“Specific Countries” Visa Program In Panama

Once Difficult, Now Easy—Residency And A Work Permit In Panama

Back in May, Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli issued an executive decree that has since become known as the “Specific Countries” residency permit. Big news, as this new program was heralded as not only easy residency, but a quick and easy route to a work permit, as well. A work permit is no easy thing for a foreigner to organize anywhere in the world.

The program was put together hastily. After the decree was issued, it was realized that the U.K. had been left off the list of qualifying countries. The U.K. is one of Panama’s biggest trading partners and an important foreign investor in this country. The oversight was corrected a month later, when a revised executive order was issued that included both the U.K. and South Korea. The updated country list now included (and includes today still) 24 nations.

The stated objective of the decree, again, was to make it easier for foreigners to work in Panama. The country is experiencing a growing shortage of qualified labor. Martinelli wanted to do something to address the problem. Great. However, as it was written originally, the order he issued addressed only residency for citizens of the two-dozen countries on the list. It didn’t even reference what was in fact the point–work permits for these folks.

Now that oversight too seems to have been resolved.

The original decree stated that you simply needed to prove that you were from one of the listed countries and that you had US$5,000 in the bank (any bank). Do that, and you’d be granted residency. Those very straightforward requirements have since been amended or perhaps clarified. Now it is stipulated that you must either own property in Panama (held in your own name; most people hold real estate in this country through a Panama corporation) or set up a corporation and obtain a business license.

Finally, most recently, it was explained to me this week by my attorney here in Panama, that the particulars of the program have been expanded or clarified further to provide for the holy grail: a work permit. To get one under this new program, all you need is an offer letter for employment.

Unfortunately, still, the particulars of how this works in practice haven’t been thought through, it seems. The most recent “clarifications” have created a catch-22. Panama’s department of labor won’t issue the work permit unless you have your residency approved under the new program…and Panama’s department of immigration won’t issue the residency permit unless you have your work permit.

Fortunately, the bureaucrats involved aren’t as deaf, dumb, blind, and slow as we civilians give them credit for. It appears at the moment (remember, this is all a very fast-moving target) that the department of labor will start the work permit process if you’ve filed your residency application. The residency application can then be finalized because your work permit is in process…and the work permit can then be approved when the residency permit is approved.

As I said to Rainelda earlier this week after she’d walked me through all this, it seems like we’re still missing some dots in this process. She agreed, but she also thinks they’ll continue modifying things to make sure the program works the way it was intended…which is to make it easier for skilled labor to come to work in Panama to address the growing shortage.

For businesses that need skilled labor (like ours), these new rules are a huge deal. Until this new ruling, businesses were limited to hiring but one foreigner for every nine Panamanian employees. I can tell you from experience that this could be a serious limitation.

As Panama continues to refine the process for applying for and obtaining the new residency and work permits, I’ll remind you again that the rules for these kinds of things change regularly…and not only the rules to do with how the programs work. No one knows how long the new permits will be available. The program should remain in place at least throughout the rest of Martinelli’s presidential term, but likely the next president will revoke Martinelli’s executive order creating this opportunity.

Fortunately, though, this new residency permit gives you permanent residency immediately (unlike current investor residency options, which grant only temporary residency at first). This means you don’t have to renew your permit multiple times before becoming a permanent resident. Therefore, even should the next president revoke the order (as he likely would), those who have obtained residency under this new program shouldn’t have any problem. Additionally, Panama has a history of grandfathering people already in the system.

If Panama is on your radar and you’re from one of the 24 countries on the list, this is the best opportunity and now is the best time you’re going to have to obtain easy and quick permanent residency in this country…even a work permit. Assume it will all go away in 2014.

Lief Simon

P.S. The offshore world is always a fast-changing arena, but this is truer right now than ever before in our lifetimes, and certainly not only in Panama. Between now and the end of this year, critical changes to do with FATCA, the Bush tax cuts, and the global banking industry will continue to play out. It has never been as important as it is at this point in history to be diversified globally…diversified among markets, among currencies, and among asset types. It has never been as important to take control of your own financial future so as not to be at the mercy of any one government or economy.


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