Talking with the Immigration Lawyer Francisco Padilla
Panama is a great place to be!
Legislation : What primary and secondary legislation governs immigration in your jurisdiction?
The primary legislation that governs immigration in Panama is Decree Law No. 3 of 22 February 2008 that creates the National Immigration Service (NIS), establishes and regulates the categories of immigration permits, and sets forth the immigration process and other provisions. The principal secondary legislation is Executive Decree No. 320 of 8 August 2008 that regulates Decree Law No. 3 and sets forth the types of immigration permits and their requirements.
Has your jurisdiction concluded any international agreements affecting immigration (eg, free trade agreements or free movement accords)?
Panama has signed several free trade and immigration agreements with different countries that include conditions for travel visa suppression and mobility of immigrants. Among others, Panama is part of the following international agreements that affect immigration:
- the Declaration of Quito on Human Mobility of Venezuelan citizens;
- the Convention on the Status of Refugees, 189 United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS) 150, enacted through Law No. 5 of 26 October 1977;
- the Protocol on the Status of Refugees, 606 UNTS 267, enacted through Law No. 5 of 1977; and
- the Marrakesh Agreement, creating the World Trade Organization, enacted through Law No. 23 of 1997, which grants temporary immigration and work permits for foreigners.
Additionally, Panama has signed the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which seeks to ensure safe, orderly and humanitarian migration.
Which government authorities regulate immigration and what is the extent of their enforcement powers? Can the decisions of these authorities be appealed?
The NIS is the public authority that governs and manages the immigration process. The NIS’s enforcement powers include:
- authorising, denying or prohibiting the entrance or stay of foreigners within the Panamanian territory;
- management of the immigration permit approval process, with powers to approve or deny immigration permit applications; and
- ordering the deportation or expulsion of foreigners, if applicable.
The decisions of the NIS can be appealed before the Ministry of Public Security. The legality of decisions of the Minister of Public Security can be challenged before the Third Bench of the Supreme Court.
In broad terms what is your government’s policy towards business immigration?
Traditionally, Panamanian labour and immigration legislation has allowed the employment of foreign personnel, provided quotas for the employment of local personnel are observed. The unrivalled and steady growth experienced by the Panamanian economy during the past several years has created a shortage of skilled labour. To compensate for the shortage, immigration policies of recent governments and the current government have begun to loosen employment quotas and have favoured more flexible rules for hiring foreign personnel.
In 2008, immigration legislation was adopted to facilitate large infrastructure projects, including the Panama Canal expansion and the construction of the capital city’s metro system. Recent administrations have also inserted their favourable views on the local employment of foreign personnel in their treaty and foreign trade negotiating agenda. Various international trade and investment agreements negotiated in recent years include provisions that facilitate business immigration for certain foreigners and business professionals.
Immigration legislation adopted by previous government administrations (2009 to 2014 and 2014 to 2019) relaxed the entry criteria for certain nationalities and the immigration and work permits criteria, particularly for foreigners from countries that maintain good diplomatic and commercial relationships with Panama, and also maintained the foreigner-friendly immigration and work permit environment, with some changes mostly to protect certain professions that, by law, are reserved for Panamanians.
Immigration authorities follow immigration laws strictly, enforcing them at all ports of entry and through impromptu business inspections throughout the country.
Considering a new government administration was inaugurated on 1 July 2019, some new policies may be adopted.
In what circumstances is a visa necessary for short-term travellers? How are short-term visas obtained?
Every foreigner who comes to Panama to work is required to have a visa and a work permit, even if the employment arrangement is for a short period of time. Short-term travellers may apply for visas and work permits to reside and work in Panama for short stays of up to 15 days or for three or nine months. Short-term travellers must be sponsored by a Panama-based licensed business.
The short-term traveller will have to submit an application for a work permit to the Ministry of Labour (ML) and for a visa to the NIS. Once the ML approves the work permit, the short-term traveller must submit the resolution approving the work permit to the NIS to apply for the visa. Short-stay work permits and visas are generally processed faster than other immigrant visas.
What are the main restrictions on a business visitor?
The main restrictions on business visitors include the following.
Length of stay
Short-stay visas are granted for a maximum period of nine months and are not renewable. Long-term visas are granted for two-year periods. After the initial period, the long-term visa may be renewed for an indefinite term.
Special approval requirements, restricted nationalities and citizenship
On the immigration front, Panama imposes special approval requirements on foreigners from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zambia. In cases involving foreign business people with restricted nationalities, the visa application must also be reviewed and approved by the National Security Council. However, the law allows the NIS to exempt nationals of some of these countries who hold a Schengen or US visa or a valid residence in the European Union.
On the labour side, Panamanian legislation governs the licensing and practice of various professional activities, and imposes Panamanian citizenship for licensees. Panamanian citizenship is statutorily required for accountants, agronomists, architects, chemists, chiropractors, cosmetologists, dentists and dental assistants, doctors, economists, engineers, insurance brokers, journalists, laboratory technicians, lawyers, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, physicians’ assistants, physiotherapists, psychologists, public relations professionals, radiologists, social workers, sociologists, speech therapists and veterinarians.
Work permit approval
Panamanian labour laws expressly provide that a foreign employee is only authorised to work once the corresponding work permit is approved. However, the process to obtain a work permit requires foreigners to visit Panama and may take from four to six months to be completed.
Other requirements, however, create some level of discomfort to business visitors applying for a short-term visa in Panama. These include having to file with the application evidence of a clean criminal record (except for visas for fewer than 15 days) and supporting documents with less than three months of issuance, counted from the day of filing the visa application with the NIS.
Is work authorisation or immigration permission needed to give or receive short-term training?
Every foreigner who will give or receive short-term training is required to have a valid visa and work permit. Depending on the length of the stay, the foreigner may apply for a visa and work permit for up to 15 days, three months or nine months.
Are transit visas required to travel through your country? How are these obtained? Are they only required for certain nationals?
If the transit is for less than 12 hours, and provided the foreigner stays within airport grounds during transit, a transit visa is not required. In the event that the transit period exceeds a 12-hour period as a result of force majeure or acts of God, transit may be extended for up to 72 hours, with the authorisation of the general director of NIS or the corresponding authority in the port of entry. Any other entry must be based on a tourist, immigrant or permanent residency visa, except in the case of foreigners from countries that have been exempted from the requirement of a tourist visa.
Visa waivers and fast-track entry
Are any visa waiver or fast-track entry programmes available?
Nationals of the following countries do not require a tourist visa and are included in the visa waiver list of Panama: Andorra, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cypress, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Vatican City.
Also, the NIS set forth a fast-pass entry programme, that facilitates the transit of Panamanian nationals, holders of permanent immigration residence permits and US citizens through immigration in Tocumen International Airport.
What are the main work and business permit categories used by companies to transfer skilled staff?
The general work permit rule creates a 10 per cent quota system: salary amounts within the resident company payroll and the number of foreign employees within the resident company workforce must not exceed 10 per cent of Panamanian employee salaries and workforce (10 per cent visa or permit). Skilled personnel, executive personnel and technicians may be transferred to Panama under any of the following options.
Technicians, experts or employees of trust
This category allows foreign specialised or technical personnel, experts, management and executives or what immigration legislation labels as ‘employees of trust’ to apply for a visa and work permit, provided they are sponsored by a resident corporation. Salary amounts within the resident company payroll, and the number of foreign employees within the resident company workforce must not exceed 15 per cent of Panamanian employee salaries and workforce (15 per cent visa or permit).
Companies with fewer than 10 Panamanian employees
This option is also dubbed the ‘Marrakesh visa’, because it was adopted in accordance with provisions within the Marrakesh Agreement. It allows a small business to hire one foreign employee in a company with fewer than 10 employees, provided the company hires a minimum of three Panamanian employees.
Employees whose work product materialises outside Panama
This category allows a resident corporation to hire foreign employees provided the employees’ services are effective outside Panama and the employee is hired to work in the local branch, subsidiary or affiliate of a foreign company or business group.
Employees who work for companies with a government contract
This category allows a resident corporation that has been awarded government contracts to hire foreign employees to meet the labour requirements under the government contract. Terms and conditions for the visa and work permits will usually vary and will be set taking into account applicable regulations and the profile of the project and contractor.
Employees who work for companies established in the Panama-Pacifico Area
Under this alternative, a corporation licensed and operating within the Panama-Pacifico business park may hire foreign employees.
Employees who work for companies established in the City of Knowledge
This category allows corporations licensed and operating within the City of Knowledge (CK) business park to hire foreign employees to perform technical, research and development and management activities.
Employees who work for companies established in the Colón Free Zone
This category allows corporations licensed and operating within the Colón Free Zone (CFZ) to hire foreign employees.
Employees of multinational companies
This visa category allows corporations operating under a special business licence designed for multinational corporations to sponsor foreign employees.
Employees of free-zone designated areas
This category allows corporations licensed and operating within any designated free zone (FZ) business parks to hire foreign employees to render technical or management services.
The ‘friendly nations visa’
This visa is for employees who come from countries that maintain good diplomatic and commercial relationships with Panama and that are part of a list of countries published by the Panamanian government. It has become very popular, because it does not have any major additional requirements to meet, other than being a national from one of the countries published in the list of friendly countries. The friendly nations visa allows foreigners from friendly countries to apply for a permanent residency on economic or professional grounds, provided they demonstrate having an economic or professional reason to immigrate to Panama and a minimum solvency of US$5,000. The list of friendly countries has been modified a few times, always to include additional countries.
The listed countries currently are Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.
Recommended by the president of Panama
This category is for employees who, for reasons of national interest or the provision of services to Panama, are recommended by the president and merely requires that the visa and work permit be previously approved by the president of Panama.
This category allows visas and work permits to foreigners who have a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, as long as the profession is not restricted to foreigners. The degree must be approved by a Panamanian state university, prior to requesting the visa and work permit. For details of restricted professions, see question 6.
Temporary technical work permit and visa
Skilled personnel and technicians immigrating to Panama for periods of 15 days to nine months may apply for a temporary technical work permit and visa. This temporary work permit and visa allows for short-term transfers of personnel to provide training or specific work assignments within Panama.
What are the procedures for obtaining these permissions? At what stage can work begin?
Visas and work permits are intrinsically related, and depend on each other. Procedures to obtain the majority of the permits listed in question 10 are the following:
- preregistration: the foreign national must preregister his or her general information online with the NIS;
- registration: the foreign employee must register with the NIS;
- visa application: the foreign employee must file for a visa application with the NIS;
- immigration status: once the visa application is filed, the foreigner receives a provisional status under his or her visa category. The NIS issues a certification with the immigration status of the foreigner (immigration status);
- work permit application: the work permit application is filed before the ML. The work permit application must include the immigration status;
- work permit review: the ML reviews the work permit. If the work permit is approved, the applicant must file a copy of the resolution approving the work permit and the employment ID card issued by the ML with the NIS; and
- visa approval: after submitting the work permit resolution issued by the ML, the NIS will review the applicant’s file and, if found compliant, will approve and issue the visa.
All documents that are issued outside of Panama and are submitted to the NIS in support of the visa and work permit application, must be in Spanish and legalised by the consular system or the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents.
The employees of multinational companies (MC) visa has a shorter procedure, because it does not require the applicant to apply separately for a work permit. Once the MC visa application is filed, the NIS reviews the application. If the application is found to be compliant with the regulations, the NIS will approve the MC visa. The MC visa approval will also provide the foreign employee with permission to work in Panama.
Labour legislation in Panama forbids foreigners from commencing any work activity while the work permit application is in progress. The ML must have effectively issued the work permit before the foreigner may begin working.
Period of stay
What are the general maximum (and minimum) periods of stay granted under the main categories for company transfers?
The NIS generally grants stays for one year, renewable for up to five additional one-year periods. Nevertheless, under the most recent amendments to immigration law, certain categories of work-related visas confer the applicant a permanent status within the territory of Panama, after the second year of renewal. For details of the visas that confer permanent residency status from the second year, see question 29.
How long does it typically take to process the main categories?
For all the main categories, the NIS usually takes from four to five months to process a visa application, and the ML may take two to three additional months to approve or reject a work permit. However, these time frames may vary depending on backlogs and other factors.
Visas and work permits for employees who work for companies with a government contract, are licensed within the Panama-Pacifico Area (PPA) or within the CK and licensed as MC, or applying under the friendly nation criteria, in most cases are processed in half the time it takes for other visas or work permits.
Is it necessary to obtain any benefits or facilities for staff to secure a work permit?
As a general rule, employees must be enrolled with the Panamanian social security system (SSS). Social security benefits including medical care and retirement benefits are provided by the SSS. Housing and other benefits are not a requirement to secure an immigration permit.
A foreign employee working under an MC visa is an exception. Employees working under an MC visa must show they have private health insurance coverage to secure their immigration and work permit. The private health insurance coverage is secured by the MC.
Panamanian legislation does not require any additional benefits or facilities to hire foreigners.
Do the immigration authorities follow objective criteria, or do they exercise discretion according to subjective criteria?
Immigration authorities generally follow objective criteria. Visas are usually granted or rejected based on technical criteria and requirements. However, the NIS frequently follows principles and guidelines that are not listed within the law or any issued NIS regulation, in essence adding subjectivity to the process and sometimes making it hard to follow and complete.
NIS authorities, however, do allow applicants some flexibility in complex and unusual cases.
High net worth individuals and investors
Is there a special route for high net worth individuals or investors?
Panamanian immigration legislation does contain special visas for investors and high net worth individuals. These visas vary according to the type of investment, as follows:
- investment in real estate: permanent residency in Panama may be obtained by individuals personally investing a minimum of US$300,000 in any type of real property located within Panama. The property must be directly owned by the foreign investor;
- investment in time deposits: permanent residency in Panama may be afforded to individuals opening a time deposit in Panama with a minimum value of US$300,000 and a minimum duration of three years. The time deposit must be maintained in the name of the investor;
- investment in real estate and time deposit: permanent residency in Panama may be granted to individuals investing a minimum of US$300,000 in a combination of real property and a bank time deposit. Both must be held in the name of the foreign investor;
- investment in forestry: permanent residency in Panama may be issued to individuals investing a minimum of US$80,000 in reforestation or forestry plantations that have a minimum area of 20 hectares. Personal investment is not required and may be channelled through reforestation companies licensed by the National Environment Authority;
- investment in companies: permanent residency in Panama may be obtained by individuals investing US$160,000 or more in the capital of a corporation in Panama; and
- investment in companies licensed to do business within an FZ: permanent residency in Panama may be issued to individuals investing a minimum of US$250,000 in companies licensed to operate within an FZ-designated area.
Unlike the visa categories listed in question 10, investor visas do not grant the option of applying for a work permit. Accordingly, these visas do not allow investors to work in Panama.
Is there a special route (including fast track) for high net worth individuals for a residence permission route into your jurisdiction?
No. The applicant must complete the application in accordance with the procedures outlined in question 11.
Highly skilled individuals
Is there a special route for highly skilled individuals?
There is no specific route for highly skilled individuals. However, some immigration permits have a shorter term of approval including friendly nation visas, MC visas, visas and work permits for employees that work for companies licensed within the PPA and visas and work permits for employees that work for companies established in the CK.
Panama also has a ‘professional visa and work permit’ that allows individuals with very specific educational backgrounds to apply for a permanent residency and work permit, provided their main profession is not restricted to Panamanians. For a list of professional activities whose practice is restricted to Panamanians, see question 6.
Ancestry and descent
Is there a special route for foreign nationals based on ancestry or descent?
There is no special route for foreign nationals based on ancestry or descent. There is a special procedure in the law that allows children of Panamanian nationals born abroad to register as Panamanian nationals before the Electoral Tribunal.
Is there a minimum salary requirement for the main categories for company transfers?
Yes, there is a minimum salary requirement for the majority of the main categories. The following main categories have a minimum monthly salary requirement, as follows:
- visas for technicians, experts, management and executives or employees of trust: US$850;
- visas for companies with less than 10 Panamanian employees: US$1,000;
- visas for employees whose employment is supervised outside Panama: US$2,000;
- visas for employees that work for companies licensed in the PPA: US$1,000 in the case of employees of trust; and
- visas and work permit for employees that work for companies licensed in the CFZ: US$2,000 for executives and managers, technical personnel and employees of trust.
Salary requirements may increase depending on the type of visa and the number of dependants.
Resident labour market test
Is there a quota system or resident labour market test?
Panama does have a local employee quota system. The general work permit rule creates a 10 per cent quota system (see question 10).
Foreign specialised or technical personnel, experts, management and executives enjoy a slightly higher quota of 15 per cent (see question 10).
However, various types of visa categories create exceptions to the 10 per cent and 15 per cent quotas, always provided the number of foreign employees does not exceed the number of local employees on the payroll of the company. See question 10 for a list of exceptions.
Despite the local employee quota requirement, there is no need to advertise locally or perform any local labour search before hiring a foreigner. However, work permits for technicians and experts require the resident corporation to train a Panamanian employee for the same position.
Additionally, labour laws require the replacement of the foreign technician or expert with a trained Panamanian employee within a five-year term, counted from the day the ML first issues the work permit. Employers that sponsor a technician or expert file a commitment letter with the ML, listing the name and ID number of the Panamanian technician or expert that will replace the foreign employee.
Is there a special route for shortage occupations?
There is no specific or special route for shortage occupations.
Other eligibility requirements
Are there any other main eligibility requirements to qualify for work permission in your jurisdiction?
Technicians and experts applying for a visa and work permit based on their skills must provide evidence of having acquired the skills or expertise that is the basis of employment. Proof of skills or expertise must be demonstrated by producing certificates, diplomas, licences or degrees issued by educational institutions or foreign authorities, or reference letters issued by previous employers.
What is the process for third-party contractors to obtain work permission?
Third-party contractors cannot obtain a work permit on behalf of other companies. However, it is not uncommon for human resources and employment companies to sponsor foreigners, file their visa and work permit application and outsource the foreigner to a local company.
Additionally, Panamanian immigration legislation does not expressly limit or prevent employees from working within the premises of another company. However, working in another company’s premises may create liability to the other company for unpaid salary and benefits or any other breaches of employee rights under the labour code and labour agreement.
Recognition of foreign qualifications
Is an equivalency assessment or recognition of skills and qualifications required to obtain immigration permission?
An assessment or recognition of skills and qualifications is required to obtain certain immigration permissions such as the visas and work permits for technicians and experts.
To gain approval of the visa and work permit, technical personnel must obtain and file with the ML academic letters, diplomas, certificates or similar documents certifying their technical capacity.
To obtain approval of a visa and work permit, expert personnel must obtain and file a reference, professional or business letter certifying their expertise with the ML.
Extensions and variations
Short-term to long-term status
Can a short-term visa be converted in-country into longer-term authorisations? If so, what is the process?
Short-term visas can be converted into longer-term authorisations by cancelling the short-term visa and work permit issued by the NIS and ML respectively, and applying for the longer-term authorisation with the NIS and ML. The process to convert short-term into long-term visas is the same as is outlined in question 11.
Where the foreigner enters Panama as a tourist and decides subsequently to convert his or her status, the foreigner must also follow the steps outlined in question 11.
Can long-term immigration permission be extended?
Long-term permission in some migratory categories is initially issued for a two-year period. After two years, a permanent residency permit must be requested.
Exit and re-entry
What are the rules on and implications of exit and re-entry for work permits?
Once the visa and work permit are granted, exiting and re-entering the country does not create any issues in Panama. However, because the approval of a visa application may take several months, after the visa application is filed and while the visa application is under review, the NIS must also issue to the applicant a provisional ID and an entry and exit permit to exit and re-enter the country.
Once the visa application is approved, there is no need to apply for an entry and exit permit.
Permanent residency and citizenship
How can immigrants qualify for permanent residency or citizenship?
A foreigner who comes to Panama for labour purposes is not granted permanent residency or citizenship unless he or she falls into one of the following special visa and work permit categories:
- is married to a Panamanian national;
- has a Panamanian child with a Panamanian national;
- receives a recommendation or permit authorised by the president of Panama;
- is a pastor from a religion recognised by Panamanian authorities;
- is employed with a PPA-licensed business operation;
- holds a foreign professional visa;
- holds a friendly nations visa;
- has held a multinational company headquarters (SEM) visa for more than five years; or
- has held an immigration or work permit under the 10 per cent and 15 per cent visa or permit criteria for more than two years.
The ML usually takes from two to three months to approve or reject a work permit. There are specific investor or business visa categories that allow foreign employees to apply for permanent residence in Panama:
- real estate;
- time deposits;
- corporate capital contribution in a local business or FZ-operating business; and
- visas for permanent personnel working for a licensed operation within the PPA.
Once the applications for the visas listed above are filed and reviewed, the NIS grants a provisional residence permit to the foreign employee. After the provisional residence permit is approved, the foreign employee is able to apply for permanent residency in Panama.
Foreigners may apply for citizenship after spending five consecutive years in Panama with an immigration visa that confers permanent residency. Also, if the foreigner has three years of permanent residence, with Panamanian children, with a Panamanian spouse, he or she can obtain Panamanian citizenship. Citizens of Spain or Latin American countries may also obtain Panamanian citizenship, provided said countries afford Panamanian citizens reciprocal benefits.
The application for citizenship must be filed with the NIS, but addressed to the president of Panama. Once the application is admitted, the NIS will issue a report of the immigration status of the foreigner. If the report shows that the foreigner has complied with the immigration laws, the NIS will request the Electoral Tribunal to test the applicant’s knowledge of the Spanish language, Panamanian history, Panamanian geography and the Panamanian political and administrative structure. After the foreigner passes the test, the NIS will send all the documentation to the Ministry of Public Security and the National Security Council for a final review on national security grounds. Upon the favourable review and opinion of the National Security Council, the president of Panama will issue a nationalisation letter conferring Panamanian citizenship. Finally, the applicant will be sworn in as a Panamanian by the governor of the province of Panama.
After this process is completed, the foreigner will be considered a Panamanian national and will be entitled to a Panamanian ID card and a Panamanian passport.
End of employment
Must immigration permission be cancelled at the end of employment in your jurisdiction?
Immigration and work permission must be cancelled at the end of the employment relationship. Employers must notify the NIS of the termination of employment, and foreigners must return their visa for cancellation. The same procedure is applicable to work permits, although work permits must be cancelled with the ML.
If the employee has been promoted to a new or better job and must remain in Panama, the immigration permission will not need to be cancelled, provided the new post meets the extant visa and work permit criteria. The new job title or employment description will then be updated at the time the employee applies for a renewal of the visa and work permit.
Executives with a SEM visa must notify the NIS and the SEM secretary of the termination within 20 working days of the termination, or they have the option of applying for a stay permit for up to six months. The executive with the SEM visa must make a change of immigration status or return his or her card to carry out the definitive closing of the visa.
Are there any specific restrictions on a holder of employment permission?
A holder of employment permission can work for the company that sponsored the permission and visa under the specific terms of the work permit and visa, except in cases of holders of permanent employment permissions. Any work outside what is included in the work permit and visa is considered unauthorised. Hence, an employee cannot work for an employer other than the one that sponsored the visa and work permit.
There is no specific restriction providing that a holder of employment permission can study simultaneously. However, if the purpose to stay in Panama changes and focuses exclusively on education, the employment permission will have to be cancelled. A new study visa application will have to be filed with the NIS.
Also, employees working under a Panamanian work permit and visa are entitled to all the employment benefits and rights established by Panamanian labour laws for all employees.
Who qualifies as a dependant?
According to immigration laws, only the following persons qualify as dependants:
- a spouse with a valid marriage certificate;
- a family member with a disability;
- children under 18 years of age; or
- children older than 18, but under 25 years of age, when studying and economically dependent on the holder of the visa.
Conditions and restrictions
Are dependants automatically allowed to work or attend school?
To meet immigration requirements, dependants must apply and gain immigration status as dependants.
Dependants are not allowed to work when holding a dependant visa. To work in Panama, dependants need to resign their dependant visa status and apply for an immigrant visa and correspondent work permit, or they can apply for an indefinite work permit after 10 years of provisional residence. Dependants may apply for any of the visas and work permits outlined in question 10 and meet the procedures discussed in question 11.
The public education system does not incorporate any visa or immigration requirement for dependants. Private schools and colleges may require the child or his or her parents to demonstrate that they have obtained immigration status before admitting the child.
Access to social benefits
What social benefits are dependants entitled to?
Foreign employees are required to pay employee premiums to the SSS. Accordingly, dependants of foreign employees are entitled to social security benefits in Panama, including medical care from the SSS. The following visas require employees to pay SSS premiums and will allow SSS medical care for dependants:
- technicians, experts, manages and executives, or employees of trust;
- companies with fewer than 10 Panamanian employees;
- employees who work for companies with a government contract;
- employees who work for companies licensed within the PPA;
- employees who work for companies licensed by the CK; and
- employees who work for companies within any FZ-designated area.
However, dependants of foreign personnel who hold MC visas will not have SSS benefits. MC visa employees are not required to participate in the SSS, and must retain private medical insurance.
Other requirements, restrictions and penalties
Are prior criminal convictions a barrier to obtaining immigration permission?
Usually this is the case. A clean criminal record is normally a requirement to obtain an immigration permit. Foreigners with prior criminal convictions are usually denied immigration status in Panama based on security concerns.
Penalties for non-compliance
What are the penalties for companies and individuals for non-compliance with immigration law? How are these applied in practice?
Companies that do not comply with immigration laws can be subject to fines, imposed by the NIS, ranging from US$1,000 to US$25,000. Also, companies with foreign employees working without an approved work permit are subject to penalties, imposed by the ML, that range from US$500 for a first-time offence to US$10,000, and cancellation of the notice of operation after the fourth offence; and double the amount if there are more than 10 foreign employees working without work permits.
Individuals who do not comply with immigration laws may be subject to the following NIS fines:
- a one-off fine of US$1,000 for working without a visa and work permit. In the case of recurrence, the NIS will impose fines of US$5,000, and upon further recurrence, may cancel the visa;
- an additional fine of US$50 per month applicable to foreign employees found working without a visa and work permit;
- US$50 per month for expired visas (or US$100 per month if the foreigner held a residence permit as married to a Panamanian national or with a Panamanian child with a Panamanian national);
- US$2,000 for travelling without a valid entry and exit permit. In the event of recurrence, the NIS will impose fines of US$5,000, and upon further recurrence, may cancel the visa;
- US$10 per event for foreigners who do not carry their documentation that identifies them as such; or
- US$100 per event for foreigners who do not report changes in the information provided to the NIS (in the case of recurrence, the NIS may cancel the visa).
Are there any minimum language requirements for migrants?
Panama does not impose language tests or minimum language requirements upon immigrants.
Is medical screening required to obtain immigration permission?
A general and broad medical certification proving the health status of the foreign applicant is required when applying for a visa in Panama. The medical certificate must be issued by a licensed Panamanian doctor. There is no specific requirement for HIV or other specific screenings or tests.
Is there a specific procedure for employees on secondment to a client site in your jurisdiction?
There are no specific provisions governing secondments in Panama. A foreigner may be seconded by his or her employer to work for a client at the client’s site. Employee transfers through secondments to a resident company must meet the visa and work permit requirements outlined in question 10 and follow the application procedures described in question 11.
Update and trends
Key developments of the past year
Are there any emerging trends or hot topics in corporate immigration regulation in your jurisdiction?
Key developments of the past year40 Are there any emerging trends or hot topics in corporate immigration regulation in your jurisdiction?
The outgoing administration made some late changes to work and immigration permits, shortening certain periods of validity of permits, including work permits for holders of:
- friendly nations visas;
- 10 per cent visas and 15 per cent visas; and
- professional foreigner visas.
It also increased the stay periods for US citizens and employees of aviation companies based in Panama. The outgoing administration also enacted changes allowing the acquisition of permanent residence for holders of SEM visas and special immigration regularisation permits. These late changes were criticised by the new administration, which advised that it will review all of the late changes to permits.