leaving the country for a month?

Also, at what point in the resident visa process does one receive the temporary visa allowing that person to stay in the country until the final visa is issued? When one first begins the process, or when all documentation has been gathered and submitted?

Let me know other questions and answers that aren't clear to you so maybe I can seek clarification in just one email.

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So let me try out this scenario (which is hopefully ours).  After several years of annual vacations, we arrive for a 3 month trial life sometime later this year.  Just before the end of the 3 months, we decide whether to apply for pensionado visa and engage a lawyer or go home.  If we stay, at that point, instead of making a "hop" like the olden days, what i understand from some sources but not others, is that our lawyer can issue a statement at some nominal cost that allows us to remain for the duration of the process without risk, and either a) continue to drive legally on our US drivers license, or b) do the work to obtain a Panamanian license, or c) still not be able to drive legally until the process is concluded and we are residents eligible to apply for a drivers license. Which is true?

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4 hours ago, Bill Uhlman said:

So let me try out this scenario (which is hopefully ours).  After several years of annual vacations, we arrive for a 3 month trial life sometime later this year.  Just before the end of the 3 months, we decide whether to apply for pensionado visa and engage a lawyer or go home.  If we stay, at that point, instead of making a "hop" like the olden days, what i understand from some sources but not others, is that our lawyer can issue a statement at some nominal cost that allows us to remain for the duration of the process without risk, and either a) continue to drive legally on our US drivers license, or b) do the work to obtain a Panamanian license, or c) still not be able to drive legally until the process is concluded and we are residents eligible to apply for a drivers license. Which is true?

Bill, the "statement at nominal cost" you reference is the temporary visa you receive while yours is being processed. You can get a Panamanian driver's license with a temporary visa. The question is at what point in the process is the temporary visa issued?

Before you arrive in Panama you would be well-advised to get all your documentation together: your FBI check, your marriage license apostiled, etc. The sooner all this can be given to your attorney and the process begun, the sooner you can get your driver's license and then your resident visa.

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FWIW,  before arriving in Panama for the first (and only) time in 2013, we had conversed extensively with both the Panamanian Embassy in Canada as well as our Panamanian lawer, Mario Fonseca (I dont think he has any connection to Mossack Fonseca).  With their help I managed to get all of the necessary documents together, got them apostilled by the Canadian government and couriered them down to Mr. Fonseca.  He checked them over and said we had everything needed.  After arrival we spent three days in Panama City during which time Mr Fonseca or one of his assistants ferried us around the City to various government departments.  At the end of the third day we both had our one year temporary carnets (Pensionado cards). We did have a bit of a problem in the ensuing months due to the fact that the Panamanian govt. did not recognise my pension source as coming from a government agency, but once we got that figured out everything else went smoothly and we had our permanent cards after 8 months.  As for driving on your "home" licence I am a bit fuzzy on that.  When we went to Sertacen (?) to check on a Panamanian licence one of the ladies there enquied why we did not already have a Panamanian licence - can't remember when that was in the process.  Anyway, we did go through the process and got our Panamanian licences a short time later.  The first one had an expiration date that coincided with the expiration date of our temporary carnet.  After the permanent carnet arrived our next licences were for 4 years.

upshot of the story is that it is easily possible to have everything done before arrival and if that is done then the process should go easily.  The SNAFU with my pension income showed how the govt. is VERY strict with paperwork and will not brook even the slightest deviation from the "norm".

Just our experience from 4 years ago, as usual, YMMV.

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My memory bank (Jocie, my wife) just kicked in.  When we first went to enquire about driver's licences we picked up the pamphlet explaining what was needed.  One of those things was having our licences certified by the Canadian govt., so I had to go to Panama City, get that done then off to the appropriate Panamanian department on the Tumba Muerta (?) to register the certification.  After receiving their blessing (and yet another stamped document) we could then get our Panamanian licences.  An aquaintance of mine tried to get around that by making a scene at the David licence office.  It did not go well.  As I said above, Panama has rules and you have to cross every "t" and dot every "i" or you won't get the desired result.  Do that and everything will go smoothly.  Don't know about other Countries, but I was able to get both my and Jocie's drivers licences certified by myself, they did not need both of us there.

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11 hours ago, Bonnie said:

I don't understand the answer to the last question. It suggests that one can have a tourist visa for two years if they just pay the overstay charge. Doesn't this contradict the requirement that anyone on a tourist has to leave for one month every 180 days? Anyone reading it differently? Should I inquire further of the Embassy?

Bonnie, the answer also says not leaving the country during the two years when I understood you could leave for 30 days. And, do you pay the fine each month after the 180 days? 

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I have in writing from our attorney,  that if  you have lived in Panama for more than two  years without going out of Panama for 30 continues days or more, the applicant can use a Panamanian Police Report. There is no mention of a fine! That is the first we have heard of that.

I have sent this statement on to our attorney, as it does not agree with the US Embassy statement:

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.

Surely there is a disconnect!

 

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11 hours ago, Bonnie said:

Bill, the "statement at nominal cost" you reference is the temporary visa you receive while yours is being processed. You can get a Panamanian driver's license with a temporary visa. The question is at what point in the process is the temporary visa issued?

Before you arrive in Panama you would be well-advised to get all your documentation together: your FBI check, your marriage license apostiled, etc. The sooner all this can be given to your attorney and the process begun, the sooner you can get your driver's license and then your resident visa.

Hi Bonnie, yes, that was what i was referencing. So if the temporary visa is issued after the submission of the documents you referenced, then waiting till the 90 day stay is over to decide, ensures that there will be a period of no driving. it would require arriving for the trial visit with the documents in hand - which is good to know.

 

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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.

 

I received this response from our attorney via email:

Good day 
 
Law says 
 
2 years without going out for more than 30 continues days
 
We confirmed yesterday with immigration that the criteria is still the same

 

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1 hour ago, TwoSailors said:

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.

 

I received this response from our attorney via email:

Good day 
 
Law says 
 
2 years without going out for more than 30 continues days
 
We confirmed yesterday with immigration that the criteria is still the same

 

But my point is that the criteria don't make sense. What's to prohibit each and every person on a tourist visa from overstaying just by paying the fine. This seems to defeat the purpose of busting "perpetual tourists." How can anyone on a tourist visa not exit Panama for two years without violating the law? If the fine is paid at the end of the two-year period, isn't that person at risk of being deported after the first 180 days? What am I missing here?

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On 3/16/2017 at 4:22 PM, Bonnie said:

I have written the Embassy asking them to seek clarification from Panama Immigration.

Here is the response I got from the Embassy:

HI Bonnie- Unfortunately, we don’t have answers to your three specific questions below.  The answers in the Q&A information we provided were  provided to us by Panamanian Immigration but for further, more specific questions people will need to reach out directly to Panamanian immigration or local lawyers .  Should you get further questions, you can refer people directly to Panamanian Immigration (507-1800 or their website at: http://www.migracion.gob.pa) and/or recommend that they seek legal Panamanian counsel.   Here is the link to a list of lawyers that other U.S. Citizens have used in the past from the Embassy website: http://photos.state.gov/libraries/panama/11567/americancitizens/2016-attorneys-in-the-panama-consular-district-updated-nov2016.pdf

 

The three questions I posed are as follows:

(1) According to the Embassy memo, "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"

How can a person stay for two years without violating the requirement that persons on a tourist visa have to leave every 180 days? If the fine is paid every 180 days, it defeats the purpose of requiring tourists to leave the country after 180 days. It appears that Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, as well as U.S. citizens, could choose to simply pay the fine for two years rather than leave every 180 days. That would defeat the purpose of the law, it seems. Too, wouldn't a person be at risk for deportation after 180 days? Surely he cannot just say when his credentials are checked, "I'm staying in Panama for two years so as not to have to comply with FBI requirements, so I don't have to leave."

Example: John Smith, a U.S. citizen, is in Panama on a tourist visa. He reads the above-referenced memo and, having encountered difficulty getting an FBI report for one reason or another, decides to stay for two years so as to eligible instead for a Panamanian law enforcement check. He is fine on his tourist visa for 180 days (and on his U.S. driver's license for 90). On day 181 or thereafter, he is stopped at a checkpoint, his credentials checked, and deemed to be in violation of the 180 day requirement. Does he then go pay a fine, thereby becoming eligible for an additional 180 days? Absent being discovered as beyond the 180 day allowed stay, can he (or any other nationality) go to Immigration on day 181, pay the fine, and stay for another 180 days in apparent contradiction of the purpose of the law?

(2) The following is from  a newspaper article:

"The president explained that 'we cannot afford for the six-month tourist permit to be used to cross the border and then return, and stay here as if you  were a permanent resident.' "

On Friday, Javier Carrillo, the director of the National  Migration Service, said  that foreigners living in Panama as tourists must at the end of five months leave the country for at least  a month if they want to re-enter Panamanian territory. Carrillo said that the new measure “is for those who have more than five months in the country  as tourists and leave for  nothing more than to re-enter. Now they have to be out of the country for  at least 30 days."

The President and Director Carrilo seem to be contradicting each other. Can someone on a tourist visa stay in the country for five months or six months?

(3) While one can get a temporary visa upon applying for residency, it is unclear at what point in the process a temporary visa is issued. Is it upon first visiting a lawyer and starting the visa process, or is it at the time all the required paperwork is submitted to the government? The concern here, of course, is that 180 days may not be sufficient to fulfill some of the requirements, particularly the FBI report.

 

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I don't want to sound like a pessimist here, but it may not be possible to get coherent or definitive answers to our questions.  I thought the rules for a Friendly Nations visa were pretty clear when I applied, but it turned out that the interpretation was not consistent at Immigracion, and it varied between the clerks. I spent weeks complying with new requirements that were imposed, only to have a different clerk impose something entirely different. The 4th time was the charm.

It's not just a Panamanian thing.  Lawmakers in the USA routinely pass legislation without even reading it.  Afterwards, other people must attempt to figure out what Congress intended. It can take years for a court to decide. Here, as everywhere, the people who enforce the law or policy had nothing to do with the creation of the new directive. They make their best guesses or do whatever their immediate boss tells them to do. 

I think we may have to wait months or even longer to see how or if Panama consistently addresses individual cases. The track record will be far more useful than logic or predictions.  At least it will for me...

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1 hour ago, TwoSailors said:

Boy what total confusion!   So...get a lawyer if you plan to retire  in Panama.

It is my understanding that applications for residency (as well as citizenship) -- using any of several different programs, e.g., pensionado, reforestation, Friendly Nations, permanent residency, etc., etc. -- mandate said applications be submitted by licensed attorneys. TwoSailors is correct: if one plans to retire legally in Panama, then you will be dealing with an attorney. (Hopefully a competent attorney.)

Getting one's non-Panamanian marriage registered on the Registro Civil can be done without an attorney.

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On 3/23/2017 at 9:35 AM, Bonnie said:

Here is the response I got from the Embassy:

HI Bonnie- Unfortunately, we don’t have answers to your three specific questions below.  The answers in the Q&A information we provided were  provided to us by Panamanian Immigration but for further, more specific questions people will need to reach out directly to Panamanian immigration or local lawyers .  Should you get further questions, you can refer people directly to Panamanian Immigration (507-1800 or their website at: http://www.migracion.gob.pa) and/or recommend that they seek legal Panamanian counsel.   Here is the link to a list of lawyers that other U.S. Citizens have used in the past from the Embassy website: http://photos.state.gov/libraries/panama/11567/americancitizens/2016-attorneys-in-the-panama-consular-district-updated-nov2016.pdf

 

The three questions I posed are as follows:

(1) According to the Embassy memo, "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"

How can a person stay for two years without violating the requirement that persons on a tourist visa have to leave every 180 days? If the fine is paid every 180 days, it defeats the purpose of requiring tourists to leave the country after 180 days. It appears that Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, as well as U.S. citizens, could choose to simply pay the fine for two years rather than leave every 180 days. That would defeat the purpose of the law, it seems. Too, wouldn't a person be at risk for deportation after 180 days? Surely he cannot just say when his credentials are checked, "I'm staying in Panama for two years so as not to have to comply with FBI requirements, so I don't have to leave."

Example: John Smith, a U.S. citizen, is in Panama on a tourist visa. He reads the above-referenced memo and, having encountered difficulty getting an FBI report for one reason or another, decides to stay for two years so as to eligible instead for a Panamanian law enforcement check. He is fine on his tourist visa for 180 days (and on his U.S. driver's license for 90). On day 181 or thereafter, he is stopped at a checkpoint, his credentials checked, and deemed to be in violation of the 180 day requirement. Does he then go pay a fine, thereby becoming eligible for an additional 180 days? Absent being discovered as beyond the 180 day allowed stay, can he (or any other nationality) go to Immigration on day 181, pay the fine, and stay for another 180 days in apparent contradiction of the purpose of the law?

(2) The following is from  a newspaper article:

"The president explained that 'we cannot afford for the six-month tourist permit to be used to cross the border and then return, and stay here as if you  were a permanent resident.' "

On Friday, Javier Carrillo, the director of the National  Migration Service, said  that foreigners living in Panama as tourists must at the end of five months leave the country for at least  a month if they want to re-enter Panamanian territory. Carrillo said that the new measure “is for those who have more than five months in the country  as tourists and leave for  nothing more than to re-enter. Now they have to be out of the country for  at least 30 days."

The President and Director Carrilo seem to be contradicting each other. Can someone on a tourist visa stay in the country for five months or six months?

(3) While one can get a temporary visa upon applying for residency, it is unclear at what point in the process a temporary visa is issued. Is it upon first visiting a lawyer and starting the visa process, or is it at the time all the required paperwork is submitted to the government? The concern here, of course, is that 180 days may not be sufficient to fulfill some of the requirements, particularly the FBI report.

 

Longtime Boquete resident and former U.S. Warden Price Peterson, also perplexed by the new decree, contacted a friend, Diego Obaldia, who served as director of Migracion about seven years ago. Sr. Obaldia agreed to go to Migracion and seek clarification. Here is his response to Price:

Quote
"Went to Migración today.  The director was not in so I talked with Lic. Yarelis (forgot her last name) at the legal department.  She confirmed the instructive email is correct and apparently they do not consider it a contradiction.  If a tourist is caught staying over 5 months not having started his immigration process, will be charged B/. 50.00 for each month overstayed and given 7 days to leave the country and come back after one month if desired or to start the residence documentation process.  If the tourist decides not to start the documentation process nor leave for one month and is caught again, he will be fined B/. 50.00 for the additional months overstayed. There will be no deportation or any other repercussion.  After two years when the tourist goes to present the documentation to legalize his residence, will be fined for the remaining months not previously charged or the total number of months overstayed if not previously caught, but, will be able to present a Panamanian police record instead of the FBI record.
 
"That is how the law is interpreted until today.  In my opinion, Migración should make an automatic background check at the tourist´s country of origin before entering the country or before issuing residence permit.  
 
Hope this clarifies Bonnie´s question."
 
Thanks both to Price and Sr. Obaldia for their help with this matter. Neither had an obligation to do anything, but they graciously stepped in when needed.
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17 minutes ago, JimAndNena said:

So, overstaying a visa is not a crime reported to the National Police, resulting in a clean police report?

Still confused.

jim

Exactly. It appears that one can stay in Panama indefinitely on a tourist visa so long as he/she pays the $50 a month fine when demanded. No deportation. Clean record. I fail to see how this doesn't defeat the entire purpose of the decree.

One more thing, though, that shouldn't be overlooked. If you choose this route, you may be able to stay, but you will not be entitled to drive after 90 days as you cannot leave the country for two years to "reset" your tourist visa.

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Thanks Bonnie,

One point regarding: 

There will be no deportation or any other repercussion.  After two years when the tourist goes to present the documentation to legalize his residence, will be fined for the remaining months not previously charged or the total number of months overstayed if not previously caught, but, will be able to present a Panamanian police record instead of the FBI record.

So this is all retroactive to the date of the first Panama stamp in ones passport? You would think there would be a grace period?

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