Residency Requirements in Panama Before and After Your Visa

By Linda Card for Inside Panama Real Estate

Once you decide to come to Panama, you will need to consider whether or not to obtain a residency visa. There are literally dozens of types of visas available in Panama, but only a few will be of interest to most foreigners wanting to settle here. It is very important to research these and discuss them with your attorney to determine which is the best option for you.

Regardless of which path you choose, here are a couple of items relating to visas that you need to know. One, the background check, happens before you get your visa, and the other, the cedula, happens after.

Background Checks

Just a few years ago in Panama, all you needed to prove you’re not a wanted felon was a document from any law enforcement official stating so. In the US, you could go to the county sheriff where you live and, a couple of days later, have the official document needed to apply for your visa.

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Then, Panama decided they were allowing two many crooks into their country, so they changed this requirement. Now, every visa application requires a criminal background or record check from a federal, national or central law enforcement agency. If you are from the US, this means the FBI; if you are from Canada, this means the RCMP.

Obtaining a background check is not difficult, and it does not cost much in the US ($18), but it may take a few months. This report must be included when you apply for your visa, so it is the first thing you need to do if you are considering residency in Panama. The process starts with submitting your fingerprints to the FBI or RCMP on their authorized form. The report must be certified and you must specifically request this when you submit your fingerprints. If you are outside the US when you initiate the process, there are some additional steps that will extend the time frame. US citizens may click here for all the details. The RCMP in Canada charges a fee of $25, and you can read all about it here.

The most important thing to remember is to initiate the process of obtaining your criminal background check as soon as you decide you want to apply for a visa.


A cedula is the national identification card that all Panamanians are issued when they reach the age of 18. This card shows a citizen’s unique ID number and is issued by the Tribunal Electoral, because it entitles the individual to vote. Cedulas are used as ID for innumerable transactions in Panama, from buying bus tickets to cashing checks.

Recently, the government of Panama implemented procedures to allow holders of the Pensionado Visa to obtain a cedula. It is not required, but is an additional step individuals may take if they intend to live in Panama. Why would you want a cedula? Here’s why:

A cedula becomes your official ID in Panama and it is all you need to carry. You will have an ID number (not your passport number) like all other Panamanians. A cedula card is recognized by all Panamanians, because they all have one, so it is more readily accepted and unquestioned. The government charges a one-time fee of $65 for the cedula, and you’ll need an attorney to file the paperwork and walk you through the process. With a cedula, many daily tasks are just a little easier.

The Pensionado Visa (like all other visas) is issued by the Immigration Department, and carries tourist status, even though it allows permanent residency. This visa does not allow the holder to apply for citizenship in Panama. However, obtaining a cedula changes that. Since it is issued by the Tribunal Electoral, once you have a cedula you may apply for citizenship, and if that is approved you may apply for a Panamanian passport. The waiting period for applying for citizenship is five years, which starts with the date your Pensionado Visa is issued. While this certainly is not important to everyone, to some people having a second passport is very desirable, and this is a simple way to do so.

Decide What’s Right for You

One of the great things about Panama is the variety of legal options for residing here. Before you get started on a visa, ask yourself some key questions about what you want to do and your reasons for coming to Panama. You need to know what you want before consulting with a professional to help you reach your goals. Then, begin the process with your background check, and if it makes sense for you, finish up by getting your cedula.

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