When I came to Panama from the United States in 2012 I was looking for a new life, not a second citizenship.
In fact, by virtue of having been born on Panamanian soil, I already had a second citizenship. And, because my father was from the States and I also happened to be born in the old Canal Zone—de facto U.S. territory for the duration of the Panama Canal treaty—I found myself, in addition to being Panamanian, a naturalized American citizen as well.
I understood the ramifications of this accident of birth when I went to college in Los Angeles and after graduation, when I traveled from California to Texas then New York, working my way across the country.
What was the difference between me, a green-card holder, or an undocumented worker, I wondered. How did so much hinge on having the right documents, being born in a specific geography, or having parents of the right nationality?
I always thought my future was destined to be Stateside. Turns out I was wrong. About four years after the 2008 crash I began setting my sights on opportunities outside of the United States. I needed a change and a new start. The obvious choice was to go back home, to Panama.
A New Beginning
These days, when I speak at Live and Invest Overseas Conferences, I have to come clean with the audience. I’m not really an expat. I’m a re-pat.
Lucky for me. Because I had no idea what I was getting into when I moved back to Panama.
First I had to get my documents sorted. I had entered the country on my U.S. passport, but I needed to get legal in order to stay here long term.
This step turned out to be surprisingly easy, as I was already set up in the respective cédula and driver’s license databases from the time I was first issued these documents back in high school.
For my cédula I went to the closest Tribunal Electoral office, which for me at the time was located in the tiny Centro Commercial Los Pinos out in Las Mañanitas, a large district on the northeastern limits of Panama City not far from Tocumen.
It would be, my neighbor had promised, less crowded and faster to get through than the other Tribunal locations. On that count he was totally right. The entire process to get my cédula re-issued took nearly two and a half hours. Not bad for an ID that was expired over 15 years.
Cédula in hand I was ready to get my driver’s license. That took even less time.
For that I went to the Sertracen offices in Plaza Carolina located in Parque Lefevre… way closer to city center than the Mañanitas Tribunal.
For this one I told the lady at the customer service window that I’d lost my Panama driver’s license years earlier—it was the truth.
After a search in the system revealed my records, I was asked for a copy of my (newly re-issued) cédula plus a US$20 fee. Then, I simply had to answer a few question to a data-entry specialist followed by an auditory examination involving headphones. I was out with my new license in less than an hour.
Permanent In Panama
Renewed documents in hand, I set out to get set up in Panama. I began work at a locally well-known, bilingual tourism newspaper, The Visitor, my first job in Panama on a new career track that I felt tremendously passionate about.
With that introduction to the world of publishing, I eventually made my way to Live and Invest Overseas where it began to dawn on me that my reverse migration to Panama had benefitted greatly from my status as a national—something I never thought I’d have to count on.
Mostly, my expanded awareness of what it means to be a dual citizenship came from being exposed to the work of Lief Simon, both in Offshore Living Letter and Simon Letter. As Managing Editor for the Live and Invest Overseas operation, I’m presented with a trove of amazing advice. All I had to do was to pay attention.
That’s why I perked up when my younger brother came to visit a few years ago with his firstborn child, my lovely niece, to get her Panamanian citizenship set up and give her more options in life…
That’s when everything clicked in my mind.
I, too, had the right to get a Panamanian passport. After all, I’d already gotten my cédula and Panama driver’s license… why stop there?
Like Lief counsels his readers: When the opportunity to diversify is on the table, act sooner rather than later. The offshore world is ever-changing, and options available today may not be available tomorrow.
What other documents would I need for a Panama passport?
Looking into it, the process was amazingly simple. Start to finish, the official passport-office website promised, would be two days: the first to drop off a few documents and pay the fee, and the second for pick up.
Getting My PTY Passport
All the information to follow was conveniently posted (in Spanish) on the Autoridad de Pasaportes de Panamá website.
Step one was getting my documents in order. I already had my cédula. So the next thing was to get a copy of my birth certificate, which are readily available at the customer service counters at the major supermarkets (El Rey, El Machetazo, Super 99). I chose the El Rey on Vía España, as it’s walking distance to the Passport Authority office location. My birth certificate set me back all of US$3.
Next I had to get it certified, a step involving purchasing timbres (stamps), which was also required for authenticating my cédula when I renewed that. Luckily a few places exist nearby El Rey where you can get this done. The cashier at the supermarket and passersby in the street were happy to give me directions. Another US$3 in timbres purchased and I was on my way.
Panama’s passport office is known as a bastion of efficient public service. It wasn’t particularly crowded the day I went. When my number was called, I dropped off my certified copy of my birth certificate, paid US$100 for my new passport, and was out the door in less than 20 minutes with instructions to return the next day from 10 a.m. to noon. (By the way, you can pay with cash or Clave—Panama’s debit system—or with a Visa or Mastercard.)
The next day went smoothly; I was in and out in about 15 minutes, new passport in hand.
What do I plan on doing with it? Traveling to Cuba comes to mind. Meantime, it’s safely tucked away, keeping my U.S. passport company and providing me peace of mind that, should I ever need it, it’s there.
As Lief says, this is about having more options, not less. It’s also about answering the call when opportunity knocks. Tomorrow is often too late.
Maybe you have the chance to avail of a second citizenship, like me, because of an accident of birth or due to ancestry. The point is, if you do, strike when the options are on the table. You never know when a policy change can end up leaving you in the lurch.